Shoeless Joe’s Dry Cleaning: The Black Sox Scandal
If you were charged with putting together the roster for the All-Time All-Stars of the Chicago White Sox, a team comprised of stars at each position from throughout Sox history, there are some tough calls you’d have to make. Do you take Luke Appling or Luis Aparicio at short? Is Robin Ventura all-time third base material? Does Bobby Thigpen close, or do we hand the ball to Bobby Jenks? There are a few no-brainers. Frank Thomas at first. Harold Baines at DH. Carlton Fisk catches. Noticing a hole here? The outfield. Chet Lemon deserves mention if just for how cool his afro looked squishing out the sides of his cap. After that we have… Minnie Minoso and Magglio Ordonez? Oh, and Joe Jackson.
Wait — Joe who?
“Shoeless” Joe Jackson, arguably the greatest player in Sox history (it’s got to be him or Thomas), and the only sure thing in the underwhelming outfield history of the South Siders. The man whose swing Babe Ruth admitted to trying to duplicate. The man who still holds the third highest career batting average in major league history (.356). The man who “The Sporting News” nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. The man who should be in the Hall of Fame. Problem is, he’s been banned from baseball.
Jackson began his career with the White Sox in 1915, when he was traded from Cleveland for Braggo Roth, Ed Klepfer, Larry Chappel and roughly $32,000 in cash. He starred in left field, playing smart defense and never hitting below .300 for a season. Shoeless helped the Sox win the World Series in 1917, but missed the opportunity to defend that title the following year because of the First World War.
In 1919 the Sox lineup was bolstered by the return of their best players, including Jackson, and the team went on to win the American League pennant. While the fans were excited (the Sox were a 5-1 favorite to win the series against the Reds), the players were less than thrilled with team owner Charles Comiskey. Notoriously cheap, Comiskey had promised the players a bonus for winning the pennant, but in the end all they would receive was a case of champagne. While owners had cut player salaries in 1918 due to an attendance drop coinciding with World War I, Comiskey refused to bring salaries back up despite the fact that Chicago’s attendance had actually risen. He even charged the team to launder their jerseys, which prompted the team to boycott the service, earning them the nickname “Black Sox” for their often-filthy uniforms.
Heading into the 1919 World Series there were rumors everywhere that the White Sox were planning a fix, earning money from gamblers that they felt, given the circumstances and their performance, was owed to them. Comiskey posted ads in newspapers across the country offering a $20,000 reward for information on the fix, but took no action, and paid no reward upon receiving a letter from Jackson himself. Jackson went so far as to approach Comiskey before the series, asking to be benched so that he wouldn’t be involved in throwing the games, but his requests were ignored.
When Jackson was initially offered $10,000 to help throw the series he declined, but eventually relented when the offer was doubled and presented to him several more times. The player in charge of orchestrating the fix, first baseman Chick Gandil, served as the communications man between the team and New York gangster Arnold Rothstein. The players were promised $20,000 each, but were quickly double-crossed. After losing 4 of the first 5 games (in a 9 game series) and receiving either partial payment or no payment at all, the team decided to go out and attempt to win the series. The Sox came back to win games 6 and 7 in Cincinnati. After game 7, pitcher Lefty Williams was approached by a member of the Chicago mob and told that if the Sox won game 8, in which Lefty was starting, his wife would be in danger. Lefty went out in the next game, threw nothing but fastballs, and gave up 4 runs in the first before being replaced. The Sox went on to lose that game 10-5, despite a 4-run ninth and a homerun from Jackson.
Jackson, despite taking an initial $5,000 after the Game 4 loss (Gandril reportedly tossed the money on Joe’s bed after he refused to take it), was the best player on the field for either side. He hit .375 with 12 base hits and had the only home-run of the series as well as zero errors in the field. After the series ended Jackson took his $5,000 dollars to Comiskey’s office, hoping to talk to the owner about what had occurred. After waiting for two hours he was told to take his money and go home by the team’s secretary.
Although the players were acquitted in a trial the following year, Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis issued lifetime bans for eight Sox players, including Jackson. Though he had confessed to taking the $5,000 dollars during his grand jury testimony, Jackson soon recanted his confession and insisted that he was innocent until his death in 1951. The fact that the other players defended him, admitting that he had never been to any of the fix-related meetings and that he had asked to be benched and resisted payment fell on deaf ears.
In 1998 baseball Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams petitioned on behalf of Shoeless Joe to Commissioner Bud Selig, hoping to see Jackson reinstated and subsequently enshrined in Cooperstown. In 2000 Senators Strom Thurmond, Trent Lott and Tom Harkin also petitioned Selig, who has yet to make a final ruling.
In 13 Major League seasons, all played in the “dead-ball” era (before the emergence of power hitters), Jackson had a career average of .356 with 1,172 hits and 202 stolen bases and a .962 fielding percentage.
In what might be the ultimate metaphor for how Jackson felt about his involvement in the “Black Sox Scandal,” after his MLB-career ended he continued to play semi-pro ball while operating a dry cleaning business in Savanna, Georgia.
Jackson stands as the greatest outfielder in White Sox history, and one of its most intriguing characters. It’d be great to one day see his jersey hanging in Cooperstown next to Big Frank’s, preferably crisp and clean.