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Was Shoeless Joe innocent after all?

Sep 8, 2009, 8:20 AM EDT

My recent posts about Pete Rose led a lot of you to bring up Joe Jackson, either (a) in support of keeping Rose banned (“Rose shouldn’t be let in as long as Shoeless Joe is banned!”) or (b) as a second guy, in addition to Rose, who should be let in (“the Hall of fame is worthless without Shoeless Joe and Rose!”).

I’ll admit that, like most folks, I’ve been unimpressed by calls to reinstate Jackson, simply because the evidence himself seemed damning.  That evidence, however, has come almost exclusively from Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book, “Eight Men Out,” and the subsequent John Sayles movie of the same name, each of which places Jackson squarely within the conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series. Now, however, comes an article which levels a pretty hefty barrage at Asinof’s research, and suggests that we’re very wrong to rely so much on “Eight Men Out” for our information:

There is nothing new in Asinof’s notes and research of the writing
of “8MO” that can directly implicate Jackson or any other player in
contributing to the White Sox loss of the 1919 World Series.

The primary support for Asinof’s claim that they deliberately threw
games is in contemporaneous press accounts of the grand jury
proceedings, which were based on second- or third-hand, and, in some
cases, clearly false information.

Asinof, who writes in great detail about the gambler-fixers, may
have, himself, been playing the ultimate bluff. He did not release his
research during his lifetime and also suggested in “8MO” that his story
was based upon exclusive, never-before-seen evidence.

In reality, the lack of any solid, direct evidence in his notes, as
well as the lack of a single footnote in “8MO,” strongly suggests that
his story was largely fiction.

Most troubling in my mind was the fact that a key character in the book and movie was almost certainly fictional.  This could be defensible given Asinof’s desire to make “Eight Men Out” a narrative piece rather than straight-up history (i.e. the character could be based on a real person who was alive at the time of his writing and who could have caused some trouble for him).  That, however, combined with some of the other research deficiencies in the article gives me more than a little pause.

I do think the authors of the article overstate their case, however, in exonerating Jackson.  This piece, while certainly representing an excellent start to an effective cross-examination of the previous indictment of Shoeless Joe, does not make an affirmative case for Jackson’s innocence.  Sure, everybody’s  innocent until proven guilty and all of that, but this is history now, not a criminal trial, and we’re entitled to total information if at all possible.  It’s one thing to take down one guy’s research, but I’d rather see some competing scholarship on the matter, as opposed to just criticisms of existing work, before I come to rest on the matter.  More importantly, I think Major League Baseball would too.

But this piece is certainly a good place to start, and it’ll prompt anyone interested in the subject to want to read more.

  1. August Morris - Sep 8, 2009 at 9:29 AM

    Shoeless Joe has served his lifetime ban. He should be brought into the hall-of-fame immediately. Pete Rose is entitled to the same treatment. Bring him into the Hall after his death.

  2. Craig Calcaterra - Sep 8, 2009 at 9:38 AM

    Point of clarification, August, but I think the actual terminology is “permanent ban” not “lifetime ban.” I’m not saying Joe’s case shouldn’t maybe be rexamined, but given the way the ban is constructed, an automatic reinstatement is not a given.

  3. jeff - Sep 8, 2009 at 9:57 AM

    While there may be evidence to support they were guilty of taking money or gambling as the cases may be, they were never actually guilty of throwing games – Joe and Pete both gave 110% on the field – let them in already!

  4. David C - Sep 8, 2009 at 10:23 AM

    Why would Landis ban some of the best players in the game for nothing? Was that fiction too?

  5. The Common Man - Sep 8, 2009 at 10:26 AM

    Point of fact, Jeff, that’s exactly what Jackson is considered to have done. While the case on Jackson is far from airtight, play-by-play analysis of the series has (if I remember correctly) suggested that Jackson padded his numbers in games that were already decided and perhaps was not as enthusiastic in the field as he had been in the past. I’d like to see a lot more scholarship on this as well, regardless of what the outcome is for Joe, since the subject itself is inherently interesting.

  6. planktonDisciple - Sep 8, 2009 at 11:19 AM

    I think Joe’s ban should stand. His on the field play does not indicate he helped throw anything, and he was illiterate, whatever that indicates.
    It appears to be that he was aware of what was happening and and did not report it to his manager, or anyone else who worked for his team or the league. That makes him a co-conspirator regardless.
    Joe’s situation is different from Rose, in that Landis’ decision set a new precedent. That precedent had been in place 60 years when Rose was banned. Everyone knew and expected the consequnces, especially Rose who walked past the sign on the clubhouse door thousands of times.
    I do not want Rose reinstated for this reason. Joe’s case set the precedent, there was no such rule on the books at the time.
    I don’t want Bonds or Clemens to be a member. If you go to the HOF you will see many displays in honor of Rose. In that sense he is in the HOF. He is excluded from membership and a plaque. His career accomplishments are honored.

  7. DIRK - Sep 8, 2009 at 12:09 PM

    WASN’T ALL EXPLAINED IN FIELD OF DREAMS??????

  8. Frank Azevedo - Sep 8, 2009 at 1:22 PM

    The evidence himself? Indeed, Shoeless Joe could have probably written it better himself! Or as you might write, “Hiself.”

