It’s October! Let’s Dig Up The Dead!

With the World Series over, (congrats and condolences depending on your loyalties) there’s not really much I can add except that I picked the Astros in seven and feel I should change my name to Nostradumbass. Back on Wednesday Steve Treder dealt with Pete Rose, and because the White Sox have won their first World Series since 1917 I thought I’d resurrect another villain from baseball’s storied past.

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson.

For those of you cringing, groaning, or firing up your e-mail account to ready a flame or eight, take your fingers off the keyboard and relax. This isn’t about guilt or innocence but about the joys of debating the case of Joseph Jefferson Jackson. What makes the debate so compelling is that both sides can make decent cases for their respective points of view.

Of course both sides are convinced that they’re right, so by the time I’m done here I’m going to cheese off both sides of the debate.

So let’s have some fun.

We know Jackson initially admitted that he threw the 1919 World Series, so it’s an open and shut case. Of course because of this Jackson is considered completely lacking in integrity. If this is the case, why do the critics automatically assume he was telling the truth in this instance?

Why would you admit guilt if you weren’t guilty?

Good question.

We know Jackson had $5,000 from the fix which further implicated him.

Like I said—open and shut.

But according to Lefty Williams, Jackson had refused the $5,000 Williams tried to give him, and it ended up in Jackson’s room on the floor. After the World Series he tried to return the money to Charles Comiskey, but Comiskey wouldn’t see him.

Now Jackson has five grand to get rid of; now how do you explain that?

Next, Charles Comiskey’s lawyer Alfred Austrian (whose primary job obviously was to save Comiskey’s hide) told Joe that Ed Cicotte had already implicated him.

Where did Cicotte get that information from? He got it from Chick Gandil and the aforementioned Lefty Williams. Gandil had approached Jackson with offers of $10,000 and $20,000 but was rebuffed both times. In 1924 at Jackson’s civil suit against Charles Comiskey, Ray Cannon (who was Jackson’s attorney for this particular trial), while cross examining Williams, made Williams admit that he had used [Jackson's] name to the gamblers without Jackson’s permission or knowledge.

Why did Williams do that?

Because Jackson never attended any of the meetings with the gamblers—nobody placed him at any of the meetings, not the gamblers, not the players. Nobody.

So now Jackson has an unexplained $5,000 in his possession and has been implicated by one of the fix’s ringleaders.

Now what do you do?

Obviously you need a little help. Where do you turn? Remember, we’re in 1920 now. Since the fix Comiskey has given you a decent raise, has a vested interest in keeping his best player on the field and has the financial resources to get top legal help. Further, one tradition of this era is when a star player got into various messes the club owner would do everything in his power to bail you out. Call it enlightened self-interest.

With that backdrop what do you do? What Jackson did. He hoped Comiskey could bail him out. Comiskey’s lawyer had already explained the ‘facts of life’ to Jackson; if Comiskey’s lawyer told Jackson his best option was to say he was in on it and was sorry—what do you do?

One possibility is to do what the lawyer tells you. Especially when it’s well within the realm of possibility that your boss can get you out of a given scrape, as had been common practice at the time. But the ‘cat was out of the bag’ by this time, and Austrian knew Comiskey knew about the fix. According to reporter Hugh Fullerton, Jackson went in before the series and asked to be benched and afterwards to return the $5,000. Jackson had knowledge that could potentially ruin Comiskey: that Comiskey knew about the fix and did has part to cover up. Jackson had now become a liability to Comiskey and needed to be discredited.

Remember Jackson had told two stories: one where he admitted guilt and another where he said he had nothing to do with the fixing of the World Series. Which one do you believe? Of interest, the Comiskey family has always felt Jackson was clean and even took out affidavits to that effect. Indeed when Jackson sued Comiskey in 1924 for back pay, Comiskey said under oath that he’d never seen Jackson give anything but his best efforts when on the field, including the 1919 World Series.

Although this explains the confession and the money in his possession, does it prove that Jackson was conclusively not in on the fix?

Not so fast.

Jackson’s supporters point to his .375 batting average, his home run, his six runs and five RBIs and his 1.000 fielding percentage as proof of his innocence—but do these statistics tell the whole story?

Not by a long shot.

Initially, according to the plan, the Black Sox tried to win three games and lose five. In the three games the White Sox planned to win, he hit .545. In the first four games they wanted to throw, Jackson hit .250 with zero RBI. In the fifth [fixed] game, Jackson went hitless until the Reds were ahead 5-0; it wasn’t until the Reds were up 10-1 did Jackson hit a meaningless two-run double.

Also, Jackson hit what would be termed a “soft” .316 (no dingers or RBIs) over the first five games of the Series in a season in which he batted .351 (yeah, yeah sample size but bear with me). Did Jackson simply not have any RBI opportunities? Hardly. Third baseman Buck Weaver hit .300 in games one through five batting ahead of Jackson. It was in the final three games that Jackson finally caught fire, garnering six hits in his final 13 at-bats (.462) and driving in six runs. In those three games [1] Dickie Kerr pitched to win (he was not in on the fix), [2] Cicotte and presumably the other Black Sox were trying to leverage payment of monies owed by the gamblers by attempting a bit of a double cross, and in the final game [3] Williams, after receiving a threat on his wife by the gamblers should he not cough up the game in the first inning, surrendered four runs. In other words Jackson had no reason not to rake over the final three games.

As has been mentioned, “Shoeless Joe” didn’t commit an error in the series. Even here we have to separate fact from fiction. The Red allegedly hit seven triples to left field, where Jackson patrolled. This is a myth, according to multiple sources reporting on the series (Neft and Cohen World Series Guide, The Sporting News, The Cincinnati Times-Star, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Spalding Guide (1920), The New York Tribune and The Boston Evening Globe). No Redleg triples were hit to left field in the 1919 Fall Classic.

That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some fishy plays there. Fullerton asked pitcher Christy Mathewson to sit with him and judge whether certain plays were on the up and up. Both men were of the opinion that Jackson seemed to throw wide from the outfield as well as deliberately slow down to miss balls hit near him. Other suspicious fielding gaffes included Jackson playing too shallow on a game-winning high fly ball to left field that went over his head, allowing the Reds to score a run in the fourth game of the series. (Cincinnati won, 2-0.) Bear in mind that misplayed balls in the outfield—whether due to getting a bad jump, falling down pursuing a fly ball, or losing it in the sun—aren’t counted as errors and wouldn’t affect his 1.000 fielding percentage.

So whom do we believe? Fullerton and Mathewson or Comiskey and Jackson? Fullerton’s paradoxical viewpoint is especially problematic. Remember that Fullerton had gone with Jackson to Comiskey to report that the series was rigged, so Jackson knew that Fullerton was aware of the fix. So his observations are odd at best.

So did he or didn’t he? Only Jackson knows for sure, and he took the truth to his grave. Both sides, however, get what they want out of the final outcome. Those who feel Jackson is guilty are content that he is not in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Those that feel he is innocent have the knowledge that Jackson’s legacy far surpasses a large number of players in Cooperstown. The average fan probably cannot name half of the players enshrined in the Heroes Gallery, but he does know the player named “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.

For myself, regardless of my personal feelings, I like the fact that Jackson is not in the Hall of Fame. After all, nobody argues whether somebody should be taken out of the Hall. If he’s inducted the debate becomes moot; while Jackson is on the outside then the fun continues.

Guilty or innocent? Both sides are absolutely convinced that they’re right and that the other side is misinformed and should get their heads out of their posteriors and face facts.

To both sides I have three words to say to you:

Have at it.

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