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Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Shoeless Joe Jackson Interview: An Analysis

The October, 1949 issue of SPORT Magazine published something that has never been seen before or since. It was an interview with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, focusing on the 1919 Black Sox scandal and his expulsion from baseball. He had previously declined to publicly discuss the subject, and while it’s unclear why he made this exception, it provides fascinating insight into one of the most mythical figures in baseball history.

“This Is The Truth!” was conducted by Furman Bisher, who wrote the piece in narrative form, as it was told to him by Jackson. Bisher was a young journalist from the South, who went on to write for heavy-hitting publications like Sports IllustratedSporting News, and The Saturday Evening Post. His lengthy career included a Red Smith Award for sports journalism, and incredibly he retired in 2010 after more than 70 years at the typewriter.

The entire Jackson interview is available online at For the sake of analysis, I am pulling out what I found to be the most interesting portions of his statements, and including my own thoughts in italics.

Jackson was not looking for forgiveness: “I had been acquitted by a twelve-man jury in a civil court of all charges and I was an innocent man in the records. I have never made any request to be reinstated in baseball, and I have never made any campaign to have my name cleared in the baseball records. This is not a plea of any kind. This is just my story. I’m telling it simply because it seems that 30 years after that World Series, the world may want to hear what I have to say.

If I had been the kind of fellow who brooded when things went wrong, I probably would have gone out of my mind when Judge Landis ruled me out of baseball. I would have lived in regret. I would have been bitter and resentful because I felt I had been wronged.

But I haven’t been resentful at all. I thought when my trial was over that Judge Landis might have restored me to good standing. But he never did. And until he died I had never gone before him, sent a representative before him, or placed before him any written matter pleading my case. I gave baseball my best and if the game didn’t care enough to see me get a square deal, then I wouldn’t go out of my way to get back in it.”

Hollywood is the primary culprit for perpetuating the image of a haunted Jackson, pining until his death to be allowed to play the game he loved so much. If his statement is to be fully believed, he received the only vindication he felt he needed when he was acquitted in a court of law.

Jackson believed he was banned from baseball for the company he kept: “It was never explained to me officially, but I was told that Judge Landis had said I was banned because of the company I kept. I roomed with Claude Williams, the pitcher, one of the ringleaders, they told me, and one of the eight White Sox players banned. But I had to take whoever they assigned to room with me on the road. I had no power over that.”

Jackson may have been trying to distance himself from the betting scandal with this statement. While historians point to his .375 batting average and no errors in the 1919 World Series, it’s clear he knew of the plot, and is very probable that he accepted money. In his mind, he may have felt that if he played his hardest, he was only being blamed because of the influence of others.

Comiskey was tipped off by Jackson that the Series was not on the level: “When the talk got so bad just before the World Series with Cincinnati, I went to Mr. Charles Comiskey’s room the night before the Series started and asked him to keep me out of the line-up. Mr. Comiskey was the owner of the White Sox. He refused, and I begged him: ‘Tell the newspapers you just suspended me for being drunk, or anything, but leave me out of the Series and then there can be no question.’

Hugh Fullerton, the old time New York sportswriter who’s dead now, was in the room and heard the whole thing. He offered to testify for me at my trial later, and he came all the way out to Chicago to do it.”

This statement contradicts Jackson’s previous assertion that he was banned from baseball for simply associating with the wrong players on the team. It’s possible that after being in on the plot and/or receiving money, Jackson came to realize he was dealing with some pretty serious people. Trying to beg out of playing may have been his initial knee-jerk reaction to evacuating the mess without having to throw the games or double cross the gamblers by playing well.

Say it ain’t so! The little boy never said that to Joe when he left the court house: “I guess the biggest joke of all was that story that got out about ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe.’ Charley Owens of the Chicago Daily News was responsible for that, but there wasn’t a bit of truth in it. It was supposed to have happened the day I was arrested in September of 1920, when I came out of the courtroom.

There weren’t any words passed between anybody except me and a deputy sheriff. When I came out of the building this deputy asked me where I was going, and I told him to the Southside. He asked me for a ride and we got in the car together and left. There was a big crowd hanging around the front of the building, but nobody else said anything to me. It just didn’t happen, that’s all. Charley Owens just made up a good story and wrote it. Oh, I would have said it ain’t so, all right, just like I’m saying it now.

This comes as no great surprise. This always made for a good story and it turns out that’s just what it was. If Jackson’s bravado is to be believed, it’s amazing to consider the contrast between his reality and the tragic narrative that has been built by Jackson supporters and baseball romantics over the years.

Did a Ban Johnson vendetta against Comiskey lead to the expulsion of the eight players?: “I’ll tell you the story behind the whole thing. The trouble was in the front office. Ban Johnson, the president of the American League, had sworn he’d get even with Mr. Comiskey a few years before, and that was how he did it. It was all over some fish Mr. Comiskey had sent to Mr. Johnson from his Wisconsin hunting lodge back about 1917. Mr. Comiskey had caught two big trout and they were such beauties he sent them to Mr. Johnson. He packed the fish in ice and expressed them, but by the time they got to Chicago the ice had melted and the fish had spoiled. They smelled awful and Mr. Johnson always thought Mr. Comiskey had deliberately pulled a joke on him. He never would believe it any other way.

That fish incident was the cause of it all. When Mr. Johnson got a chance to get even with Mr. Comiskey, he did it. He was the man who ruled us ineligible. He was the man who caused the thing to go into the courts. He did everything he could against Mr. Comiskey.

