Saturday, October 13, 2018

Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball

   Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball

           Harvey Frommer

On July 16, 1889, Joseph Jefferson Wofford Jackson was born into a poor family in Greenville, South Carolina. He never learned to read or write. By the time he was six years old, he worked as a cleanup boy in the cotton mills.
By age 13, he labored amidst the din and dust a dozen hours a day along with his father and brother. It was hard and back-breaking employment. Playing baseball on a grassy field was his way of escape. It was there where Joe’s natural ability stood out. Baseball was his game, and he loved it. The youth had such passion and skill that he was recruited to play for the mill team organized by the company.
One humid and hot summer day, Jackson was playing the outfield. His shoes pinched. He removed them and played in his stocking feet. An enterprising sportswriter gave him the nickname: "Shoeless Joe." Even though it was reported that was the only time Jackson ever played that way in a game—the “Shoeless” moniker stuck. He hated the name, feeling it cruelly referenced the fact that he could not read or write.
From the mill team, Jackson moved on to play with the Greenville, South Carolina Spinners. It was there in 1908 that a scout recommended him to Philadelphia Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack, who purchased his contract for $325.
         The youngster made his Major League Baseball debut on August 25, 1908. The more he played the more his potential impressed everyone. An article in the Evening Times noted: “He has justified early predictions of his abilities. With experience and the coaching of Manager Mack, he should turn out to be…the find of the season.” 

         Sadly, Jackson was unable to read what the Philadelphia newspaper wrote about him. He could not even read menus. In restaurants, he usually ordered what another player did. Sadly, he did not fit in with his teammates or the big city. Homesick, he jumped the team and took a train back home.
Mack sent Jackson down to a minor league team in Georgia in 1909, where he won the batting title. In 1910, Mack called him up to the big league team but decided that Jackson lacked the disposition to play in a big city like Philly. In one of the worst trades in baseball history, the 6'1'', 190-pound Jackson was shipped to Cleveland for a player named Bris Lord (Bristol Robotham Lord, nicknamed "The Human Eyeball") and $6,000.
Shoeless Joe fit in quite nicely in Cleveland, where he batted .408 in 1911. In mid-season of 1915, after compiling a .375 career batting average with the Ohio team, Jackson was traded for three players and $15,000 to the White Sox.
            It was in Chicago that Jackson made a point of wearing alligator and patent-leather shoes—the more expensive the better. It was as if he were announcing to the world, "I am not a Shoeless Joe. I do wear shoes. And they cost a lot of money!"
       With the White Sox, Jackson became one of baseball’s storied stars. His defensive play was at such a remarkable level that his glove was called "the place where triples go to die."
         On offense, he was one of the most feared hitters of his time. Babe Ruth copied his swing, claiming Jackson was the greatest hitter he ever saw.
Then along came 1919!

The 1919 Chicago White Sox were one of the greatest teams of their era. Paced by Jackson who batted .351, they won the American League pennant. They were 3-1 favorites to win the World Series as they prepared to face off against the Cincinnati Reds.
Prior to the series, betting odds started to shift to even money. The word on the street was that New York gambler Arnold Rothstein was behind the swing and that the series was fixed.
            Hearing the rumor, the 31-year-old Jackson asked Chicago manager Kid Gleason and owner Charles Comiskey to bench him. But they insisted he play. They would have been crazy to put down their best player.
During the series, Jackson hit the only home run. He posted the highest batting average. He committed no errors. He established a new World Series record with 12 hits. Nevertheless, the Reds won the Fall Classic.
Edd Rousch, who played for the Reds, insisted that charges that the series was fixed was nonsense. "We were just the better team," he said.
            "Maybe I'm a dope but everything seemed okay to me," said umpire Billy Evans, who worked the series. 
            But the rumor of a fix persisted as the 1920 season got underway. The White Sox were driving hard to their second straight pennant when a petty gambler in Philadelphia broke the news that a Cubs-Phillies game had been fixed in 1919.
That led to a gambling investigation—its focus the 1919 World Series. With only a couple of days left in the 1920 season, a Grand Jury was called to determine whether eight White Sox players should stand trial for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series. Jackson was one of the eight players.
            It took the jury a single ballot to acquit all eight accused players. Incredibly, the very next day, baseball's first commissioner—Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who came to power in the fall of 1920 with a lifetime contract and a mandate to clean up the game using whatever methods he saw fit—banned all eight players from baseball for life. The bigoted Landis was brought into organized baseball with a reputation of being a vindictive judge, a hanging judge.
He was all of that.

