In 1934, the citizens of Greenville, South Carolina, wanted to bring a minor league baseball team to their town. In order to do that, there was one man in their community they needed to talk to. He was a business owner, having once operated a dry cleaner and a barbecue restaurant. He ran a liquor store on the edge of town. But it was his previous career that they hoped would help in their endeavor.
Joseph Jefferson Jackson was born near Greenville and spent much of his life there, but for about 15 years he spent his spring and summer months elsewhere, starring as one of the best hitters in baseball. But he lost it all when he took money to throw the 1919 World Series, which led to him being banned from organized professional baseball.
45 years old in 1934, “Shoeless Joe” agreed to contact commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to ask if he could be a manager for a minor league team in his hometown.
“The people of my town want me to bring professional baseball back and they want me to manage the club,” Jackson wrote. “At my age of 45 years I do not think I can play big league baseball, but I think I could do a lot for minor league ball.”
Landis replied, making it clear there was no way Jackson would be allowed to participate in professional baseball. “The game played in a small town in a Class D league is no less important to the spectators and players than is the game played in the large city in the highest class league,” he replied.
Greenville got their team in 1938, but Jackson was not associated with it, in fact he technically had to ask permission to even attend a game. His banishment from the game was absolute. He died in 1951 at the age of 63, having never received a pardon for his crime against the National Pastime.
In the years since he was banished, Jackson has gained a bevy of supporters who have fought to clear his name. Some supporters assert that Joe paid for his crime during the last decades of his life and should have been re-instated. That’s a debatable position, but those supporters who argue that Jackson was innocent are mistaken. They are victims of myth and sentimentality.
We need not look further than Jackson’s own testimony during the trial in Chicago in 1921. Testimony in which Joe admits that he agreed to accept $20,000 to throw games during the Series in 1919. It’s irrefutable and it’s right there in Shoeless Joe’s own words. In fact, Jackson testifies that he was “double-crossed” and only received $5,000!
Somehow, his apologists make excuses for Jackson or (most damning) ignore the facts. The pro-Jackson arguments can be classified into three categories:
1. Jackson played his ass off during the ’19 Series, and his .375 average, 12 hits, and six RBI prove it. So, logically, he was not throwing games.
2. Jackson never met with the gamblers himself and was not a smart man. He was duped by teammates who convinced Joe that everyone else was doing it anyway. This was the case made in the movie, Eight Men Out, a steaming pile of fiction that was riddled with historical errors.
3. Jackson (and the seven other members of the White Sox) were acquitted by a Chicago jury.
Each of these arguments can be torn apart by looking at the facts, but it’s far more interesting (and romantic) for fans to believe that an innocent, simple, illiterate man was wrongly banned from the game.
I’ll briefly offer a rebuttal to the arguments made by the pro-Shoeless Joe camp.
1. A detailed examination of the play-by-play records of the 1919 World Series shows that Jackson produced almost every one of his hits and RBI in games in which either the Sox were not playing crooked (they played honest when the gamblers came up short on the money) or when the game was already well out of hand. I won’t go into the detailed play-by-play here, but I have looked at every play from that Series involving Jackson, and it indicates that he hit poorly when the game was in doubt and got hits when it was out of hand. He also made three plays in left field that were very suspicious, though they were not ruled errors. He made half-hearted efforts to field balls, which was noticed by his honest teammates.
2. Secondly, those who use Jackson’s limited education to defend him are really, really reaching, to the point of absurdity. Regardless of whether Jackson was a well-educated man or not, he knew right from wrong. He knew it was wrong to agree to accept money from gamblers, and he knew well enough what was going on to get upset when he only received a portion of the money he was promised. Shoeless Joe was not a simple country bumpkin tricked into being part of the plot. To the contrary, he was a critical piece in the scheme, as was admitted by his fellow conspirators.
3. Lastly, Jackson and the others were acquitted for two main reasons: 1) his lawyers (paid for by White Sox owner Charles Comiskey) successfully argued that there was no law specifically forbidding baseball players from taking money for throwing baseball games, and 2) the jury was star-struck.
After being barred from the game, Jackson lived a life in the shadows. He played in outlaw leagues for a few years, hoping to make some money, but without the big gates of professional organized ball, he didn’t earn much. He tried his hand at running a few businesses and he briefly cold his name to endorse products, but he never really regained his footing. He died feeling that he had ruined his life for a measly $5,000.
There are still people who think Jackson got a raw deal. But a close look at the facts and Shoeless Joe’s own words reveal that he did the crime. And baseball has made sure that he keeps doing the time.
Dan Holmes is an author and baseball historian. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Major League Baseball. He once defeated George Brett in Texas Hold Em poker and faced Phil Niekro's knuckleball. He has two daughters and he writes regularly about baseball and many other topics.