Shoeless Joe Jackson was a country boy from South Carolina who never learned to read or write much ("It don't take school stuff to help a fella play ball," he once said) but is widely hailed as the greatest natural hitter in the history of the game. A left-handed batter and right-handed thrower, Jackson stood 6'1" and weighed 178 well-built pounds. He belted sharp line drives to all corners of the ballpark, and was fast enough to lead the American League in triples three times. He never won a batting title, but his average of .408 in 1911 still stands as a Cleveland team record. Unfortunately, after Cleveland traded him to the Chicago White Sox, Jackson's career ended ignominiously due to his involvement in the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919. He was expelled from the game in his prime, and for that reason he has never received a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.
Joseph Jefferson Wofford Jackson was born in rural Pickens County, South Carolina, on July 16, 1888 (or 1889). His father George was a laborer who settled in nearby Greenville soon after Joe's birth and found employment at Brandon Mill, a textile factory that paid $1.25 a day. Joe, the oldest of eight children, began working at the mill at age six or seven. He never attended school, but he did learn to play baseball. Brandon Mill sponsored a team that faced squads from other mills and factories, and Joe earned a spot in the lineup when he was 13 years old. He soon became renowned throughout the Carolinas as an outfielder, pitcher, and home-run hitter. Joe played for factory teams and semipro clubs until 1908, when Greenville obtained a franchise in the Carolina Association, a new Class D league on the lowest level of organized ball. Joe Jackson signed a contract with the Greenville Spinners for $75 a month.
The strong, agile 19-year-old quickly became the biggest star in the Carolina Association, leading the league with a .346 average, making phenomenal throws and catches in center field, and serving as mop-up pitcher. A reporter for the Greenville News tagged him with his nickname that season, when Joe played a game in his stocking feet because his new baseball shoes were not yet broken in. For the rest of his life, he was known as Shoeless Joe Jackson. He also gained a wife that year, marrying the 15-year-old Katie Wynn on July 19, 1908.
In August 1908, Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack bought Jackson's contract. Joe made his first major league appearance on August 25, and singled in his first trip to the plate. However, Joe was homesick, and three days later he boarded a train back to Greenville. He returned in early September, but Philadelphia, a city of two million people, was frightening to the illiterate country boy. He jumped the team once more before the 1908 season ended, finishing his first major league stint with three hits in 23 at-bats.
Jackson bounced between Philadelphia and the minors for the next two years. He won batting titles at Savannah in 1909 and at New Orleans in 1910, but did not hit well in Philadelphia in a 1909 late-season call-up. Joe did not get along with his Philadelphia teammates, many of whom teased him mercilessly about his illiteracy (which he tried to hide) and lack of polish. Connie Mack reluctantly decided that Joe would never succeed in Philadelphia, and traded him to the Cleveland Naps for outfielder Bris Lord and $6,000 in July of 1910. In mid-September, at the conclusion of New Orleans' season, Joe reported to Cleveland.
Cleveland was a smaller city than Philadelphia. Many of Jackson's new teammates were either Southerners or had played in the South, so Joe fit in well. Playing in right and center field, Joe batted .387 in the final month of the 1910 season and claimed a permanent place in the Cleveland lineup. In 1911 he made a major leap to stardom, battering American League pitching for 233 hits, 45 doubles, 19 triples, and a .408 batting average. He did not win the batting title (Detroit's Ty Cobb batted .420), but he set Cleveland team records for hits, average, and outfield assists (32) that stand to this day. His torrid hitting helped lift the Naps to a third-place finish.
Jackson swung the bat harder than most of his contemporaries, and players swore that his line drives sounded different from anyone else's. Many other players held their hands apart on the bat and punched at the ball, but Joe put his hands together near the bottom of the handle and took a full swing. "I used to draw a line three inches from the plate every time I came to bat," said Jackson many years later. "I drew a right angle line at the end of it, right next to the catcher, and put my left foot on it exactly three inches from home plate." He stood in the box, feet close together, then took one long step into the pitch and ripped at it with his left-handed swing. "I copied my swing after Joe Jackson's," said Babe Ruth to Grantland Rice in 1919. "His is the perfectest."