Was there a plan to throw the World Series in 1919? Was a plan carried out? If so, which games were dumped? What role did each banned player have? Why was there a total banning of the players?
            Buck Weaver was banned not for dumping but for allegedly having guilty knowledge that there was a plot. Fred McMullen was banned, though he came to bat twice and got one hit. And Joe Jackson was banned, although his performance exceeded his own standards.
Most importantly, the eight players were found not guilty in a court of law. Yet, they were found guilty by a brand new baseball commissioner.
At the trial, Joe Jackson was asked under oath:
"Did you do anything to throw those games?"
"No sir," was his response.
"Any game in the series?"
"Not a one," was Jackson’s response. "I didn't have an error or make no misplay."
With the banning from baseball for life of "Shoeless Joe" Jackson and the seven other White Sox players, it seemed the sport was saying: "Now we are clean. Now we have purged ourselves of the dishonest ways of the past in the national pastime." And if Jackson in the prime of his baseball career and the others were sacrificed, that was the way it had to be.
Shoeless Joe Jackson maintained that he had played all out in that World Series of 1919.  Nevertheless, Major League Baseball was done with Jackson and his seven teammates. It was a miscarriage of justice, a field day for slander on parade. Powerless players were punished, scapegoated.
            For a couple of decades, Jackson attempted to play the game that he loved, the game that he had learned so well back in the days of his youth. He made an effort to play with outlaw barnstormers, mill teams, semi-pro outfits. Aliases and disguises did him not much good; his unmistakable talent brought the spotlight to bear on him. Relentless, unforgiving, prejudiced Judge Landis, to keep Jackson from playing, threatened baseball team owners and league officials.
            In 1932, Jackson applied for permission to manage a minor league team in his home town of Greenville, South Carolina. Landis denied the application.
In 1951, Joseph Jefferson Jackson died of a massive heart attack a week before he was to appear on the Ed Sullivan television show. He was scheduled to receive a trophy honoring him for being inducted into the Cleveland Indians Baseball Hall of Fame.
It is an old story.
The roster of Hall of Famers includes personalities with much shabbier credentials and far more soiled reputations. Attempts to get Joe Jackson into the Baseball Hall of Fame failed during and after his lifetime. Yet, Jackson's shoes are at Cooperstown. Yet, his life-sized photograph is there. So is a baseball bat he used, along with the jersey he wore in the 1919 World Series. So is the last Major League Baseball contract he signed.
            Prominent attorneys like Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey have argued that Jackson should go into the Hall. There have been petitions, Congressional motions, letters sent to baseball Commissioners through the years—all to no avail.
Commissioner Bart Giammatti said:"I do not wish to play God with history. The Jackson case is best left to historical debate and analysis. I am not for reinstatement."
Commissioner Faye Vincent said, "I can't uncipher or decipher what took place back then. I have no intention of taking formal action."
Commissioner Bud Selig did not stand up for Joe Jackson even though he met with Ted Williams, who pushed for Jackson's admission to the Hall of Fame.
Four times Jackson batted over .370. His lifetime batting average was .356, topped only by Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. Ruth, Cobb, and Casey Stengel all placed him on their all time, All-Star team.
Joe Jackson was vilified through the decades by many who never knew or didn’t care to know the full story. His, however, is a story that just will not go away. 
Justice was not served when it came to Joseph Jefferson Jackson.


One of the most prolific and respected sports journalists and oral historians in the United States, author of the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan,  Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman, Dr. Harvey Frommer is an expert on the New York Yankees and has arguably written more books, articles and reviews on the New York Yankees than anyone. A professor for more than two decades in the MALS program at Dartmouth College, Frommer was dubbed “Dartmouth’s Mr. Baseball” by their alumni magazine. He’s also the founder of

Sunday, October 7, 2018

How Far the Game Has Come - Frommer

How Far the Game Has Come

With apologies to the great poet Robert Frost, the game was ours before we were the game’s. And the game goes on decade after decade and now into the 2018 baseball post-season it still continues as part of the fabric of American culture. Much, however, has changed in the national pastime as a look back shows.

