Friday, September 09, 2005

Shoeless Joe Jackson: The Mystery Remains

A mystery that long has intrigued me is the nature of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson’s involvement in the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” scandal. Did he or didn’t he accept money to help throw the World Series?

Jackson, one of the all-time great hitters and fielders, was banned from professional baseball after he and seven White Sox teammates were accused of accepting bribes from organized crime, or of knowing of the World Series scam and refusing to report it to authorities. They eventually were acquitted at trial, but Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, newly appointed baseball commissioner, ousted them from the game. Landis, on a mission to clean up sports corruption, believed the players clearly were guilty and an example must be made for other athletes tempted to cheat.

The 1988 movie Eight Men Out, based on Eliot Asinof’s book, portrayed the Chicago players as victims of crass, tightwad management under team owner Charles Comiskey. There seems little doubt key personnel, ripe for bribery, indeed were approached by racketeers, and at least several accepted money to lose games. (The Cincinnati Reds won the Series, five games to three.)

The question of Jackson’s participation always has been a riddle. A star player, he would have been an obvious target of the plotters. His performance during the Series, however, belied any suspicion that he contributed to his team’s losses. Jackson batted .375 and fielded heroically. By and large, he played better than the winning Reds outfielders.

Some, including the movie makers, conclude that Jackson—illiterate and deceived by criminal organizers—vacillated, reluctantly agreed to take part in the fraud, actually received a bribery payment . . . but then reneged, unable to bring himself to play sloppily. If it’s true, he turned in a stellar Series performance and received compensation somewhat in line with his value, unlike other players under Comiskey’s thumb. In the process, however, he lost his career.

Others are convinced Jackson never joined the plot to begin with. Relatives and longtime admirers repeatedly sought to clear his name and have it entered into the Baseball Hall of Fame—recognition he unquestionably earned with his caliber of play during his decade in the majors. All attempts failed. Jackson died in 1951 in the South Carolina upstate, where he had grown up poor playing mill league baseball.


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