Sorry, Ted: Shoeless Joe Got What He Deserved

Rooting for the underdog is as American as baseball itself. When we hear of an injustice, we demand it be corrected. In recent years Ted Williams has joined a growing chorus calling for reinstatement of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, banned from baseball for his alleged role in the throwing of the 1919 World Series.

Jackson’s supporters gather each year at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa to promote his cause. The site is more appropriate than they knew. Like the novel and film Field of Dreams, their story is a feel-good fantasy which should not be confused with reality.

In his support, Jackson’s defenders note that he led the White Sox with a .375 batting average during the 1919 Series, and protest that he was banned from baseball even after a jury had acquitted Jackson and the Black Sox of all charges against them. The romantic image of Jackson, the naive man-child depicted in Field of Dreams and the filmed version of Eight Men Out, reinforces the perception of an innocent man exiled from the game he loved without just cause.

For fifty years after the 1919 Series, no one doubted Jackson’s guilt. Jackson not only signed a confession, but testified before a grand jury investigating the incident:

Q. Did anybody pay you any money to help throw that series in favor of Cincinnati?

A. They did.

Q. How much did they pay?

A. They promised me $20,000, and paid me five.

Q. Who paid you the $5,000?

A. Lefty Williams brought it in my room and threw it down.

Q. What did you say to Williams when he threw down the $5,000?

A. I asked him what the hell had come off here.

Q. What did he say?

A. He said Gandil said we all got a screw through Abe Attell. Gandil said that we got double crossed through Abe Attell, he got the money and refused to turn it over to him. I don’t think Gandil was crossed as much as he crossed us.

In this testimony Jackson sounds like a guilty man angry at the gamblers who short-changed him. To his backers, though, Jackson was a naive illiterate who never agreed to participate in the fix and merely repeated the story he was instructed to tell. The real villains in their version of the tale are the White Sox and their attorney, who schemed to deflect blame from the club by pinning it on Jackson.

But Jackson’s testimony, and his signed confession, weren’t the only evidence against him. Pitcher Ed Cicotte, whose confession broke the scandal wide open, identified Jackson as one of his co-conspirators. Years later, so did ringleader Chick Gandil. Even Jackson’s supporters admit that he kept the $5,000 he received, money he knew came from gamblers who bribed the Sox to throw the Series.

If Jackson was as innocent as his modern-day defenders claim, why did Cicotte implicate him? Why did Chick Gandil, telling his story for the first time more than 30 years later, identify Jackson as one of the men he recruited to the scheme?

Jackson’s acquittal doesn’t help his case, either. He wasn’t charged with throwing the World Series, because that wasn’t a crime. He and the other Black Sox were charged with throwing games with the intent to defraud the public. The jury was instructed: “The State must prove that it was the intent of the ballplayers and gamblers charged with conspiracy through the throwing of the World Series, to defraud the public and others, and not merely to throw ballgames.”

Since there was no evidence that the Black Sox were motivated by anything but the desire to line their own pockets, Jackson would have been acquitted even if he had admitted throwing the Series!

Even before the grand jury, Jackson insisted that he had always played to win – but his .375 batting average contains an interesting split. In the four thrown games, Jackson hit .250 with one run scored and no RBI; in the other four, he batted .500 with four runs and six RBI. In each of the first two games Jackson allowed a two-out, two-run triple to left field. And even if the evidence that Jackson actually threw the Series is ambiguous, the evidence that he was paid to do so is overwhelming.

Nearly all historians who have studied the Black Sox scandal supported Jackson’s banishment. Bill James has described Jackson’s supporters as “baseball’s answer to those women who show up at murder trials wanting to marry the cute murderer.” When the myth is stripped away, Shoeless Joe stands exposed as a willing participant in baseball’s greatest crime.

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the August 1999 issue of Boston Baseball.

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