Though the Naps fell from third place to sixth in 1912, Jackson batted .395, with 121 runs scored, 226 hits, and 30 outfield assists. He also set a new American League record with 26 triples, a mark that was tied by Sam Crawford in 1914 but has never been surpassed. However, Joe once again finished second in the batting race to Cobb, who batted .409 for the Tigers. "What a hell of a league this is," wailed Jackson to a reporter. "I hit .387, .408, and .395 the last three years and I ain't won nothing yet!"
Jackson displayed his power on June 4, 1913, when he belted a fastball from the Yankees' Russ Ford; the hit bounced off the roof of the right-field grandstand at the Polo Grounds and into the street beyond. The newspapers claimed that the blast traveled more than 500 feet. Jackson's .373 average that year trailed Cobb once again, but he led the league in hits with 197 and doubles with 39, finishing second in the Chalmers Award balloting. His total of walks (80) also increased sharply.
Joe turned down offers from the new Federal League in early 1914, though two Cleveland pitchers joined the new circuit and left the Naps short-handed on the mound. Federal League raids and the sudden decline of Lajoie caused the Naps to drop from contention, and injuries to Jackson and shortstop Ray Chapman doomed them to last place for the first time in their history. Forced by a broken leg to miss 35 games, Joe's average dipped to .338 with only 61 runs scored and 53 runs batted in, and he posted new full-season career lows in the speed-dependent categories of triples and stolen bases.
Controversy swirled around Jackson during the 1915 season. He had spent the winter months headlining a vaudeville show that drew curious crowds throughout the South. Joe enjoyed the theatrical life so much that he refused to report for spring training, threatening to quit baseball and begin a new career on the stage. Katie Jackson reacted poorly to that idea, and filed for divorce that March (though she and Joe soon reconciled). In May, team owner Charles Somers ordered manager Joe Birmingham to move Jackson to first base to make room for rookie Elmer Smith in the outfield. Joe played 30 games at first, but the experiment ended when Joe left the lineup with a sore arm. Somers became incensed when Birmingham blamed the position switch for Jackson's injury, and the team owner soon fired Birmingham, appointing coach Lee Fohl to succeed him.
In 1915 Somers, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, decided that he could not afford to keep his two best players, Jackson and Chapman. He needed to trade one and rebuild the ballclub (which was renamed as the Indians after the team sold Lajoie to Philadelphia that spring) around the other. Somers' mind was made up when the newspapers reported that the Federal League had offered Jackson a multiple-year contract at a salary of $10,000 per year. Somers feared that Jackson would bolt for the new circuit, leaving the Indians with nothing in exchange, so the Cleveland owner solicited offers for his cleanup hitter.
Jackson, who at the time was in the second season of a three-year contract for $6,000 per annum, was not opposed to a trade. "I think I am in a rut here in Cleveland," Jackson told local sportswriter Henry Edwards, "and would play better somewhere else." Indeed, Jackson's batting average had now declined for four consecutive years. The Washington Senators offered a package of players for Jackson, but Somers rejected the bid to await a better one, which soon came from the Chicago White Sox. Owner Charles Comiskey coveted Jackson, and sent his secretary, Harry Grabiner, to Cleveland with a blank check. "Go to Cleveland," ordered Comiskey, "watch the bidding for Jackson, [and] raise the highest one made by any club until they all drop out." On August 20, 1915, Grabiner and Somers reached an agreement. Somers signed Joe to a three-year contract extension at his previous salary, then sent him to Chicago for $31,500 in cash and three players (outfielders Bobby Roth and Larry Chappell and pitcher Ed Klepfer) who collectively had cost the White Sox $34,000 to acquire. In terms of the total value of cash and players, this $65,500 transaction was the most expensive deal ever made in baseball up to that time.
Jackson joined a contending team, one that featured four future Hall of Famers in second baseman Eddie Collins, catcher Ray Schalk, and pitchers Red Faber and Ed Walsh. He hit poorly (for him) in the last six weeks of the 1915 season, and some observers believed that Joe's career was on the downslide. However, he rebounded in 1916, batting .341 with a league-leading 21 triples as the White Sox challenged Boston for the league lead. Chicago finished second that season, but roared to the pennant in 1917 despite a subpar performance by Jackson, who was hobbled all year long after he sprained an ankle in spring training. Joe's average dipped to .278 in early September, but he finished with a flurry of hits that lifted his final mark to .301. During the World Series, New York Giants manager John McGraw used left-handed starting pitchers in four of the six games in a bid to neutralize the hitting of Collins and Jackson, but Joe batted .304 and saved the first game with a circus catch in left field. Red Faber won three decisions as the White Sox defeated the Giants, four games to two, for their second and last (until 2005) World Series championship.
