Considered by Ty Cobb as “the finest natural hitter in the history of the game,” “Shoeless Joe” Jackson is ranked with the greatest players to ever step onto a baseball diamond. With his awesome talent for every aspect of baseball, the man from Pickens County, South Carolina, was destined to become one of the greatest players in the sport’s history . . . until the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, in which Jackson and his teammates were accused of taking money to throw the World Series.
And while many have sympathized with Jackson’s ban from baseball, not much is truly known about the quiet slugger. Whether he participated in the throwing of the World Series or not, he is still considered one of the game’s best, and many have fought for his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. This “engaging biography of a different era in Chicago baseball history” tells the story of the incredible life of Joseph Jefferson Jackson (Illinois Times).
Following his journey from a mill boy to a baseball icon, author Tim Hornbaker depicts the rise and fall of “Shoeless Joe,” offering an insider’s view of baseball’s Deadball Era—including Jackson’s personal thoughts on the “Black Sox” scandal, which has never been covered before.
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Toward the end of the twentieth century, the rapid rise of textile mills in Upstate South Carolina was a blessing to an untold number of impoverished families. The flourishing market opened the door to scores of localized facilities, offering full-time work to people in need of stable incomes. These venues not only provided housing in communities built for its employees, but offered educational opportunities, churches, and organized sports. To a degree, life in these areas revolved around the mill and the people were connected by a palpable sense of kinship. For newcomers to these budding districts, there was high optimism; and for the parents of small children, it was understood that once their kids progressed to a certain age, they too would be welcome to a job. The additional income derived by children was necessary for numerous struggling households.
George D. Elmore Jackson was a product of South Carolina, a first generation American born in 1856, and a man who was ever hopeful about the benefits of life in the thriving textile industry. He was one of fourteen children reared by James Samuel and Jane Littlefield Jackson, and spent his earliest years in Union County, just east of Greenville and Spartanburg, the two largest cities in the region. With the Civil War on the horizon, the Jackson family was fortunately outside the maximum and minimum age limits for conscription in the Confederate Army. James, who was also foreign born (originally from Liverpool, Lancashire, England), was over fifty years old when the conflict broke out. His oldest son, William, was but sixteen in 1861, and it is not known if the latter entered the army once he met the age requirement. Nevertheless, the Jacksons were undoubtedly affected by the war in more ways than one and, as prideful members of the state, helped in the rebuilding.
During the 1880s, George met Martha Ann Jenkinson of Gantt, South Carolina, which was just outside Greenville, and the two were later married. The couple settled in the small town of Easley — an unincorporated part of nearby Pickens County — with less than 500 residents. On July 16, 1887, Martha gave birth to their first child, Joseph Jefferson Wofford Jackson. A unique fact about the future "Shoeless Joe" is that researchers have struggled with his year of birth throughout history, insisting it was either 1887 or 1888. The normal answer to such a question would rest in the reliability of a birth certificate, but since those weren't required in South Carolina until 1915, it is ruled out. However, the usually dependable World War I Draft Registration documents on file with the National Archives and Records Administration indicate that he was born in 1887. Conversely, several books and articles claim it was the year following. But, oddly, his South Carolina Certificate of Death goes one better, and states that Joe was born in 1889.
There is endless exceptionality to the story of Joe Jackson, and with that in mind it is not surprising that his year of birth and his legal name are both subjects of dispute. Again, without a birth certificate to put an exclamation point on the matter, historians have had to rely on all available documentation. Per those sources, his middle names of "Jefferson Wofford" are generally acknowledged as fact. This would be completely satisfactory if it wasn't complicated by Joe himself in a 1912 interview with J. A. Fitzgerald. The reporter asked him what his full name was, and Jackson replied: "Joseph Walker Jackson, but don't print the Walker part, will you? Say, I've got nothing against Walker, but I like plain 'Joe' better. Joseph Walker Jackson has a kind of one legged sound." Was it a miscommunication or misinterpretation of his Southern style of speech? It might have been, but four months before his conversation with Fitzgerald, Joe was asked the same question by a different journalist. His answer was again, "Joseph Walker Jackson."