I’ll show you how much he had it in for him. I sued Mr. Comiskey for the salary I had coming to me under the five year contract I had with the White Sox. When I won the verdict –I got only a little out of it –the first one I heard from was Mr. Johnson. He wired me congratulations on beating Mr. Comiskey and his son, Louis.”

I doubt there is much merit to this claim. Johnson and Comiskey were former close friends who did have a falling out. However, weakening the White Sox would have hurt both men equally. Johnson, as the president of the American League, had fought for years to bring the junior circuit to prominence. While he would have wanted to disassociate himself from any type of betting scandal, banning the players simply out of spite would have given a major edge to the National League in a key city like Chicago. The Black Sox also led to the creation of the position of Baseball Commissioner, which greatly usurped Johnson’s hold over the American League.

Jackson may not have returned to the major leagues if he had been reinstated: “I doubt if I’d have gone back into baseball, anyway, even if Judge Landis had reinstated me after the trial. I had a good valet business in Savannah, Georgia with 22 people working for me, and I had to look after it. I was away from it about a year waiting for the trial. They served papers on me which ordered me not to leave Illinois. I finally opened up a little place of business at 55th and Woodlawn, across from the University of Chicago. It was a sort of pool room and sports center and I got a lot of business from the University students.

I made my home in Chicago, but I didn’t follow orders completely. I sneaked out of Illinois now and then to play with semi-pro teams in Indiana and Wisconsin. I always asked my lawyer, Mr. Benedictine Short, first and he told me to go if I could get that kind of money…

I have read now and then that I am one of the most tragic figures in baseball. Well, maybe that’s the way some people look at it, but I don’t quite see it that way myself. I guess one of the reasons I never fought my suspension any harder than I did was that I thought I had spent a pretty full life in the big leagues. I was 32 years old at the time, and I had been in the majors 13 years; I had a life time batting average of .356; I held the all-time throwing record for distance; and I had made pretty good salaries for those days. There wasn’t much left for me in the big leagues.”

While it may be hard for lovers of baseball to believe, Jackson was undoubtedly like many other players of that era, or any era for that matter; in that he played more for the money than love for the game. If he realized he was making more money as a civilian, he would not have had much incentive to return; especially given the amount of scrutiny the notoriously reticent Jackson would have experienced.

The origins of the “Shoeless” nickname:  When I was with Greenville back in 1908, we only had 12 men on the roster. I was first off a pitcher, but when I wasn’t pitching I played the outfield. I played in a new pair of shoes one day and they wore big blisters on my feet. The next day we came up short of players, a couple of men hurt and one missing. Tommy Stouch –he was a sportswriter in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the last I heard of him–was the manager, and he told me I’d just have to play, blisters or not.

I tried it with my old shoes on and just couldn’t make it. He told me I’d have to play anyway, so I threw away the shoes and went to the outfield in my stockinged feet. I hadn’t put out much until along about the seventh inning I hit a long triple and I turned it on. That was in Anderson, and the bleachers were close to the baselines there. As I pulled into third, some big guy stood up and hollered ‘You shoeless sonofagun, you!’

They picked it up and started calling me Shoeless Joe all around the league, and it stuck. I never played the outfield barefoot, and that was the only day I ever played in my stockinged feet, but it stuck with me.”

It is good to get confirmation that this beloved pearl of baseball history is based in reality. They don’t make nicknames like they used to.

Jackson had the final word: “Well, that’s my story. I repeat what I said when I started out — that I have no axe to grind, that I’m not asking anybody for anything. It’s all water over the dam as far as I am concerned. I can say that my conscience is clear and that I’ll stand on my record in that World Series. I’m not what you call a good Christian, but I believe in the Good Book, particularly where it says “what you sow, so shall you reap.” I have asked the Lord for guidance before, and I am sure He gave it to me. I’m willing to let the Lord be my judge.”

This statement is a far cry from the Joe Jackson so often identified as the tortured soul fading into a ghostly Iowa cornfield, lamenting his banishment from baseball. Throughout the interview, it seems that Jackson’s attitude towards being thrown out of baseball was roughly the same as somebody who was fired from any job. It may have bothered him at first, but once he saw that he could move on and be successful at something else, it softened the blow quite a bit.

With “Shoeless” Joe Jackson being so liberally portrayed in literature, film, and conjecture, it is nice to have at least one source where he sets the record straight in his own words. This interview is a fascinating glimpse at the man, who exists only as a legend for most. His words shatter the myth of how he left baseball as a broken man, never able to regain his sense of worth and belonging. Say it ain’t so.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

1 comment:

  1. Whew! I read your version first and then went and read the full article! Fascinating!
    As a former newspaper journalist, I am surprised at how much stuff was incorrectly reported and has now become the 'gospel' truth... or even Hollywood. Ugh!
    It makes me happy that Joe Jackson was happy in his later life... seeing him sneak out to play ball was sad, but dammit! he was happy with his lot in life!
    It seems to me that if he was found innocent in a court, then there is no damn reason for him to be banned by MLB.
    Look... I understand that nowadays that if you lie to the courts or Senate, then dammit, ban that guy... but Joe was cleared!
    Is MLB implying that it is above the law?
    Manfred - if he wants to cement his legacy - he'll reinstate Jackson and Rose.
    Rose... if there is proof he bet against his own team - ban him... otherwise...
    as well... in sports like hockey, you can enter the Hall of Fame as a player or executive (builder)... surely Pete's on-field exploits should get him in... even as his managing days should not... but then again... I'm not as up on HOF entry requirements... I assumed it was a crapshoot like in every other sport...