July 03, 2000 12:00 PM

Dying, the tarnished hero once again proclaimed his innocence. “I’m going to meet the greatest umpire of them all,” 63-year-old “Shoeless Joe” Jackson whispered as his heart stuttered to a halt in 1951, 30 years after he had been banished from baseball. “He knows I’m not guilty.”

What baseball fans know for sure is that Jackson was one of the game’s greatest players. A superb outfielder whose lifetime batting average ranks him with legends like Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby, Jackson saw his career end in 1920, when the Chicago White Sox slugger admitted involvement in a gamblers’ plot to throw the 1919 World Series. Though he and seven teammates were acquitted of conspiracy charges by a jury in 1921, all were banished from the game’s clubhouses, diamonds and Hall of Fame.

But no ruling could bar Shoeless Joe from his fans’ hearts. As recalled in biographies and embellished in movies such as Field of Dreams and Eight Men Out, Jackson’s saga grew into a parable of the struggle between innocence and greed. Though not everyone agrees that Jackson played the series to win, as some supporters claim, many believe the time has come to enshrine him in baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

“He was a poor, illiterate mill worker who became one of the greatest baseball players of all time,” says Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C), who last year introduced a resolution urging that Jackson be “appropriately honored” for his achievements. That same year, baseball commissioner Bud Selig assigned veteran Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman to reinvestigate Jackson’s role in the 1919 scandal, which rocked the sport and the nation. Though Holtzman’s findings still await public release, he hints they may only strengthen the case against Jackson. “The reinstatement controversy is based on sentiment,” Holtzman says. “People believe everything they see in movies. “Well, maybe Field of Dreams should have made heroes of the players who weren’t in on the fix.”

Still, it’s hard to deny the dreamy arc of Jackson’s rise from rural penury in Greenville, S.C., to the top of the major leagues. Born in 1888, the first of his family’s eight children, Jackson joined his father in the local cotton mill when he was only 6, working full-time as a clean-up boy. He joined the mill’s baseball team at 15 and jumped to the local minor league team five years later.

In 1908 the 20-year-old Jackson got tapped by the major league Philadelphia Athletics. Traded eventually to the White Sox in 1915, the unsophisticated Jackson proved an easy mark for his teammates’ pranks. But even Babe Ruth admitted that Jackson knew his stuff. “I copied his batting style,” the Babe acknowledged. “He was the greatest hitter I’d ever seen.”

Even so, Charles Comiskey, the miserly owner who earned his team the nickname Black Sox for rarely underwriting its laundry, paid his star hitter a paltry $6,000 a season. Details of the deal remain sketchy, but baseball authorities still believe that when gamblers offered to pay each of eight players $20,000—equivalent to $208,000 in today’s dollars—to lose the 1919 World Series, Jackson and the seven others signed on. Though the favored Chisox did indeed lose the best-of-nine series to the Cincinnati Reds, five games to three, Jackson batted a scorching .375, fueling fans’ arguments that he didn’t throw the series.

His baseball career shattered, Jackson settled in Greenville, where he and his wife, Katie, a hometown girl he had married in 1908, ran a successful liquor store. Unable to stay away from the game he loved, Jackson played semi-pro ball for years, sometimes under a pseudonym. And though childless, Jackson reveled in teaching the game to youngsters. “He loved kids,” says Jackson’s niece Frances Suddeth, 80. “He was a good, sweet uncle.”

Though he’s been dead for nearly 50 years, Jackson’s role remains very alive. “I’ve done the play-by-play backwards and forwards, and I can’t see it,” says Mike Nola, a Tallahassee, Fla., computer engineer who runs the Shoeless Joe Jackson Society Web site. Others believe Jackson’s failure to report a conspiracy he had known about is reason enough to bar him from Cooperstown. “It’s a good lesson to present-day players,” says Cleveland Indians’ Hall-of-Famer Bob Feller, 81. “If they do something dishonest, their careers come to a screeching halt, forever.”

Congressman DeMint demurs, saying it’s time to exercise another American virtue: forgiveness. “Joe served his sentence with dignity and honor,” he says. “But this great story still has a sad ending. And Americans don’t like sad endings.”

Peter Ames Carlin

Lorna Grisby in Chicago

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