Historian Joe Thompson revealed in his book Growing Up with "Shoeless Joe" that "Jefferson Walker" was a nickname Joe had received in his youth. It is altogether likely Jackson was just recalling the moniker given to him by his brother Dave when talking to reporters in 1912, but it confuses the situation nonetheless.
Unsurprisingly, that is not all. In his conversation with Fitzgerald, Joe was asked how many people were in his immediate family. The reporter claimed Jackson used his fingers to count, and came up with eleven: seven boys, two girls, and his parents. In 1924, during a legal proceeding, Joe's lawyer Raymond J. Cannon spent a little time discussing Jackson's history before a jury, and ran through important points of note. During the statement, Cannon claimed Joe was "one of fifteen children," according to the Milwaukee Evening Sentinel — six more than the Jacksons really had. This was an obvious mistake, but served to distort Jackson's biography for anyone who was paying attention.
As Jackson noted, his parents George and Martha gave birth to nine children. Joe was followed by Lula, Dave, Lee Earl, Ernest, Jerry, Luther, and Gertrude (one brother's name not confirmed). The family relocated from Easely to Pelzer by the mid-1890s, and his father got work at a local mill. News of a promising opportunity on the Western border of Greenville in 1901 caused the Jacksons to move once again, this time settling outside the Brandon Mills textile complex. Their home, on Furman Street, was actually part of the newly developing Brandon Village, an area primed for expansion. Several hundred employees were hired, and Joe Jackson, then fourteen years old, was one of them. Joe was no stranger to the mill culture, as he had toiled at the Pelzer facility since before he was a teenager. Even at that age, he was called upon by his parents to help generate an income, and things weren't any different at Brandon Mills. In fact, for many families, it was the children's duty to step up and contribute financially.
Schooling was simply not a priority. As a result, Joe neglected learning the basic fundamentals of life: reading and writing. Since he was the oldest boy of the family, he assumed much of the workload and did so without complaint. And like his father, who was also illiterate, he would rely on his physical attributes to a greater extent than his mind. Although Joe would miss taking advantage of pivotal lessons during his formative years, the younger Jackson siblings enrolled in the two-story Brandon Mills School and obtained a proper education. Rather than being caught up in scholarly affairs, Joe was putting in 12-hour days at the plant and earning upwards of $1.25 per shift. With the mill swelling from 10,000 cotton spindles to over 40,000 in only a few years, there was plenty of labor to go around, and Joe was a diligent employee in an often hazardous environment. The Brandon facility would be his workplace for six years.
* * *
The Jacksons were a determined and close-knit family. Martha referred to her eldest as "Her Joe," and each of the siblings were firmly dedicated to the chores of their homestead. George was known for being obstinate at times, and after a difference in opinion with management walked away from the mill to do a little farming, in addition to work as a butcher during the 1900s. Joe was a dutiful son and just as supportive in his father's butcher shop as he was in the mill as a youngster. He chopped meat, drove the wagon, and did whatever was asked of him. Again, these efforts were at the expense of any education. But Joe plugged along and, as he got older, the expectations for him to take on a heavier responsibility for the family's financial intake grew. It was his birthright to meet the obligation as his father aged.
Around 1902, when Jackson was fifteen, he became preoccupied by baseball — not only as an amusement, but as a way to supplement his income. His initial foray into the sport was as a member of the Brandon Mills squad, and the competition among the textile firms in the region was robust. Saturday afternoons were prime time for the contests, and Joe was thrust into the spotlight for the first time in his life. He began his semi-pro career as a catcher, but quickly found he wasn't right for the position. Martha later explained: "Joe has a scar on his forehead that he got in those early days. He was catching behind the plate and a great burly mill hand was pitching to him. He threw one so swift and strong that Joe didn't have strength enough to stop it. So it forced his hands back, drove into his mask, and dented the mask into his forehead, leaving a deep cut. That was how he got that scar."
