Free Shoeless Joe
BY KEVIN KERNAN
Turns out, in baseball’s eyes, a lifetime ban goes on forever.
January is Hall of Fame month and the announcement will be made later this month on the players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
On Sunday I shared my ballot at BallNine, and my 10 selections, I voted for the max – and the reasons why I voted for the Terrific Ten. The column was pretty well received … for this day and age where everyone is an expert and a critic and knows much more than anyone else, and, of course, is super courteous.
Considering all that, I am going to push the envelope once again, jumping head first into the Hall of Fame pool.
This year will mark the 35th anniversary of the film Field of Dreams. The movie comes from the W. P. Kinsella novel Shoeless Joe that was published in 1982. The book came to being as an expanded version of Kinsella’s short story Shoeless Joe Comes to Iowa that was published in 1980.
Joe Jackson was banned for life from baseball by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1920 for his part in the Black Sox Scandal, you know, Eight Men Out.
Landis was commissioner from 1920-1944. Rather ironically, 100 years after that Black Sox decision, Landis’ name was taken off the MVP awards in a vote by the BBWAA. At the time it was noted Landis “failed to integrate the game during his tenure.’’
Two former MVP winners, Barry Larkin, a Hall of Fame member, and Terry Pendleton, spoke of their discomfort with the name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis attached to the awards, Paul Sullivan, the 2020 president of the BBWAA, said of the decision.
Landis was elected to the Hall of Fame in a special vote soon after his death on Nov. 25, 1944.
Joe Jackson died in 1951 at the age of 64. His life ended. The ban should have ended, too. But it didn’t. It has never ended. It lives, unfortunately, forever.
Landis was voted into the Hall of Fame 80 years ago, again, after his death, Joe Jackson, regarded as the greatest hitter of all time by those in the game, still is not allowed into the Hall of Fame because of the “lifetime ban’’ given to him by Landis.
Meanwhile, here we are in 2024, getting set for a new season, and gambling is all over the place with MLB like never before with all sorts of partnerships with gambling entities. You can parlay just about anything these days. You can’t go 60 feet, six inches anywhere in the game without running into gambling advertisements. Soon, ballparks may be casinos where a baseball game happened to break out.
Gambling in baseball is everywhere, fully endorsed and pushed by the game, pushed by MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred.
Yet, 73 years after his death – you could call it a double death – Joe Jackson remains banned for life by baseball.
Evidently, not his life, but the life of baseball. This is so hypocritical of MLB.
Baseball needs to fix this now. This year. And did I mention that baseball also plays off Joe Jackson making money with their Field of Dreams game? Joe Jackson is good for baseball’s wallet but not for the wall of plaques in the Hall of Fame.
This has been an issue I have addressed before and I am not going to let it go because every day, every season baseball gets more heavily involved in gambling and forgets a little more about Joe Jackson.
No one has addressed this clearer and has been more on-point on the absurdity of it all than Michael Wallach, the former Managing Director on the Board of Directors at the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, S.C.
This has been an issue I have addressed before and I am not going to let it go because every day, every season baseball gets more heavily involved in gambling and forgets a little more about Joe Jackson. I say: Free Shoeless Joe.
I love the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum and I believe it’s past time that Joe Jackson gets placed into the Hall, especially since, through the years, this Hall of Fame has become a much bigger Hall of Fame with the sentiment of voters both in the BBWAA and in the voting of assorted veterans committees, the doors have been opened wide on Main Street in Cooperstown.
I am not going to get into the Pete Rose issue here, the issue of the all-time hits leader not being in the Hall of Fame, he is banned as well but I don’t want to muddy the Joe Jackson waters, I want to keep this about Shoeless Joe.
As many as four players could get into the Hall of Fame this season from the BBWAA vote: Adrian Beltre, Billy Wagner, Todd Helton and Joe Mauer are looking good percentage wise, 75 percent is the magic number – and Gary Sheffield is running hot now too in the latest tabulations on X from Ryan Thibodaux @NotMrTibbs. I’m glad to see Sheffield on the upswing, a player I have endorsed for years. It’s his last year on the ballot so maybe it will be a magical year for Sheffield. Or maybe not and he will wind up getting in via a veterans committee.
There certainly was magic in Shoeless Joe’s bat, Black Betsy.
Ty Cobb is the all-time leader in batting average at .366. Then comes Rogers Hornsby at .358 followed by Shoeless Joe at .356.
Detroit Tiger stars Ty Cobb, left, and Sam Crawford, right, talk with Joe Jackson of the Cleveland Indians before a game at League Park in Cleveland in 1913. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
Ted Williams, widely regarded as the greatest hitter that ever lived, batted .344, 12 points behind Jackson, and Williams pushed hard for Joe to be placed in the Hall of Fame.
Didn’t work out in Teddy Ballgame’s lifetime, either.
Shoeless Joe passed away on December 5, 1951, and this past December 5, Michael Wallach wrote in honor of Joe. He used the quote from Babe Ruth, with Ruth saying, “I copied Joe’s swing because he was the greatest hitter I had ever seen.’’