      The Cincinnati Red Stockings began play in 1876 in the National League. To get to the ball game, fans had to ride on special trains or in carriages. Crowds of 3,000 were common and considered a good payday for the team. When the National  League came into being, the White Stockings played their home games in a rickety wooden park on Dearborn between 23rd and 24th streets on Chicago's West Side.
            During the 1880s and 1890s most parks were surrounded by wooden stands and a wooden fence. Some of the stands were partially protected by a roof, while others were simple wooden seats of sun bleached boards. That is how the word bleachers came to be. When those parks were filled to capacity, fans were permitted to stand around the infield or take up viewing perches in the far reaches of the outfield.
      John B. Day transferred the Troy National League franchise to New York in 1883; arrangements were made early on for games to be played on the polo field of James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald. For most of the 1880s, the team played its games on a field at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, across from Central Park's northeast corner. In 1897,a game between Boston and Baltimore drew more than 25,000 fans, the overflow crowd was permitted to stand just a few feet behind the infielders, creating a situation where any ball hit into the throng was ruled an automatic ground-rule double .
      In 1899, the Giants moved to New York City plot 2106, lot 100, located between 155th and 157th streets at Eighth Avenue in upper Manhattan. The location was called "the new Polo Grounds," a horseshoe-shaped stadium with Coogan's Bluff on one side, the Harlem River on the other. The Polo Grounds seated 55,897, the most of any facility in the National League. A four-story, misshapen structure with seats close to the playing field and overhanging stands, it was an odd ball park that afforded fans the opportunity to be close to the action. There were 4,600 bleacher seats, 2,730 field boxes, 1,084 upper boxes, 5,138 upper reserved boxes, and 2,318 general admission seats. The majority of those who came to the Polo Grounds sat in the remaining lower general admission seats.
        The visitors' bullpen was just a bench located in the boondocks of left center field. There was no shade from the sun for the visitors or protection from Giant fans who pelted opposing pitchers with pungent projectiles.  The upper left field deck hung over the lower deck; and it was virtually impossible for a     fly ball to get into the lower deck because of the projection of the upper deck.      
          The overhang triggered many arguments, for if a ball happened to graze the front of the overhang it was a home run. The double decks in right field were even. The short distances and the asymmetrical shape of the convoluted ball park resulted in drives rebounding off the right field and left field walls like billiard shots. And over the years hitters and fielders on the New York Giants familiar with the pool table walls of the ball park had a huge advantage over opposing teams.
      Fires and progress would make steel and concrete replace the wood and timber of the nineteenth century ball parks. The idiosyncratic dimensions of stadiums, the marching bands, even the real grass in many instances-all of these would ultimately become footnotes to baseball history.
     As late as 1900 some clubs even allowed fans to park their automobiles or carriages in the outfield. The environment at those games made it difficult for fans to follow the action clearly. Even though scorecards and programs were sold, no public address system existed, and there were no names or numbers on the players' uniforms.
     Players were sometimes pressed into service to double as ticket takers. And during breaks in the action on the field, the dull moments were enlivened by the festive performances of brass bands.
     The St. Louis National League entry was known as the Browns and then the Perfectos, an odd name for a club with a not so perfect track record. The team left the National League twice, then returned and finished twelfth twice, eleventh three times, tenth once, ninth once, and once in fifth place in the years 1892-99. To attract customers to Robinson Field, St. Louis owner Chris Von der Ahe transformed his ball park into what he called "the Coney Island of the West." He installed chute-the-chutes (tubs that plunged with their riders into a pool), night horseracing, a Wild West show.
      The popular tunes of the day were played by the Silver Cornet Band-an all-female aggregation  bedecked in long striped skirts and elegant blouses with leg-of-mutton sleeves and broad white sailor hats. 
        In 1899, Chris Von der Ahe changed the uniforms around in his zest for more color-the new garments featured red trim and red-striped stockings. The new uniforms brought new nicknames for the St. Louis team - Cardinals or Redbirds, they were called, and so they would remain, one the last vestiges of that long ago time.

The early environment of baseball games was that of a gentlemen's affair marked by the absence of spectators except for those invited by the teams. What spectators there were lolled about on the grass or sat on chairs or benches. The umpire was generally attired in tails and a tall black top hat, and in those early years he seated himself at a table along a baseline. Circa 1860, the general public became more and more involved as spectators, and winning replaced gentlemanly ways as baseball's operative factor.

One of the most prolific and respected sports journalists and oral historians in the United States, author of the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan, , Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman, Dr. Harvey Frommer is an expert on the New York Yankees and has arguably written more books, articles and reviews on the New York Yankees than anyone. A professor for more than two decades in the MALS program at Dartmouth College, Frommer was dubbed “Dartmouth’s Mr. Baseball” by their alumni magazine. He’s also the founder of