The outfield was a more suitable location, and Jackson's speed and throwing power was a great asset to any team. At the plate, hitting came naturally, and he attributed a lot of it to his excellent eyesight. His instincts kicked in on the field, over and above any pregame coaching, and it wasn't long before he was the standout figure, even against older opponents. Of course, his mother and siblings were enthusiastic, and his brothers were itching to follow his footsteps onto the diamond. But his father wasn't pleased. He disliked the idea of playing ball for money, but Joe wasn't going to be swayed. He enjoyed the sport and really liked making the extra cash. He might not have been able to see baseball as a pathway to future endeavors at the time, but that possibility was quickly coming into focus.
By eighteen years of age Joe was starting to see the bigger picture and decided he'd had enough of the mill life. He quit his job and joined the Greenville Grangers, a local semipro ballclub. With the addition of Jackson, the Grangers started to build up quite the reputation. In one season, they reportedly won 30-straight contests, an astounding feat.
Jackson was making great progress as an athlete but, like his father, he was a little mulish and occasionally things got rowdy, even violent. According to a story told in the Pittsburgh Daily Post, Joe was spiked by an opposing collegian during one game of note and took great offense to the player's actions. Jackson allegedly removed his spiked shoe and, in revenge, hit the man with it, stunning onlookers. The report claimed the latter "bore some resemblance to a hamburger steak" afterwards. As could be expected, the competitiveness was heated on the baseball circuit, but Joe obviously had a lot of growing up to do.
In terms of his playing abilities, Jackson was much more confident in himself. He soon left Greenville to do a little touring away from home with an independent squad, but often returned to assist his parents. The venture was a big source of discovery for Jackson, and in his travels to various cities met different types of people while gaining a slew of new experiences. At Mobile, Alabama, his teammates decided to purchase him his first pair of trousers — deciding he'd outgrown the knickers he'd been wearing with regularity — and Joe later recalled, "I sure thought I was some man that night." Jackson was also attached to a Greenville-area team known as the "Near Leaguers," managed by twenty-five-year-old Laurens "Lolly" Gray, a well-known local player. But Gray had to promise Joe's father 75 cents for each day the younger Jackson was away playing ball to secure his services. It was worth it to Gray. "We needed him for his hitting," he explained. "And there was always a place to use a man who could hit as Joe did."
The "Near-Leaguers" were a talented bunch, supported by the able pitching of Logan Ferguson. Ferguson grew up about a mile east of Brandon Mills, and was from a large family. Several of his brothers were involved in the woodworking industry. His eldest sibling, Charles Cline Ferguson, as a favor to young Jackson, carved out a sizable 36-inch, 48-ounce bat reportedly dyed black with tobacco juice. Jackson prized the bat, naming it "Black Betsy," and it became the predominant weapon in his baseball arsenal. Years later, Jackson recalled that Captain Wesley Fletcher Martin of the Greenville Street Car system had actually delivered the bat to him, perhaps en route to a local game. Joe long remembered the combination of Ferguson's handiwork and Martin's kindly act, and from there the legend of "Black Betsy" was born.
In 1907, Jackson was hired by the Victor Mills textile firm in Greer, South Carolina, and was making several dollars per game. It was during this time frame that Joe received his first big break. "I found Joe Jackson in the fall of 1907," explained Tommy Stouch, who is credited with "discovering" the slugger for Organized Baseball. "After our season in the South Carolina league was over, I organized a team and played five games against the Greer team. I had heard of Jackson's wonderful hitting so I engaged Billy Laval, a good left-handed pitcher, to pitch in an effort to check this terrific swatting. It did not." In fact, Joe managed to hit every trick pitch Laval threw. Impressed to say the least, Stouch didn't hesitate and asked Jackson to join his Class D Carolina Association franchise, a professional club known as the Greenville Spinners. Joe was receptive, and asked for $60 a month in salary. Stouch did him one better, offering $75, and Jackson replied: "I'll play my head off for that."
