Baseball is for almost everyone. To excel you can be broad ( Babe Ruth), slight ( Willie Keeler), tall ( Frank Howard) or short ( Joe Morgan). About the only thing you can't be is crooked ( Shoeless Joe Jackson). Throwing games is a serious offense, especially in a sport that is played on a field and then endlessly replayed in American reveries. Life is hard enough without having your dreams messed with.
That was baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis's feeling in 1921, when he banned Jackson and seven of his Chicago White Sox teammates from the sport for allegedly participating in a plot to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. That also has been the feeling of the righteous folks who have kept Jackson from residence in baseball's palace of dreams, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, since its inception 50 years ago (page 88).
Excluding Jackson for all these years strikes me as no mean injustice. Short of blatant attempts to undermine the integrity of the game—and I include cheating in that category—good play, rather than good character, ought to be the sole criterion for induction into the Hall. That's why loutish Ty Cobb is there. Jackson meets the standard too.
In his 13 seasons with the Athletics, the Indians and the White Sox, Jackson hit .356 (only Cobb and Rogers Hornsby have higher lifetime averages), and he ran, threw and caught so well that Ruth used him as a model. Walter Johnson—not a man of rash pronouncements—said, "I consider Joe Jackson the greatest natural ballplayer I've ever seen." Next month Carl Yastrzemski and Johnny Bench will be inducted into the Hall, each in his first year of eligibility. Neither Yaz (.285 lifetime) nor Bench (.267) was in Jackson's league.
Jackson was tried for throwing the Series, and a Chicago jury acquitted him of all charges. However, Landis, in effect, overruled the court and banned Jackson, Buck Weaver and the rest. Baseball was then riddled with gambling, and Landis used this broad stroke to give the sport some credibility. Jackson was no villain; he was probably more an innocent victim or a scapegoat.
Actually, to this day nobody can quite agree on what he was. The prosecution was a complicated, ambiguous affair replete with coercion and distortion. Black Sox historians Eliot Asinof and John Lardner contend that Jackson was guilty, while Jackson's biographer, Donald Gropman, concludes that he wasn't. Jackson had a .375 average and no errors in the 1919 Series, and his 12 hits set a Series record that stood until 1964, 13 years after he died. In this country, when there is uncertainty, innocence is presumed, and in this instance there is reasonable doubt indeed.
Besides, if a jury of his peers acquitted Jackson, shouldn't Hall of Fame electors heed them rather than Landis? True, Jackson probably did accept an envelope with $5,000 in it. But his performance on the field suggests that his sense of decency prevailed. He always contended that he tried to give the money back and, when that failed, never spent it. If he did spend it and played hard anyway, maybe Jackson, an illiterate South Carolina farm boy, wasn't as stupid as everyone seemed to think. Until the day he died, Jackson fought to clear his name.
The most persuasive argument in his favor is the way in which Jackson's plight has captured the American imagination. Although we tend to romanticize scoundrels, from Jesse James to John Dillinger, baseball is generally immune to such nonsense. Some of the game's notables who were also notably unappealing characters—Hal Chase and Cobb, for example—have been regarded rather coolly by fans since their playing days, while heroes like Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig have become epic figures. So has Shoeless Joe.
It's no accident that in the past few years two movies, Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams; a play, Out!; and several books have told of how Jackson labored in the Carolina mills from age 13 until his supreme athletic skills took him to greener fields. Years after he was banished Jackson still received sympathetic mail. His story has been handed down through generations. Gropman came to love Jackson above all other players because Gropman's father loved Jackson, and the same is true of Ray in W.P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe. Baseball's most famous alleged criminal keeps emerging in these books, plays and films as a symbol of good.
And he was good, in both senses of the word. Jackson hit .382 in 1920, his last season, and we can only speculate what indignities he might have inflicted upon American League pitching during the ensuing decade of lively balls and inflated batting averages. But of this I am confident: Someday Jackson will be enshrined in Cooperstown. With that in mind, in this Hall of Fame anniversary year, I say to the custodians of baseball's honor roll, why wait?