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Rob Neyer



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SportsCenter Flashback looks back at the Black Sox ban.
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Monday, July 30
Updated: August 2, 10:18 AM ET
Say it ain't so ... for Joe and the Hall
By Rob Neyer
Special to ESPN.com

In 1919, a significant number of Chicago White Sox agreed to lose the World Series, in exchange for large sums of money to be paid by gamblers. Among the conspirators were Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, the club's top two starting pitchers. Cicotte lost both games that he wanted to lose (and won the game that he wanted to win), and collected $10,000 for his efforts. Williams lost all three games that he started, and was rewarded with $5,000 (nearly twice his regular-season salary).

'Shoeless' Joe Jackson
Shoeless Joe Jackson, a lifetime .356 hitter, was banned from baseball 80 years ago for his role in the "Black Sox" scandal.
Prior to the Series, Joe Jackson was promised $20,000 for his participation; he eventually was paid only $5,000 -- still a significant amount of money, nearly equivalent to his annual salary -- which he accepted and spent. Four other players -- Chick Gandil, Happy Felsch, Swede Risberg, and Fred McMullin -- also received $5,000 or more from gamblers. Third baseman Buck Weaver knew about the fix, but refused to take any money and by all accounts played his best throughout the World Series.

Just short of a year later, a grand jury in Chicago began to look into the rumors surrounding the 1919 World Series. And on September 28, Cicotte confessed his part in the conspiracy. Later that day, Jackson did the same. And that afternoon, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey suspended all seven conspirators for the rest of the season (Gandil was no longer with the team).

And of course, eventually Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's new commissioner, permanently suspended all eight of the so-called "Black Sox" from organized baseball. However, none of them were officially ineligible for Baseball's Hall of Fame. It wasn't until 1991, in response to the Pete Rose "situation," that the Hall ruled that players on baseball's ineligible list would not be considered for election. And so finally, after 70 years, the Hall of Fame's doors were officially barred to Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Ten years later, and 80 years after Jackson was initially banished from baseball, we're still talking about him, and politicians are still wasting their time with resolutions advocating Jackson's reinstatement.

Joe Jackson's apologists -- with due respect, I won't call them "cultists" -- raise three points in his defense:

Black Sox ban
  • Asinof: The Black Sox scandal is forever
  • Rovell: Shoeless Joe still a hit with collectors
  • Baseball's gambling scandals
  • 1. A jury acquitted the Black Sox of all charges in a court of law.

    2. Yes, Jackson took the money. But he still played his best, and hit .375!

    3. It all happened 80 years ago, and Shoeless Joe's been dead for nearly 50 years. Hasn't he suffered long enough?

    Let's take those one at time ...

    "A jury acquitted the Black Sox of all charges in a court of law."

    The court verdict is absolutely irrelevant, and for four reasons:

    1. Eddie Cicotte's, Lefty Williams' and Joe Jackson's written confessions were stolen from the District Attorney's office. These confessions mysteriously reappeared in 1924.

    2. The jury did not acquit the Black Sox of throwing games. There was no law against such a thing, and the judge specifically instructed the jury that throwing ballgames was not, in itself, a criminal offense.

    3. The jury's verdict has no bearing on the issue. In the estimation of Major League Baseball, all eight of the Black Sox either conspired to throw the World Series, or at least had knowledge of the conspiracy. Nearly all evidence that's come to light since then supports that notion.

    4. Jackson testified under oath that he'd agreed to throw the Series:

    Q: How much did [Chick Gandil] promise you?

    A: Twenty thousand dollars if I would take part.

    Q: And you said you would?

    A: Yes sir.

    Jackson signed a confession, and also told various writers of his involvement. There simply isn't any real doubt that he both knew about the fix and accepted a great deal of money from the fixers.

    "Yes, he took the money. But he still played his best, and hit .375!"

    Or as Kevin Costner says in "Field of Dreams," "Now, he did take their money, but nobody could ever prove he did a single thing to lose those games. I mean, if he's supposed to be throwing it, how do you explain the fact that he hit .375 for the Series and didn't commit one error?"

    There is one, and only one, sympathetic figure in this whole sordid affair. Third baseman Buck Weaver knew about the conspirators' plans and failed to report them, but he wanted nothing to do with them. In the five games the White Sox threw, Weaver batted .333, and he's the only one of the eight Black Sox who never took a dime.

    Let us assume for a moment that Jackson really did try his best. Even if that were true, he would still be culpable in two respects. One, he had guilty knowledge. And two, when he agreed to throw the Series, he almost certainly emboldened his teammates to do the same. After all, if you're going to plan such a crime, who do you need? The starting pitchers, and the best players. And Joe Jackson was the best player on the team. Without Jackson's participation, the fix might never have come off at all.