Wallach added the words of Ty Cobb, saying of Joe: “Shoeless Joe was the finest natural hitter in the history of the game.’’
In Joe’s last year he batted .382 so who knows how much higher his lifetime average would have climbed if he had a full career. And as Wallach noted, that was just the start of the live ball era so you could imagine some .400 averages sprinkled in there if Joe were allowed to keep playing.
Field of Dreams and especially the film Eight Men Out kind of framed what the modern world thinks of Joe Jackson.
Don’t believe everything Hollywood tells you to believe and as Wallach wrote: “Truth be told, although uneducated he was not unintelligent and Hollywood, along with many of the early writers, embellished much of the stories about Joe and the Black Sox, ie …”say it ain’t so, Joe,’’ NEVER happened.’’
Joe was a successful businessman. This is someone who worked in the cotton mills at the age of six so Joe did not have it easy and he did not have schooling His nickname was not a favorite of his and he did not like that it built up his country-bumpkin image. He and his wife Kate were married for 43 years.
Wallach noted that Joe Jackson was one of the first players with an endorsement deal with Louisville Slugger. Joe and Kate were a true partnership. Since she could read, she handled all the financial affairs in their many businesses, including a liquor store in Greenville. And this I particularly like, even though Joe was banned from baseball, he never stopped teaching the game and helping the area youth to be the best they could be at the game.
1911 ``Shoeless Joe`` Jackson Game Used Rookie Bat on display during the media preview February 20, 2014 in New York at Heritage Auctions. (Ukrainian Institute of America). AFP PHOTO / Timothy CLARY (Photo by Timothy A. CLARY / AFP)
Joe Jackson loved baseball and passed the lessons of the game along to a new generation of players even though he was banned from baseball. He never gave up on baseball even though baseball gave up on him.
The more you study Joe Jackson’s life, the more impressed you will be in how he lived it. In 1949 Joe gave an interview to legendary Atlanta sportswriter Furman Bisher. I knew Bisher from my early days of writing and he was something else. Joe told Furman, just two men of the South talking: “All the big sportswriters seemed to enjoy writing about me as an ignorant cotton-mill boy with nothing but lint where my brains ought to be. That was all right with me. I was able to fool a lot of pitchers and managers and club owners I wouldn’t have been able to fool if they thought I was smarter.’’
Isn’t that great?
Turns out that Shoeless Joe was setting up pitchers and opposing managers. I love it.
In David Fleitz’ excellent SABR bio of Joe, there is this quote from Jackson on his setup in the box. By the way, Jackson took a full swing with his hands together in a day when many hitters separated their hands for better bat control to make contact. Shoeless Joe let it fly.
“I used to draw a line three inches from the plate every time I came to bat,’’ Joe explained. “I drew a right angle line at the end of it, right next to the catcher, and put my left foot on it exactly three inches from home plate.’’
The science of hitting. Who knew?
Joe Jackson knew about analytics before there were analytics. Get him in the Hall for his scientific approach to hitting, c’mon Nerds, get on the Joe Jackson bandwagon.
Joe hit lefty and threw righty, just to remind those who watched Field of Dreams. In 2004 I wrote a story where actor Ray Liotta explained that hitting right-handed in the movie was a mistake: “To this day I regret it because I’m a bug, making sure things are accurate,’’ Liotta said.
In 1911, Joe hit .408 for Cleveland but lost out on the batting title to Ty Cobb, who batted .420 for Detroit. Joe never won a batting title.
Here is one of my favorite Joe Jackson statistics. The following year he hit 26 triples. That’s more triples than 22 teams hit last year. The Yankees hit 15 triples as a team all year. Joe also batted .395 with 121 runs scored. In 1911-12 he compiled 62 assists from the outfield.
Imagine if a player did that today. Here is just a three-year snippet of Joe’s 13-year career, 1911-12-13. Joe put up a slash line of .393/.462/.574 and a 1.036 OPS. In those three years he lashed 128 doubles and 62 triples. Joe could hit for power too and in 1913 crushed a ball that hit off the rightfield grandstand of the Polo Grounds and into the street.
It all ended for Joe after the 1920 season. At 32, after hitting .382, he was out of the majors, banned for life.
W.P. Kinsella’s life, too. Kinsella died in 2016 at the age of 88.
Kinsella celebrated Joe Jackson and, in that way, future baseball fans came to know Joe Jackson.
In that 1919 World Series, Jackson batted .375 and hit the only home run of the nine-game Series. After the tainted World Series, Fleitz wrote that Jackson went to owner Charles Comiskey’s office to tell Comiskey about the fix and possibly to return the $5,000 he received. He stayed for several hours but Comiskey never came out to see him.
The Eight Men were acquitted by a jury trial but Kenesaw Mountain Landis made his ruling. Joe Jackson’s MLB career was over. He played semipro for many years in the South. In September of 1951, Cleveland Indians fans voted Joe into the team’s Hall of Fame. Joe died three months later.
His life ended. The lifetime ban lives forever.
Free Joe Jackson. It’s time, more than two lifetimes.