Was Shoeless Joe innocent?

Eliot Asinof’s notes for his signature baseball book, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series, were released to the public recently, and some folks have gone through them. Some Chicago lawyers, actually. And a subsequent article in the Chicago Lawyer Magazine (now, there’s one magazine I never thought to read) raises the question of whether Asinof really knew enough to write such an authoritative book.

It turns out that he didn’t have copies of the transcript from the Black Sox grand jury proceedings. He never spoke to Shoeless Joe Jackson, Chick Gandil or Eddie Cicotte, and his book was primarily based on media accounts of the day. A couple of the figures in the book were actually fictional.

As anyone who saw the movie Field of Dreams knows, Jackson played very well during the Series and his participation in the fix has always been in question. Perhaps only baseball historians care about this issue, but it would be a shame if Jackson’s historical reputation was primarily influenced by a book with questionable references.

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  1. Brad Williams said...

    The strongest criticism of Shoeless Joe’s innocence that I’ve seen stems from his performance in White Sox wins vs. losses in that World Series.

    But, then again, I would expect that a team’s star player performing poorly in his team’s losses isn’t terribly uncommon.  I’m glad that people far smarter than me are doing the research. grin

  2. Brian said...

    One simple question: Did he get the money? Or even agree to get it? If so, he is guilty.

    It is easy to throw a game and still hit well. A little less on a throw here, don’t dive for a catch there, maybe miss a cutoff man, don’t take this extra base, get thrown out stretching that one.

    Also, Landis established (rather questionably) in the Buck Weaver case that simply knowing about it is enough to establish guilt.

  3. Scott said...

    From what I’ve read (including my friend the late Gene Carney’s “Burying The Black Sox”), Jackson did exactly as he was supposed to—he went straight to Mr. Comiskey and tried to report it. And Comiskey ignored him. His “signed confession” is a weak piece of evidence – Jackson couldn’t read, and was clearly being railroaded. The whole thing stinks of a cover-up, with Jackson and Weaver the saddest victims.

  4. Andrew said...

    A few years ago, I went through a contmeporary play-by-play account of the 1919 World Series, highlighting any plays involving Jackson that could be viewed as suspicious.  Then I read his grand jury testimony to find out what he said happened, and when.  After finishing this exercise, there was no doubt in my mind that he took money, promised to try to lose the Series, and then kept his promise.  The man was guilty.

  5. Thomas J. Comer said...

    I don’t think we’ll ever really know definitively what happened during the 1919 World Series, but I agree with Scott that Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver are the ones who deserve some sympathy.

    Thomas J. Comer

  6. Silver King said...

    I remember (I think it was Rob Neyer) a piece that dissected how he played during the series in connection to how the games were going at the time and what the plan seemed to be for that game.

    It was damning.  While it could have happened by chance, the odds seem tiny, and certainly there was no room for the argument that he played well and so he must be at least somewhat innocent.

    I didn’t know the savvy-fellow stuff that ‘Tedly’ mentions.

  7. tedly said...

    he admitted his guilt in front of a grand jury, which is hardly the act of a man being railroaded.  he complained about getting five thousand as a payoff, when he was expecting more…again, not exactly what one would expect to hear from an innocent man who was being railroaded.

    he couldn’t read.  that doesn’t mean he was stupid, or an innocent country bumpkin…jackson was one of the biggest stars of his day, and had sold his name to endorse numerous products from the minute he hit the bigs to stay.  he negotiated favorable contracts, with perks such as a private stateroom for he and his wife while on the road, when he was with cleveland.  he ran several successful businesses.

    when you look at what the man was really like, the ‘poor old illiterate joe’ stuff is actually kind of offensive.

    sure, comiskey went out of his way to burn his players to cover his own ass.  and sure, he’d become a cheap prick by that time in his career as owner of the sox, and that certainly had a lot to do with the players deciding to make some money on the side.

    but, so did the overall baseball culture at the time…gambling pervaded the game, and lots and lots of folks tossed games or series in the several years leading up to the 1919 black sox scandal.

    when a smart man…illiterate, but sharp…accepts five thousand dollars to throw a series, and complains about it, and signs a confession, and admits his wrongdoing to a grand jury—complaining that he hadn’t gotten all the loot he’d been expecting to get…

    well, gosh.  that sounds pretty guilty, to me.

  8. tedly said...

    the ‘savvy fellow’ stuff can be found in a few of the books about joe.

    in my opinion, the best book about joe is the david fleitz book, ‘the life and times of joe jackson.’  reason being, it’s the clearest, least sentimentalized look at the man, his life, and his career.

    the most popular biographical book, generally, is the donald gropman bio, ‘say it ain’t so, joe – the true story of shoeless joe jackson.’  there’s a lot of good information in it, but the reader has to keep in mind that gropman’s dad’s favorite player was the legendary shoeless joe…and it seems to me that in writing the book, the author’s purpose was to praise his father’s taste in players, rather than simply tell jackson’s story.  far too much sentimentalizing for my taste, and far too many questions raised that are just sort of glossed over or not even examined.

    harvey frommer’s ‘shoeless joe and ragtime baseball,’ is a good read.  i believe it contains the transcript of the grand jury testimony.

    gene carney’s ‘burying the black sox:  how baseball’s coverup of the 1919 world series fix almost succeeded’ is awfully good, too…but it’s main focus is on comiskey spending time and money trying to bury the story…and doesn’t really dwell on joe jackson or jackson’s career in all that much detail.

