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"Shoeless" Joe Jackson

Shoeless Joe Jackson was one of the greatest hitters in baseball, on one of the best teams ever to play the game. But in 1920, he and other Chicago White Sox players were implicated in a plot to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. The scandal shocked the city and roiled the baseball world. Joe and his teammates were banned from the sport forever. Follow along and take the role of historian and detective with the Chicago History Museum. View original artifacts from Shoeless Joe’s time and see the history of the game, the scandal, and its aftermath through his eyes.

Chapter 1 - Growin’ up with Baseball

I know what everyone has said about me for years. This is the chance to tell my story.

I was born in the up country of South Carolina on a hot July day in 1888, maybe ‘89. With farm work dryin’ up, my pa moved us to Brandon Mill, just outside Greenville. He worked long and hard in the cotton mills there, operating machines. I worked ‘em too, starting when I was a tyke of 5 or 6. I got paid about 50 cents a day if you can imagine that. I never went to school—most boys didn’t—so I never really learned to read or write. By the time I was about eighteen, earning the adult wage of a dollar a day, the whole Jackson litter numbered eight children.

Three girls standing near sewing machines in a Chicago sweatshop.

Three girls standing near sewing machines in a Chicago sweatshop. Children often worked in textiles before the passage of child labor laws (DN-0001246)

Textile Mill Leagues

As I understand, baseball started in the big cities up north, but it spread into the cotton country down south after the Civil War. The other boys and gents’ working in the South Carolina textile mills loved to play ball on Saturdays. The mill owners kept up the team and a league between ‘em and the other mill teams around there. When I was thirteen I started playing ball for the Brandon Mill gang. They said I was tall, and I had long arms, so I could throw the ball harder.

The boys and I had no money or time to spend on anything else, so those games were everything to us. Not many rules then, so those were some swell, rowdy games! Folks now tend to forget that back then gambling went with baseball like bees ‘n honey.

Minor League

Mr. Tim Stouch was a manager for the Spinners, a little ball team out of Greenville, South Carolina. When I was about twenty, he asked me how much I got paid playn’ ball for the textile mill teams, and I told him I got, all totaled, about $45 a month. If I left my whiskey alone, he said, he’d pay me $75 a month. That number sounded good to a mill boy’s ears, so I become a Spinner.

Eliot Asinof's notes on an article about Shoeless Joe's early career.

Eight Men Out author Eliot Asinof’s notes on an article about Shoeless Joe’s early career, c.1960 (ICHi-67466)

One game around that time, maybe 1907 or ‘08, playing the minors in South Carolina, I was trying on some new cleats. They hurt like hell and gave me big blisters, so I took ‘em off late in the game. I stepped up to the plate in my stocking feet and hit a blue darter way out there. As I rounded third, some guy on the other bench shouted “You shoeless son-of-a-bitch!” Some newspaper fellas caught on, and I became “Shoeless” Joe from then out. I never really liked the name—people started thinkin’ I always played with no shoes.

Jump to Majors

Folks started to notice me in 1908. I got hitched to Katie (she’s helping me type this just now), and I was making a name for myself all over South Carolina as a helluva mean hitter. Rooters would yell, “Give ‘em Black Betsey!” referring to my favorite bat. All my bats had names. That was the same year this guy in the picture, Mr. Connie Mack at the Philadelphia A’s, signed me up to my first professional team.

Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack, Comiskey Park, 1913.

Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack, Comiskey Park, 1913 (SDN-058624)

I was a southern boy all my life, and the idea of bein’ alone up north in bustling Philly scared me stiff. But all the teams and the baseball money was up in the big cities. Sometimes, I’d get lonely, missing Katie, and catch a train back to Greenville, South Carolina when no-one was looking. They couldn’t allow that of course, so they always sweet talked me into coming back.

Eliot Asinof’s notes on an article about Shoeless Joe going back to Greenville, SC.

Eight Men Out author Eliot Asinof’s notes on an article about Shoeless Joe going back to Greenville, SC, c. 1960 (ICHi-67467)

1909 was a rough season for me. Those old, college-educated, Yankee guys in the majors had a hoot belittlin’ and insultin’ me on account of the fact I couldn’t read. I didn’t play so hot neither, ‘cause I didn’t have my familiar southern surroundings, and I hit a puny .176 average that year. Mr. Connie Mack, I think, figured I wasn’t right for the big time yet and sent me down to the minors.

Shoeless Joe with the Savannah, GA team of the South Atlantic League, 1909.

Shoeless Joe (middle row, second from right) with the Savannah, GA team of the South Atlantic League, 1909 (ICHi-67450) 

Cleveland

After I spent some easy time playing the minors in Savannah, Georgia, and then a hot season in New Orleans where I soaked in the vaudeville shows, I went to play for the Cleveland Naps in 1910. Here I am holdin’ my famous bat in a Cleveland uni’.

Shoeless Joe as a Cleveland Nap.

Shoeless Joe as a Cleveland Nap, Comiskey Park, 1911 (SDN-056586)

Shoeless Joe as a Cleveland Nap.

Shoeless Joe (Bottom Left) as a member of the Cleveland Naps (ICHi-67456)

Playing minors in the south had got me swingin’ hot again. While I was a Nap, I fought neck ‘n neck every year with Ty Cobb, that Georgian gentleman at the Detroit Tigers, for the batting average title. That was a tough contest in those days, and Ty won it year-after-year. In the 1911 season, I slugged a big .408.

Ty Cobb and former White Sox manager Kid Gleason at Comiskey Park.

Detroit Tigers Ty Cobb and former White Sox manager Kid Gleason at Comiskey Park, 1926 (SDN-062596)

Ty Cobb felt blanket, ca. 1915.

Ty Cobb felt blanket, ca. 1915 (ICHi-67443)

Federal League

In 1913, I remember, the Federal League got its start, and it was gunnin’ for the best ball players in the National and American Leagues. See, the older baseball Leagues had these “reserve clauses” and “ten’s days clauses” and other lawyer’s nonsense in players’ contracts, which I recall was good for the owners but bad for us players. Some of us threatened to leave for the Feds unless we were paid better. I entertained some of their offers, but Katie kept persuading me I was better off with the Naps in Cleveland. I always figured she knew what’s best.

The Whales were Chicago’s own Federal ball club, and they played up in Weeghman Park. They later named that one Wrigley Field, as you keen Chicago rooters mighta’ guessed.

Chicago Federals pennant, 1914.

Chicago Federals pennant, 1914 (Ichi-67619)

Chicago Whales riding in a parade.

Chicago Whales riding in a parade (SDN-060138)

Fans outside Federal Park.

Fans outside Federal Park (Weeghman Park later Wrigley Field), c.1914 (DN-0059404)

Move to the White Sox

I played my heart out in Cleveland, and I became a big star. I made plenty of dough, dressed nice, and got caught up in the night life. Little wide-eyed Cleveland kids started followin’ me to practice—sometimes I’d let ‘em carry my bats and gloves. But by 1915, the whole team was in a damn losing slump, and I’d been injured in an automobile accident that nearly ended my ball playin’ career. Mr. Somers and Cleveland couldn’t afford to keep me, so I got traded to Mr. Charles Comiskey’s White Sox—I had eyes for that sweet World Series money in Chi.

Chicago White Sox players and owner Comiskey sitting in front of a ballpark bleachers.

Chicago White Sox players and owner Comiskey sitting in front of a ballpark bleachers (SDN-000944)

Fans outside Comiskey Park, 1916.

Fans outside Comiskey Park, 1916 (SDN-060615)