|Book Review: Shoeless Joe Jackson and Ragtime Baseball|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on March 14, 2003
By Harvey Frommer
Taylor Publishing Co.
No surprise what this book is about. Shoeless Joe Jackson is a legend of mythical proportions. Called by many including Cobb, Williams and Ruth the greatest natural hitter of all time, Jackson was thrown out of baseball as one of the Chicago Black Sox involved in the 1919 World Series fix.
Perhaps he is best remembered today as the player who was first to the field in the movie “Field of Dreams”, adapted from W.P. Kinsella’s book “Shoeless Joe” (very soon to be reviewed on these pages - I’ve actually finished it, just haven’t gotten to the review). He is also a central figure in many other works of fiction and/or fact including “The Natural”, “Eight Men Out” and many others.
Those works tend to portray Joe as a sympathetic character who was the dupe of teammates and gamblers. Perhaps he was, and most of us who’ve read about the character of “Shoeless Joe” feel that Jackson got a raw deal. It’s likely he was a dupe, and the statistics that Jackson put up in the series that year belie any accusation that he was trying to throw the series.
“Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball” is about Joe Jackson and the Black Sox, but mostly it’s about Jackson. It follows his career from childhood to the end of his life. It also chronicles the events going on about those times and how they affected baseball. Important in this work is the understanding one gets of White Sox owner Charles Comisky, American League President Ban Johnson, and the first commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
It was also important to understand the role of gamblers and gambling in and on Major League baseball. Baseball at that time was rife with corruption and many games were thrown. Even many players now enshrined in Cooperstown were involved. Some of them were caught with incontrovertible evidence, yet very few were really punished (In fact in Major League history only 36 men have been banished from the game, 28 for gambling).
The eight White Sox who were involved and later called Black Sox were uneducated men who were manipulated into testifying. There was little, if any, legal basis for their expulsion from the game. In a modern courtroom, the case would never have been heard. Even then, in a crooked and corrupt Chicago where influence peddling was common, the ballplayers were not convicted of wrongdoing. Nor were any of the gamblers who arranged the fix.
Were the games thrown? Yes, I think there is little doubt of that. Was there a conspiracy to lose the series? Yes, without question. Upon looking at the trial and reading the transcripts, there was plenty of evidence, although much of it illegally obtained. It shows that the fix happened and that Jackson knew of it.
The author is sympathetic to Jackson and there is a good deal of evidence that suggests Jackson actually took no part in the plan. Still his name was used, and he did get a payment, which he may or may not have used to try to expose the fix by taking it to Charles Comisky (who is rumored to be involved). According to Jackson he was rebuffed by Harry Grabiner (who was a GM in all but name), who blocked him from talking to Comisky and told him “Go home, Joe. We know what you want.” Even after Jackson showed him the money and explained, Grabiner allegedly told him to keep the money and go home to Savannah.
If that were true, then Jackson was either a hero trying to bring evidence to light or a conspirator with a guilty conscience. In either case, his grand jury testimony (included in its entirety in the book) clearly indicates that he knew of the conspiracy before and during the series. That “guilty knowledge” was enough for Judge Landis to ban Jackson for life, as well as another player, Joe Gedeon (a second baseman for the St. Louis Browns) who was at the meetings and knew of the fix, but never played in the game.
In this light the Jackson ban was responsible, though Joe may have been little more than an ignorant dupe who didn’t understand what was really happening. That is called into question because Joe was later a successful businessman (although he was illiterate and could barely write his name). Whether justice was truly carried out is questionable. In the 80+ years since the ban, his fans have tried to get him reinstated, and the South Carolina legislature has passed a number of resolutions to try to get baseball to rehear the case. The commissioners of baseball have refused to reconsider.
As far as “Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball” goes, give it 2.5 balls and make it required reading about the dark days of baseball.
****Want to know more about the Black Sox Scandal? At Home Plate will be publishing articles about it in the upcoming months - keep an eye out for them****
Our Rating System is based on a four ball system as follows:
One Ball: Average. It has something to say but is nothing special.
Two Balls: Something men usually have - also means its a cut above average, and worth reading/owning.
Three balls: Stands out from its peers and is highly recommended.
Four Balls: More than just what two men have when hanging out together, it means it is an exceptional book that truly earns a walk - straight to the local book store to get a copy.