Fall 1999: Shoeless Joe Jackson: From "Tragedy" to Farce

On November 8, the House of Representatives passed a resolution, co-sponsored by six South Carolina representatives, which called upon Major League Baseball to "remove the taint upon the memory of 'Shoeless Joe' Jackson and honor his outstanding baseball accomplishments." Congress passes hundreds of similar meaningless, constituent-stroking resolutions each year - but, hopefully, very few which are as riddled with lies as this one. The farcical resolution dutifully echoes every self-serving myth created by Jackson's defenders.

Myth: "Whereas in 1919, the infamous 'Black Sox' scandal erupted when an employee of a New York gambler allegedly bribed eight players of the Chicago White Sox, including Joseph Jefferson 'Shoeless Joe' Jackson, to throw the first and second games of the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds." Facts: The bribery was as "alleged" as the 1918 influenza epidemic. Only seven players were involved in the plot; the eighth, Buck Weaver, was charged only with knowing about the scheme but failing to report it. The conspirators agreed to lose the entire World Series, not just the first two games, and at least three players - Chick Gandil, Ed Cicotte and Lefty Williams - unquestionably did try to throw the Series.

Myth: "Whereas in September 1920, a criminal court acquitted "Shoeless Joe" Jackson of the charge that he conspired to throw the 1919 World Series." Facts: The jury in the Black Sox case 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 and the others would have been entitled to an acquittal even if they had admitted at trial that they threw the Series! The acquittal thus "proves" nothing at all about whether Jackson conspired to throw the Series. In fact, the resolution even gets the date of Jackson's trial wrong: in September 1920, Jackson was still an active major league player. The Black Sox were tried the following summer.

Myth: "Whereas despite the acquittal, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner, banned "Shoeless Joe" Jackson from playing Major League Baseball for life without conducting any investigation of Jackson's alleged activities, issuing a summary punishment that fell far short of due process standards." Facts: Landis had plenty of evidence without conducting another investigation. Jackson had not only signed a confession admitting his involvement in the plot to throw the Series, but testified as follows before the 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.

Jackson's grand jury testimony and signed confession weren't the only evidence against him. Even Jackson's supporters admit that he received, and kept, $5,000, money he knew came from gamblers who bribed the Sox to throw the Series. Pitcher Ed Cicotte, whose confession broke the scandal wide open, identified Jackson as one of his co-conspirators. So did ringleader Chick Gandil, when he told his story for the first time thirty years later. These men had no reason to lie, but in their rush to paint Jackson as an innocent victim of The Evil Judge Landis, Jackson's apologists completely ignore their statements.

Myth: "Whereas the evidence shows that Jackson did not deliberately misplay during the 1919 World Series in an attempt to make his team lose the World Series." The evidence is ambiguous at best. On the one hand, Jackson always swore that he had played to win, and his .375 batting average led both teams. On the other, Jackson hit .250 with one run scored and no RBI in the four thrown games, while batting .500 with four runs and six RBI in the other four. In each of the first two games, both of which were thrown, Jackson allowed a two-out, two-run triple to left field. And even if the evidence that Jackson actually threw the Series is equivocal, the evidence that he was paid to do so is overwhelming. Did Congress truly intend to endorse the receipt of bribes so long as the recipient double-crosses the payer?

In short, Jackson richly deserves the "taint upon his memory." If South Carolina's elected officials truly want to clear the memories of those who, 75 years ago, were victimized by "summary punishment that fell far short of due process standards," they can start with their own state's sorry history of state-sanctioned lynchings. The authoritative Encyclopedia of Southern Culture quotes Coleman Blease, who served as Governor and U.S. Senator from South Carolina between 1911 and 1931, in defense of those lynch mobs: "Whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of South Carolina, then I say 'to hell with the Constitution.'"

And I say "to hell with Shoeless Joe and his apologists, elected and otherwise."

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the Fall 1999 issue of Outside the Lines, the SABR Business of Baseball Committee newsletter.

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