Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Is It Time to Let Shoeless Joe in?

I enjoyed reading John's post on whether the steroid stars should be voted into the Hall and want to take a moment to argue for Shoeless Joe Jackson to be inducted. He has been on baseball's ineligible list since his banishment from the game of course. Until his death he claimed he was not involved in the fix of the 1919 World Series. A Chicago Grand Jury exonerated Joe Jackson in 1920. Is it time for Baseball's Hall of Fame to do likewise?

Let's suspend discussion of whether Jackson threw ballgames during the Series for a moment. Should he be in the Hall of Fame? Well, if you're letting Pete Rose in, I think ya gotta let Shoeless Joe in. Rose was a terrific player who had a lot of hits – partly because he played a lot of games. But he was nowhere near as talented or productive as Jackson.

After leading the Carolina League in hitting and making numerous amazing throws from the outfield, Jackson struggled for Connie Mack in Philadelphia. As an illiterate rural Southerner he was relentlessly teased by team mates but, more important, Philadelphia was just too big for him. Mack reluctantly sent him to Cleveland, which was smaller and had more players from the South. In the final month of the 1910 season Jackson hit .387. He really blossomed in 1911, his rookie year with 233 hits, 45 doubles, 19 triples, and a .408 average (still a record for rookies obviously). His Cleveland records for hits, average, and outfield assists (32) still stand.

With his big black bat ("Black Betsy") Jackson hit the ball harder than anyone except Babe Ruth, who said he fashioned his swing after Jackson's, claiming it was 'the perfectest' in baseball. Players said the ball sounded different coming off Jackson's bat. In 1912 Jackson hit .395 with 121 runs, 226 hits, 26 triples (which tied with Sam Crawford for the most ever), and had 30 outfield assists. In 1913 he led the league in hits and doubles and hit one ball off the right field roof of the Polo Grounds. It travelled over 500 feet.

In 1914 Jackson suffered a broken leg and hit just .338. In one of the stupider interventions of all time in 1915 the Cleveland owner ordered the manager to play Jackson at first base?!!! He then traded his cleanup hitter to Chicago in the biggest money exchange to date, with $31,000 going to Chicago and players that Charles Comiskey had paid $34,000 to buy going to Cleveland – a whopping $65,000!

After leading the AL in triples and hitting .341 in 1916. To avoid being sent overseas Shoeless Joe then worked in a Deleware shipyard that supplied armaments. Suddenly stacked with ball players, the factories hurriedly assembled a league – the Bethlehem Steel League. Guess what. Jackson led the league with a .371 average.

In 1919 Jackson hit .351 with 202 hits and 96 RBIs. Not bad. But in his last year in the majors, 1920, Jackson proved he was still an amazing hitter – .382, 218 hits, 42 doubles, 20 triples, 121 RBIs, and a 1.033 OPS. And then at 32 years old he was done – banished for life by Mountain Kenesaw Landis.

I don't know how anyone could possibly argue that any player who is not in the Hall had skills or a career, though shortened, like Jackson's. Had it not been for two contemporaries who overshadowed even him Jackson would have have been thought of as a truly great player. Ty Cobb hit .420 when Jackson hit .408, and .409 when Jackson hit .395, and .390 when Joe hit .373. In 1921 Babe Ruth had a year that simply made everyone else seem like mere mortals. Pick your favourite star of all time ... Mays, Mattingly, Schmidt, Rose, whoever ... it doesn't matter, can you imagine how he would have paled by comparison if he had played at the same time as Ruth and Cobb! Walter Johnson, who played with Ruth, Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Napoleon Lajoie, said Johnson was the greatest natural ball player he ever saw.

Was Jackson in on the fix in the 1919 World Series? In my next article I will talk about how seriously we should take Eliot Asinof's thoroughly entertaining book (and the movie) Eight Men Out. It undoubtedly convinced many people that Jackson was indeed in on the fix of the World Series in 1919. We can say with absolute certainty that we cannot be certain that Shoeless Joe tried to lose games to the Cincinnati Reds. Did he try his best in every game though?

Jackson hit .368 in the Series and led both teams in hits with twelve. Asinov points out that in the first five games, when the White Sox should have displayed their supposed dominance and forged ahead in the best-of-nine series, Jackson knocked in no runs. What Asimov does not point out is that none of the Chicago stars were hitting well in those games. In the games the White Sox apparently threw (if we can be sure – the fans and sportswriters at the time were not) he went 4-for-16.

Jury. Joe didn't know any lawyers. He was represented by Charles Comiskey's lawyer, who had been ordered to get Jackson to admit his guilt. He apparently did so by getting Jackson drunk late one night and then having him sign a confession the ballplayer could not possibly have read or understood. Jackson tried desperately to hide his illiteracy, though where he grew up in the late 1890s a man would have been considered an oddball if he could read or write. When Joe went to a restaurant (and could obviously not read the menu) he would wait until everyone had ordered and then repeat what one of them had said.

IF Jackson was in on the fix, was he justified in doing what he did? John argues that the steroid stars faced enormous pressure to go on the juice because without out it they would have struggled to stay among the game's best players and would have seen their salaries dwindle along with their careers. Well, Jackson and the other Black Sox were seeing their livelihood threatened too – by miserly club owner Charles Comiskey.

Though fans now assume the "Black Sox" got their name from the fix and scandal it was actually from having dirty uniforms. Comiskey, who had a reputation for being generous to everybody but his players, made the players pay to have their uniforms cleaned, which they refused to do.

Players on other teams got $4 a day for meals, the White Sox got $3. (A steak cost 50 cents then.) Comiskey had promised the players a bonus if they won the 1917 pennant. When they did, they did get a bonus. Comiskey had a case of cheap champagne delivered to the team.

Lefty Williams, Jackson's best friend on the team, led the majors in complete games in 1919 and went 23-11. He made $3,000. Shoeless Joe – one of the game's best hitters and a terrific fielder – made $6,000. By contrast, on the Reds (a weaker team in a poorer market), Edd Roush, who led the National League but hit 50 points lower than Jackson, made $10,000. First baseman Jack Daubert made $9,000.

Here is one more illustration of just how miserly Comiskey was to his terrific players. Eddie Cicotte had been promised a bonus if he won 30 games in 1919. After he won his 29th win Comiskey pitched him a lot less.

Allow me to take a second to clear up the controversy over whether Cicotte was actually benched. (It has been argued both ways.) You decide for yourself.

Here is Cicotte's record in late 1919:
  • August 7       Won 2-1
  • August 10     Won 1-0
  • August 14     Lost 6-15
  • August 15     Won  6-5
  • August 20     Won 10-3
  • August 23     Won 10-2
  • August 25     Won  4-3
  • August 29     Won 3-2
  • September 1  Won 5-1
  • September 5  Won  9-1
  • September 19 (notice the gap)  Won 3-2   

He got his one last chance Sept. 24 when he went seven innings but gave up five runs.(He also started and pitched two innings and gave up one run in the last game of the season.)

Cicotte probably would have thought he had been held back over the last few weeks of the season and been in the mood to stick it to Comiskey? Were the White Sox any less justified in taking a big one time pay day than the steroid users were in doing what they did? If you admit Bonds et al, and I'm not convinced you should, surely you have to look back at the banished Black Sox.

Come back here next week for an analysis of the authenticity of Eight Men Out.

In the meantime, if you would like to subscribe to the organization dedicated to getting Shoeless Joe into the Hall of Fame visit blackbetsy.com.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

Fantastically interesting piece, Will! Can't wait for Part 2.