August 07, 1989 12:00 PM

It was 1920, and America’s battered innocence was once again taking a fall. A Chicago grand jury had just heard charges that the great “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and seven other members of the hometown White Sox had conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. As Jackson made his way down the courthouse steps, so legend has it, a shattered little boy tugged at his sleeve. “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” he pleaded.

Alas, it was so—at least in the mind of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s commissioner. Though the eight players were acquitted after a jury trial the following summer, Judge Landis handed down a verdict of his own, barring them for life from organized baseball. Jackson and the rest of the “Black Sox,” as they came to be known, were consigned, in their lifetime, to infamy. Yet Shoeless Joe, who died in 1951, has continued to tug at America’s imagination if not at her conscience. A player of superlative skills, he has been reborn in books and in movies—most recently in the sentimental hit Field or Dreams. In the film, and in Donald Gropman’s biography, Say It Ain’t So, Joe!, he is depicted not as villain but victim—a kind of melancholy hero in exile. Now there is an effort under way to have him admitted to the Hall of Fame, baseball’s Olympus. In June the South Carolina Senate passed a resolution calling for the native son’s official exoneration by A. Bartlett Giamatti, the game’s present commissioner.

“Joe Jackson has been out of baseball 70 years,” says Gropman, his biographer. “Why does he keep popping up? He’s a metaphor for something—the Huckleberry Finn of baseball. He had that naive innocence and was chewed up and spit out. And his ghost has never been quite laid to rest.”

Born July 16, 1888, Joseph Jefferson Jackson grew up in Greenville, S.C. Joe’s father worked in a cotton mill, and, as his eight children came of age—6 or 7 in those days—most of them went to work there too. Joe never attended school and did not learn to read and write. Yet scant as his education may have been, his athletic talents were worthy of folklore. People in Greenville say he could stand with his back to the outfield fence and whip the ball on a fly to home with little more than a flick of the wrist. And hyperbolic sports-writers called Joe’s hits blue-darters because of the smoke they allegedly trailed. By 16, Jackson was the town hero, his Mudville’s Casey. At 18 he was tearing up the minor leagues, and in 1908, at the age of 20, he joined Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics shortly after marrying blue-eyed Katie Wynn, also of Greenville. With his country background, he was naive even by rookie standards. This made him an irresistible target for his teammates, who encouraged him to do such things as drink the water in his finger bowl. Still, he managed to hang on.

It wasn’t until Jackson was traded to Cleveland two years later that he began to emerge as a star among stars, batting .408, .395 and .373 in successive seasons. Babe Ruth was an early admirer. “I copied Jackson’s batting style because I thought he was the greatest hitter I’d ever seen,” Ruth declared years later. “I still think the same way.” In 1915 Jackson was sold to the White Sox and their skinflint owner, Charles Comiskey. By 1919 Jackson was being paid only $6,000 a season, which might have made him a logical target for overtures by Sox first baseman Chick Gandil.

According to Gandil’s account, he and pitcher Eddie Cicotte were told by a gambler that if they could get six other players to help throw the Series, they would be paid $10,000 apiece. It’s not clear what happened after that. Some say that Gandil and others did play to lose. Others claim the players double-crossed the gamblers, took the money and played to win. The full truth will probably never be known. But for his part, Joe Jackson maintained his innocence, insisting that his name was given to the gamblers by his fellow ballplayers, even though he hadn’t agreed to take part in the fix. “Since he was the star, they needed him to give them credibility,” says Lester Erwin, 42, of Greenville, son of one of Katie’s cousins.

Jackson said he tried to sit out the Series when he learned what was going on, and that when he received a $5,000 payoff, he tried to give it back. He said he went to tell Comiskey about it, but despite waiting for an hour, couldn’t get past the owner’s outer office. Ultimately, he said, he simply decided to play his best ball. And there is not much doubt that he did. Jackson made no errors in the field and collected 12 hits, setting a Series record that stood until 1964.

Gropman says his research largely substantiates Jackson’s story. He adds that during grand jury proceedings, Comiskey’s lawyer urged Jackson, who had no counsel of his own, to tell the judge he was guilty and that he was sorry. “The lawyer told him that nothing would happen to him,” says Gropman. “He was the one who advised Joe to sign a waiver of immunity. Well, Joe couldn’t even read it.” By the time the jury trial rolled around nine months later, the grand jury testimony had mysteriously disappeared. Jackson and the others—all having hired lawyers by now—recanted their previous statements. All were acquitted.

After his expulsion from baseball at the age of 31, Joe Jackson’s life did not descend into pathos. For a while he sought reinstatement, but otherwise he accepted his fate. For 10 years he played semipro ball all through the South, sometimes under an assumed name. Returning to Greenville in 1933, he managed various local clubs for several years. A local admirer, Joe Anders, 68, remembers seeing Jackson pinch-hit in a mill game when he was 56 and had already had the first of several heart attacks. He smashed the ball against the centerfield fence 415 feet away.

Ironically, the man who had been reviled in the press as a “cowardly, ignorant country bumpkin” went on to become a prosperous businessman. He and Katie—who eventually taught him to read and write—opened a successful liquor store in Greenville, just blocks away from the mill where he had labored as a child. Every day except Sunday the two of them worked in the store side by side. “She was head over heels in love with Joe,” says Judy Bartram, Joe’s step-niece. “She worshiped him.” Joe was equally devoted. “Katie had a terrible fear of snakes,” says another niece, Marguerite Hall. “He’d tear pictures of snakes out of magazines so she wouldn’t see them.” Kids—they never had any of their own—were always dropping by the store, and Joe invariably would oblige them with baseball advice or a story about the greats he’d played with. He would respond to fan mail by sending every writer back an autographed baseball. “He didn’t seem to care about money,” says Lee Jackson, a nephew. “At the liquor store he was always giving people handouts.”

In the later part of his life, Joe seemed to enjoy talking about his baseball days, though he would rarely discuss the Black Sox scandal. But clearly it was never far from his mind. The night that Joe lay dying, Katie called his brother, David, to his bedside. Judy Bartram, David’s stepdaughter, weeps when she recalls what her father told her Joe said. Minutes before his passing, says Judy, the legendary ballplayer took David’s hand and said to him softly, “I’m going to meet the greatest umpire of all—and he knows I’m innocent.”

—William Plummer, Meg Grant in Greenville

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