My Plea to Free the Great Shoeless Joe Jackson

Image Courtesy of the Sports Fan Journal

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfed has made the decision to not reinstate an all-time great. No, I’m not talking about the all-time hits leader, Pete Rose. The jury is still out on him at the moment, but this recent development may be an indicator of a later decision. I won’t speculate, however. The sport’s newest commissioner seems to be more or less a wild card at times. Although, in this case, Manfred chose the safe route, one that ultimately upheld a ruling made by a grizzled old judge with an ax to grind. A man who baseball history has chosen to anoint rather than more appropriately criticize.

In 1921 baseball’s first ever commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, infamously banned eight Chicago White Sox players after heavy accusations that they had conspired with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series. Among those barred for life was the great and tremendously popular slugger, Shoeless Joe Jackson. Ninety-four years later, Landis’ ruling on Jackson has been upheld by Manfred. Another generation of fans will know the Hall of Fame without the superstar outfielder.

The proof that incriminated Jackson has been largely debated over the years. Rightly so I might add. He batted an outstanding .375 with one home run and six RBI in 32 at-bats against the Cincinnati Reds in the 1919 series. His only blemishes were some questionable defensive plays in the field. The only thing remotely provable is that Shoeless Joe knew about the conspiracy and didn’t run to tell ownership. Taking a closer look for that reasoning and a fair case for his defense could be made. White Sox owner Charles A. “The Old Roman” Comiskey, wasn’t exactly an understanding man. Were he to have found out about the fix beforehand, heads certainly would’ve rolled… even Jackson’s. Comiskey was liable to deny paychecks and doing so would have infringed on a player’s livelihood. Players made working man wages back then after all.

It’s also important to look at the time period in which Jackson lived. The early 1900’s was an era marred by heavy criminal activity. With mobsters and crooks running the streets, silence was the ultimate virtue. “Snitches get stiches”? “Loose lips sink ships”? Any of this stuff ringing a bell? Arnold Rothstein was the grand architect of the whole conspiracy, and not someone known for his kind demeanor and jolly Santa Clause-like attitude. An expert at fixing contests, one man was quoted as saying that Rothstein would “Bet on anything except the weather because even he couldn’t fix that”. Anyone who cost him money or a shot at easy money would’ve paid the price for it. Shoeless Joe playing the role as an informant would not have sat well with Mr. Rothstein. All of this is simply me speculating, but taking into account the times and people involved, I don’t think it’s too far off.

Other theories about the so called “Black Sox Scandal” peg the players themselves, not Rothstein, to have actively sought out a fix. Whether it was to spite their notorious skinflint of an owner, Comiskey, or to spite their teammates will never be known, but the team was known for being more or less malcontents. If that is the case, I cannot possibly envision Jackson being a conspirator in a plan cooked up by the players themselves. Not only was Shoeless Joe a man of basic formal education, but he was someone who had nothing to fall back on. Jackson was illiterate, and grew up poor on a farm.

Surely, he did not have the intelligence to be part of a complicated scheme. Gambling, and getting away with such illegal forms of it, is no easy game. Based on the times, I can’t imagine anyone who was not involved with the institution of the fix being allowed to benefit from it. There had previously been a precedent set for gamblers who dare tarnish the great game. Although it was some time ago, around 1877, Jim Devlin of the Louisville Grays, was barred for life by National League President William Hulbert, after he and other members of the Grays had allegedly thrown the championship series to turn the tide in favor of gamblers. Gambling had been a part of the game for some time, and it’s likely Jackson would’ve known the consequences of his actions. For a rural farm boy from South Carolina, there wasn’t much else to fall back on. Baseball was it and Jackson certainly knew that.

I can not and will not say that Shoeless Joe was completely innocent. However, the evidence against his guilt strikes me as more telling than the evidence pointing towards his involvement. He and his seven teammates were tried in front of a grand jury and found innocent. In fact, it was their acquittal that led the owners to seek out Landis to serve as the game’s judge, jury and executioner. The commissioner ‘s position was formed and Landis assumed more power than he ever had.

Describing Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis is not a hard task. Picture Clint Eastwood (The modern, old and angry vintage).Throw in a ton of megalomania and racism and you have the man credited with, perhaps due more to nostalgia than anything else, with restoring order to the game. He could best be defined as a totalitarian. Even as a courtroom judge, he was known for outlandish rulings. Once, according to reports, he even dragged the board of the Standard Oil Company including John D. Rockefeller into his courtroom. After such a scandal rocked America’s pastime, the owners were desperate enough to give the power-hungry judge unlimited and uncontested power. What’s worse, they granted this omnipotence along with the safety net of a lifetime contract.

Beyond Sport United 2015

Source: Monica Schipper/Getty Images North America

Years earlier a lawsuit filed by the Federal League had reached the courtroom of Judge Landis. The struggling league had claimed that big league baseball’s reserve clause, the long-standing contractual element that bound players to their teams for life, was a violation of the 13th Amendment (The Amendment against slavery and indentured servitude for those of you not Constitutionally savvy). Landis refused to kill the reserve clause and it lasted until Marvin Miller took over as head of the Players Union and brought it to an end in 1975. His faults extended into his tenure as commissioner. Despite a changing social mindset and pushing from powerful men within the game, Landis refused to allow baseball to integrate.

Judge Landis ran baseball, a sport credited with being a great symbol of democracy, like Joseph Stalin ran the Soviet Union. Of course, none of this would have been possible if not for his first act as Commissioner, banning Jackson and his teammates. The barring of the great Shoeless Joe might very well  have been a power play, a way to establish a precedent for those who stained the sport. By banning Jackson, one of the eras most beloved stars, he sent a message to the baseball world: “I am the law!”

Evidence against Jackson has more holes than ever. Perhaps, at the time, the eye witness account of a dying Christy Mathewson watching from the press box was enough to convince decision makers that clearly refutable evidence was more concrete than it was in reality. But, Mathewson, Jackson and Landis all passed away a long time ago. Commissioner Rob Manfred has done both the game and himself a disservice by refusing to undo a damage inflicted by a tyrant like the (dis)honorable Judge Landis. My editor, Billy Brost  went as far as to call him “spineless.” I won’t go as far as to say that at this time. However, I will say that a man who has talked about everything from banning defensive shifts to shortening the regular season schedule, did not hesitate in his decision not to rock the boat by lifting Jackson’s ban. My message to Commissioner Manfred: If you want to make your own name don’t pander to Landis’ legacy. It’s souring by the day on it’s own.


2 thoughts on “My Plea to Free the Great Shoeless Joe Jackson

  1. Not every game was thrown. Jackson’s offensive stats, split between the four clean games and the four thrown games, tells a clearer tale. It is not, I think, enough data to prove anything — neither that Jackson was playing false or was on the up-and-up. The point is, his aggregate Series stats conceals this important distinction — not every game was thrown.

    In the field, he misplayed two balls into run-scoring triples, and that’s not the sort of thing that happens often in left field. Both of these were in thrown games.


  2. Would really like to see Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver and Pete Rose reinstated into baseball…two have been long dead, and Rose has paid enough of a price…he’s in his ’70s…they can’t be elected to the HOF, it would have to be selection by a special committee…but it would be something for their descendants, for Chicago and Cincinnati fans, something to put baseball on the front page in the off-season…as for Judge Landis, he essentially punished every player for more than 50 years by upholding the reserve clause (maintaining the unfair labor balance that at least partially spawned the ‘Black Sox’ scandal) and refusing to desegregate…read the history of the game, some of the biggest figures in baseball were neck-deep in gambling


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