    “eight men out,” by eliot asinof…well.  it’s a good read, but…i’m not sure i’d put too much stock in it as regards the facts of the matter.

    joe ran his own touring vaudeville act for a few years…and ended up punching out a deputy sheriff when his wife suspected him of having an affair with one of the girls in the show.

    joe owned a dry cleaning business, a bowling alley, and a liquor store, i believe.  he had as many as a dozen employees working for him at a time.

    he bought his parents a house, and bought he and his wife a house as well.

    i don’t have any doubt that joe loved baseball, but i also know that according to some of the above books, when he was young, he took to playing because he was good at it, it was a lot less work than working on the machines in the mill his family worked at, it was safer than working on those machines, and he got paid for playing a game.  he got so good, that they’d pass the hat on the weekend games, expecting him to give the fans a treat, with either a long throw from deep in the outfield to the plate, or a home run…and when they passed the hat, he’d make about as much as his father was earning working the entire week.

    he’d play for other teams, not just the factory team at the mill his family worked at….as long as they were paying, joe was playing.  in a conflict of scheduling, he’d play for whoever was paying the most on a given day.

    he started this when he was a kid…fourteen or so.  from the beginning, baseball was a way to have a better life, and to make good money.

    i believe it’s the fleitz book that has several pics of products joe endorsed, and points out that he cashed in on his fame almost immediately upon arriving as a fulltime major leaguer in cleveland.


    he’s a fascinating character, even if you remove all the sentimentalization away from his story.

    damn good looking wife, too.

  9. awayish said...

    people tend to view this issue primarily from the perspective that it is a game, but doing so ignores the concrete economic situation of the time. as far as the players are concerned, they were trying to earn a living, and get proper return on their talent. sure, there was a honor code of competition itself, but unlike fans who only care about things that happen on the field, the players are insane to not see what they do as a line of work. would someone in the same situation as shoeless joe not absolutely laugh at the farce that is “the sanctity of the game” when it is used to bludgeon players into untenable positions and place all expectations upon them and none on the owners? the fans should know better than to merely scream “dance puppets dance, to this grande olde game” to the players. when making moral judgments on people, at least treat them as real people, and not ideals in uniforms.

    the fact of the matter is that the innocence of competition was lost the instance the game was commercialized.  when the white sox owner guy is treating you like a piece of property, do you really believe that you should treat playing for the white sox as a sacred duty? this is not to say that the players were right to take the money, but that judging the situation through the lens of The Game is bound to idealize and gloss over reality.

    the shoeless joe situation merely reflects a condition of baseball as a nascent business. putting all the blame on the players all the while singing idylls to the sacred lores of the mythical past is not only silly but morally perverse.

  10. tedly said...


    the bill james historical abstract makes the point that there were a lot of gambling/throwing games things going on at the time.  that’s the context you have to understand when you think back and try to make up your mind about what or what didn’t happen, and why.

    the pip craig hit about the lawyers slamming eight men out…well, sure, comiskey was paying his guys pretty well, considering…

    well.  what is it you’re considering?

    what is it you have to understand?

    first…regarding joe and his illiteracy:  not being able to read wasn’t unusual in that time and place.  the emphasis placed on that is…weird, not essential.  i mean, really, umpty years later i have an uncle who was illiterate, and who, in his early thirties, learned to read and write well enough to become a UAW shop foreman.  at the time and place jackson grew up in, *being literate was unusual*, not the norm.  and being illiterate had nothing to do with being smart.

    second…comiskey was known to be a selfish bastard.  the old story about the old writer walking thru the train singing ‘i’m forever blowing ballgames,’ is what’s remembered.  that’s damon runyon, i believe.  what’s not remembered is damon runyon also saying that he couldn’t believe that comiskey not only may have screwed cicotte out of a bonus in 1917, but that comiskey spent several days/weeks at the end of 1917 saying, crowing, that he had a bonus in mind for the team…and having that bonus turn out to be a batch of champagne that ‘tasted like stale horse piss’ which was taken to be the enormous insult that it was.

    ty cobb threw games.  so did tris speaker.  everyone knows hal chase did (theoretically, at least…his biography makes the case that he wasn’t the demon bill james has made him out to be).  gamblers had box seats.  betting was ginormous, then.

    even christy mathewson associated with known gamblers.

    there were suspicions at the time that the 1918 series had been tossed.

    context, man.  what we think now is…so far removed from what was a fact of life then…i mean, do grown men, responsible men, have fistfights over slights, now?  it was normal, then.  babe ruth punched an ump, during a game, for having a fucked up strike zone…

    when you start to get the hang of what the context was…it becomes obvious that joe jackson, who’d always followed the money, was always interested in cashing in, was simply a creature of his times.

    a great ballplayer?  absolutely.

    an innocent victim?  hardly.

    this is to say nothing about the federal league, the first world war, the financial trouble franchises were having due to both, the crushing of the nascent union…

    connect the dots.

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