In Stouch and Laval, Jackson gained two pivotal mentors. Both men were college coaches at various times and had extensive experience working with young ballplayers. They were able to impart precious information to Joe; concentrating on his weaknesses in running the bases, judging fly-balls, and approaching the plate with a more scientific mind-set. The lessons began as soon as Joe reported to the Spinners in mid-April 1908, and of the many athletes in contention for outfield spots, Jackson's spot was pretty secure. Stouch liked Jackson immediately, seeing his raw potential. But, interestingly, the Greenville press didn't know much about the young player, and, in one report, stated he was from Greer instead of Brandon Mills. That caused one irritated enthusiast from the latter village to write the Greenville Daily News and set him straight. A few days later, the sports editor apologized and said it was "pure ignorance" on their part.
But it didn't take long for local reporters to learn about Jackson, and soon they were liberally complimenting his play. Ultimately, they'd broaden the assertion that he was from suburban Brandon Mills, and deem him Greenville's hometown idol, essentially adopting Joe as their own. During a preseason exhibition against Wake Forest College on April 25, 1908, Stouch ushered Joe into the pitcher's box. Jackson displayed a good fastball and control in a 4–0 victory, striking out eight on only four hits. It wouldn't be the last time Stouch went to Joe to pitch, but when the season commenced on April 30, Joe was starting in center field and batting third in the lineup. Producing two doubles and a triple in five at-bats, Jackson performed remarkably in his Organized Baseball debut. A journalist covering the game also asserted that Joe snared a difficult catch "that made the fans want to stand on their heads."
Within the first few weeks of the season, Jackson's notoriety with the public had grown to the point that he was already one of the most popular players on the team. He was consistent at the plate, often achieved more than one hit a game, and was a prime reason Greenville jumped into first place. The season wasn't even a month old when it was revealed that two American League scouts were already observing his work, considering his big-league potential. Joe's play warranted it, and out-of-town newspapers were picking up stories about his remarkable abilities. Amidst the colorful anecdotes about Jackson were tales of his supposed shoeless ball-playing and, of course, sportswriters loved the yarn. They encouraged and nurtured the nickname "Shoeless" until it was a natural part of the baseball lexicon. According to lore, it was first affixed to Jackson by Carter "Scoop" Latimer, a Greenville reporter, but since the latter was a young teenager in 1908, it is rather implausible. Nevertheless, through the years, Latimer and his journalistic brethren took the name and ran with it, creating a plethora of origin stories in the process.
The tales were creative and amusing, and differed ever so slightly depending on the author. But overall the theme was similar, claiming that he either hated shoes or couldn't afford them because of his impoverished status. Neither, in fact, was true. Jackson himself explained what happened:
I was playing in Anderson, South Carolina, one day and it happened that I played the day before in a new pair of baseball shoes. You know how ill-fitting shoes will act at times. Well, this pair simply raised the biggest blister you can imagine on each heel. So when I put on the shoes for the Anderson game I found I could hardly walk with them on, much less play ball. So the only thing for me to do was to take 'em off or die standing up — so I just naturally took 'em off and played ball in my stocking feet. Some fan in the bleachers with a megaphone voice spied my twinkling toes and shouted with all his might: "Oh, you shoeless wonder!" I guess every baseball fan in the country heard him, for I have been called that ever since.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fall from Grace"
Copyright © 2016 Tim Hornbaker.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 "Shoeless Joe" 1
Chapter 2 Bound for the Big Show 15
Chapter 3 "That Guy Ain't Human" 29
Chapter 4 The Perennial Runner-Up 43
Chapter 5 Baseball's Scandalous Thespian 56
Chapter 6 The $65,000 Man 70
Chapter 7 The Jackson of Old 84
Chapter 8 World Series and World War 98
Chapter 9 From Ballyards to Shipyards 112
Chapter 10 Chicago's House of Cards 128
Chapter 11 The Birth of the "Black Sox" 144
Chapter 12 The Conspiracy Unfolds 158
Chapter 13 Exposed and Shamed 173
Chapter 14 Banishment 188
Chapter 15 "The Answer to a Gambler's Prayer" 204