The White Sox were rocked by the entry of the United States into World War I. Several Chicago players enlisted in the military, while others were drafted in the early months of 1918. Joe, as a married man, was granted a deferment by his hometown draft board in Greenville, South Carolina, but after Jackson played 17 games with the White Sox the board reversed its decision and ordered him to report for induction. Instead, Jackson found employment at a Delaware shipyard, where he helped build battleships and played ball in a hastily assembled factory circuit, the Bethlehem Steel League. Jackson was the first prominent player to avoid the draft by opting for war work, for which he was severely criticized in the sporting press, especially in Chicago. He won the factory league batting title with a .371 average, but the controversy permanently damaged his relationships with the Chicago sportswriters.
At war's end, Jackson signed a new one-year contract for $6,000 (the same salary he had been receiving since 1914) and returned to the White Sox. He was healthy again, and led the club in batting as the White Sox grabbed first place and held it for most of the 1919 season. Joe finished fourth in the league in batting with a .351 mark, his best average since 1913, with 181 hits and 96 runs batted in. Faber, Chicago's leading pitcher, was sidelined late in the season with a sore arm, but Eddie Cicotte (29--7) and Lefty Williams (23--11) picked up the slack and pitched the White Sox into a comfortable lead in the standings. On September 24 Joe Jackson drove home the winning run in the pennant-clinching game against the St. Louis Browns.
The White Sox were considered the most talented team in baseball, but they were also the unhappiest. Charles Comiskey was a tough negotiator, and some of the players grew embittered by their low salaries and Comiskey's take-it-or-leave-it attitude. First baseman Chick Gandil, the leader of this resentful group, concocted a plan to fix the upcoming World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Jackson, according to his own later admissions, agreed to help Gandil and several other White Sox lose the Series in exchange for $20,000, an amount more than three times his annual salary. Jackson, who ultimately received only $5,000, batted .375 against the Reds but failed to drive in a run in the first five games, four of which the White Sox lost (it was a best-of-nine Series that year). Chicago won the sixth and seventh games, but fell behind quickly in the eighth contest. Jackson belted a homer, the only one of the Series, and drove in three runs in Game Eight, but his production came too late. Cincinnati defeated the favored White Sox by a 10-5 score and won its first World Series title. Jackson tied a record with his 12 hits in the Series, but 8 of the 12 came during the four games the White Sox tried to win. In the four games Chicago threw, Jackson went 4 for 16.
Gandil, who reportedly pocketed $35,000 for his involvement in the crooked World Series, did not return to the White Sox in 1920. Jackson signed a three-year deal for $8,000 per annum and rejoined the team, despite the cloud of suspicion that hovered over him and several of his teammates. Jackson gave one of his finest performances in 1920, with a .382 average, a career-best 121 runs batted in, and a league-leading 20 triples. However, his season ended abruptly on the morning of September 28, when newspapers published allegations by gambler Billy Maharg claiming that eight members of the White Sox had helped him and other gamblers fix the World Series. Comiskey immediately suspended Jackson and the six other accused players who were still with the team. Eddie Cicotte and Jackson both later appeared before a Cook County grand jury investigating the matter and confessed their involvement. Despite being acquitted by a trial jury, all eight accused players, including the retired Gandil, were eventually expelled from baseball for life by new Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The scandal brought a sad and untimely end to Joe Jackson's brilliant baseball career.
Jackson, whose lifetime batting average of .356 is the third highest in the game's history, played semi-pro and "unorganized" ball, mostly in the South, for many years thereafter. He gave a few newspaper interviews in which he made his case for reinstatement, but mostly stayed out the public eye during the last three decades of his life. He eventually moved back to his old neighborhood in Greenville, near the Brandon Mill textile factory, where he operated a restaurant and a liquor store until his death on December 5, 1951, at the age of 63.
This biography originally appeared in David Jones, ed., Deadball Stars of the American League (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006).
Eliot Asinof. Eight Men Out. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963.
Harvey Frommer. Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball. Taylor Publishing Company, 1992.
Donald Gropman. Say It Ain't So, Joe! Carol Publishing Group, 1999.
Chicago Tribune, September 29, 1920.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 31, 1910; August 21, 1915.
New York Times, September 29, 1920.