Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned from baseball almost 100 years ago for his role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. There was a slight bit of hope that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred may end this ban and reinstate him (new commissioners are often asked to revisit cases such as these). However, earlier this week Manfred declined to do so and said that it “would not be appropriate for me to reopen this matter.” What many people may not know about Jackson is that he played for the Indians before his notorious stint with the White Sox in Chicago. He remains the last Indian to hit over .400 (which he did in 1911) and he still holds team single-season records for hits, average, and outfield assists from that 1911 season that still stand today, more than 100 years later. I wanted to talk a bit about his time in Cleveland, and whether or not Manfred made the right decision in terms of denying his reinstatement.
Jackson grew up in rural South Carolina, and was likely unable to read and write when he signed his first contract (which he did with an X so he didn’t have to write his name). He came to Cleveland in 1910 and broke into stardom during that 1911 season. Even though Jackson hit .408 in 1911, he still was unable to win the batting title; that went to Ty Cobb and his .420 average. In his first three seasons with the Indians (then still called the Naps), he never hit lower than .387. Jackson stayed in Cleveland despite the lure of the new Federal League in 1914 (which drew many major league players away from their parent teams) and despite the fact that he considered leaving baseball to act as a vaudeville performer. By 1915 the Indians were struggling, and had already sold star player Nap Lajoie off to Philadelphia. The team could really only afford to keep Ray Chapman or Jackson, and they decided to keep Chapman and trade Jackson to Chicago. (Chapman would tragically die after he was hit by a pitch during the 1920 season). Upon Jackson’s departure, the Plain Dealer accused him of not being a team player, and said that his selfishness led to his steady decline since his fabulous 1911 season.
How did such a talented player end up involved with the Black Sox scandal just a few years later? Another White Sox player, Chick Gandil, had connections to the gambling world and came up with the idea to throw the upcoming World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Gandil first offered Jackson $10,000 to take part in the scheme; Jackson declined. When the ante was upped to $20,000, Jackson agreed to participate. There are reports that Gandil told Jackson that the fix would happen with or without his participation, so he could’ve figured “hey, if it’s going to happen I might as well make some money.” Or he could’ve just liked money…it’s tough to say. The $20,000 sum was more than three times Jackson’s annual salary, and would be worth nearly $285,000 today.
Even though Jackson agreed to participate, he had a good series. He hit .375 overall, but did not have any RBI in the first five games of the series (then a best of nine games). Folks that argue Jackson’s innocence claim that the .375 conclusively proves that while he may have taken money, he didn’t end up going through with the plan to throw the series. Folks that argue his guilt point to suspicious moments in the series where he played very poorly, despite the overall high average total. Jackson only ended up receiving $5,000 for his role in throwing the series. He claimed that after the season he went to White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and planned to tell him about the scheme, and return the money. But he left the ballpark without speaking to Comiskey and ended up keeping the money. (Which he and his wife used to pay for his ill sister Gertrude’s hospital bills).
Why would these players want to partake in something like this? Gambling addiction? Sheer greed? To understand that, you have to understand a bit about the state of baseball in the 1910s. Gambling and organized crime steadily grew throughout the early twentieth century, and gamblers had a lot of connections and power. Couple that with the fact that players were bound to their teams via the reserve clause, and were often underpaid (or felt they were underpaid). In fact, it’s likely that the 1919 World Series wasn’t the only one thrown by players to benefit gamblers (there were almost definitely regular season games thrown throughout the years). There is patchy evidence that this may have happened at other points during the 1910s. Comiskey was known to be exceptionally cheap, and players were angry about this. In fact, after his career ended due to the scandal, Jackson actually sued Comiskey for back salary, claiming that he was ripped off because he could not read well enough to understand his contract.
Late in the 1920 season the accused were suspended and there was a high profile trial in 1921 that included all of the players supposedly involved in the plot – Jackson, pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams; infielders Buck Weaver, Arnold “Chick” Gandil, Fred McMullin, and Charles “Swede” Risberg; and outfielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch. All eight men ended up being acquitted by the jury trial, but all received lifetime bans from baseball from new commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Believe it or not, baseball had no commissioner prior to Landis; he took the role mainly to clean things up following the scandal. After Jackson was acquitted, there’s a legend that a little kid said “say it ain’t so, Joe” to him as he left the courthouse. Years later he said that it never happened and was made up by a reporter.
If you read the transcript of Jackson’s testimony before the grand jury, he doesn’t come across as a man that is completely innocent. He had no direct contact with the gamblers, but he seemed fully aware of what was about to take place and even felt that his teammates may have been shorting him on his share of the profits. Even if he didn’t personally follow through with an actual attempt to throw the series, at the very least he stayed silent about what was planned and made sure to get his cut. The other player whose full participation is in doubt is Buck Weaver, who supposedly attended a couple of the planning meetings, but refused involvement.
Jackson still played in semi-pro leagues after his ban from baseball, but his major league career was over. Thanks to his notorious involvement in the 1919 scandal, his great career is typically overshadowed. His days in Cleveland are almost forgotten, despite the fact that he put forth Hall of Fame-caliber numbers during his time with the team.