    But the evidence suggests that Jackson did not try his best. The White Sox and Reds played eight games in the 1919 World Series. The evidence suggests that the conspirators tried to win three games, and they tried to lose five. Jackson hit .545 in the three games he wanted to win.

    In the first four games the conspirators wanted to lose, Jackson hit .250 with zero RBI. In the fifth fixed game, Jackson was hitless until the Reds were ahead 5-0, at which point he hit a solo home run. Later, with the Sox trailing the Reds 10-1, Jackson hit a meaningless two-run double.

    In the field, Jackson's play was questionable, too. Triples are rarely hit to left field ... yet in the 1919 World Series, three of Cincinnati's nine triples were hit to left field, where Jackson was stationed. And there were other things, too. White Sox pitcher Dickie Kerr, who won twice in the Series, later commented, "Our outfielders fielded base hits slow, allowing the Reds to take extra bases. And, there were times when the fielders played the Reds just opposite of what they were supposed to do. In that way they left gaps for the ball to fall safely."

    "It all happened 80 years ago, and Shoeless Joe's been dead for nearly 50 years. Hasn't he suffered long enough?"

    Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, and perhaps we should forgive Jackson. But forgiving a man and putting him in the Hall of Fame are completely different things.

    There's a fundamental question here: Who are we doing this for?

    Are we doing it for Joe Jackson? There are two possibilities when it comes to the current whereabouts of Shoeless Joe. He's either non-existent, a dry skeleton in the ground, or he's floating around the universe, enjoying the freedom that comes with being a bundle of spiritual energy. Either way, he probably doesn't care a whole lot about having his plaque hanging in a small town in upstate New York.

    Are we doing it for Joe Jackson's family? I don't believe that Major League Baseball or the Hall of Fame should be in the business of placating relatives of long-dead ballplayers.

    So who benefits if Joe Jackson goes into the Hall of Fame? Apparently, it is two select groups.

    The first includes a few elderly ballplayers with too much time on their hands and not enough autographs to sign. Finally, they have a project! Ted Williams and Bob Feller may not be long for this world, but this gives them one last accomplishment, one last great achievement that will land them in the headlines.

    In 1966, Williams used his Hall of Fame induction speech as a platform to promote the long-overdue election of Negro League players. But that was 33 years ago, and Williams has apparently run out of worthy causes.

    The second group includes the millions of men and women who get weepy when they watch "Field of Dreams." For the most part, these people haven't read enough to know what really happened in 1919. They just know that Shoeless Joe hit .356, and they know he seemed like a stand-up guy in the movie.

    And who loses? Anyone who respects the integrity of the game. The Hall of Fame is the highest distinction baseball can offer. One might even argue that it's the highest honor in all of sports. Does it make sense to confer this highest honor upon a man who committed a terrible crime against the very essence of sport?

    Joe Jackson agreed to throw the World Series, and he received $5,000 for doing so. The evidence that he actually did throw the Series is slightly less than conclusive, but in a way that's irrelevant. He certainly knew what was going on, and he probably helped. And that's all we need to know. Shoeless Joe's not a god, nor even a ghost. He was a man who happened to play baseball exceptionally well. Frankly, he doesn't deserve all this adulation, and if he were still with us he probably wouldn't understand it. As David Fleitz writes in his fine book, "Shoeless: The Life and Times of Joe Jackson":

    Joseph Jackson died in 1951 but lives on as Shoeless Joe, more a myth than a man, a ghostly figure walking out of a cornfield wanting nothing more than to play the game he loved. The real Joe Jackson, the South Carolina mill hand and small-town businessman, would smile and shake his head at the legend that surrounds Shoeless Joe today. Strangers leaving flowers at his grave, paying tens of thousands of dollars for his autograph, writing emotional letters to the commissioner of baseball. For what, really? Joe Jackson played baseball, that's all. Played the game, made some money, got into a little scrape up north, and came back home to South Carolina. That's all.

    Hey, I'm as sentimental as the next guy. I cry when I watch "The Natural," and I think Iowa really is something like heaven. But Joe Jackson and his cohorts committed a truly evil crime, compromising the integrity of their profession and violating the trust of their fans. Should the day come when Shoeless Joe is inducted into the Hall of Fame, it will be a sad day indeed.

    Rob Neyer is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com. His column runs Monday through Thursday. You can e-mail Rob at rob.neyer@dig.com.