  9. Baseball Mike - Sep 8, 2009 at 2:22 PM

    Pete Rose did not bet on his team to lose. There are others (Tris
    Speaker & Ty Cobb) in the HOF who had gambling accusations during
    their career, but were voted into the HOF. Joe Jackson and the rest
    were all found NOT GUILTY in a court of law. In Shoeless Joe’s case, I feel that Charles Comiskey (team owner) is more to blame for the 1919 debacle than anyone else. He was a ruthless and frugal
    tyrant over his players, most all of whom detested him. Eddie Collins is the exception, in this case. I feel that both Shoeless
    Joe and Pete belong in the HOF. It is not a morals HOF it is a baseball HOF. Even Ted Williams said that Joe Jackson belongs in the HOF. Ted knew his baseball and the history of baseball. Pete
    Rose NEVER bet on his team to lose or threw a game. Let him in the HOF where he belongs.

  10. Big Chuck - Sep 8, 2009 at 2:32 PM

    I think the big issue here concerning Pete Rose entrance in the HOF should be his accomplishments as a player, not as a manager. If I remember correctly, he’s only been guilty of betting on the Reds while team manager. I could be wrong about this, but if correct, his accomplishments as a player have earned him the right to be admitted int the HOF. There could always be some asterisk or something pointing out what he did as a manager, but that’s not why he would be voted in or not
    Just my nickels worth

  11. HOTROD - Sep 8, 2009 at 2:59 PM

    LOCK THE DOORS AND TURN OFF THE LIGHTS ON YOUR WAY OUT, THIS IS GETTING OLD AND TIRED.AS IF THE HALL OF FAME IS SOME HOLIER THAN THOU MUSEUM.GO ASK THE OLD TIMERS WHAT THEY DID TO THE BALL, EVERYONE IN SPORT IS GUILTY OF SOMETHING.

  12. HOTROD - Sep 8, 2009 at 3:01 PM

    LOCK THE DOORS AND TURN OFF THE LIGHTS ON YOUR WAY OUT, THIS IS GETTING OLD AND TIRED.AS IF THE HALL OF FAME IS SOME HOLIER THAN THOU MUSEUM.GO ASK THE OLD TIMERS WHAT THEY DID TO THE BALL, EVERYONE IN SPORT IS GUILTY OF SOMETHING.

  13. Michael M - Sep 8, 2009 at 3:49 PM

    For the love of the game, its time to put Pete Rose in the HOF. To this day not one person questions Pete’s play and stats surely deserving!
    As for Joe jackson, he is a major part of the history of the game, and so many have done worse!
    In or out, SJJ is one of the top 10 players ever!

  14. steve - Sep 8, 2009 at 5:25 PM

    I thought 8mo presented Jacksokn’s role in a sympathetic perspective. He posted eye-popping stats with bat and glove for the series. It I remember correctly, he didn’t accept money. His crime was not wanting to talk about it or rat out his teammates. This was an illiterate, unsophisticated man who didn’t have much grasp of consequences in the public eye. Landis probably knew Jackson was ethically innocent, yet wanted to make an example for the long term stability of baseball as a sport and business. Note, in the Babe Ruth bio, “The house that Ruth built,” (great read) guess who Ruth studied and imitated when he was a young hitter?

  15. Robert - Sep 8, 2009 at 6:23 PM

    I think I lost confidence in what you wrote when you stated “I’ll admit that, like most folks, I’ve been unimpressed by calls to reinstate Jackson, simply because the evidence himself seemed damning.” I am not ascertained that most folks do so feel.
    Most folks don’t know what the actual evidence truly was, some like myself may feel sympathy and empathy towards Jackson because of disenchantment with steroid users and do to films such as “Field Of Dreams.”
    I am a life long fan of baseball, or at least the 47 years since I reached the age of nine. If solid evidence was discused in your article, it would be easier to form an opinion. Opinions vary greatly on current players, on players just retired, much less someone involved with, or not involved with the 1919 World Series.
    More facts, and elss generalizations would have helped.

  16. Terry - Sep 9, 2009 at 2:34 PM

    The only real argument against Joe is that he knew about it, and therefore was a conspirator, but there’s plenty of evidence that Comiskey knew also, and he got a park named after him.
    “Why would Landis ban some of the best players in the game for nothing?”
    Landis kept plenty of the best players out of the game for nothing more than their skin color.

  17. Joe - Sep 9, 2009 at 6:33 PM

    More clueless people who have no idea what they’re talking about. Jackson admitted to taking money, then tried to recant his admission. There is NO disputing he took money and should NEVEr be allowed in the Hall. Ever. I can’t stand uniformed people who whine about his WS average or some other baloney without knowing all the facts who think he should be in the Hall. Once he goes in, the Hall is a shame. End of story.

  18. Dave - Sep 9, 2009 at 9:47 PM

    Joe – “Jackson admitted to taking money, then tried to recant his admission. There is NO disputing he took money” (citation needed)

  19. Someone literate - Sep 9, 2009 at 11:01 PM

    are you illiterate? what the hell are you trying to say? should he be banned or not?
    please enlighten me.

  20. blertasw - Sep 10, 2009 at 1:55 AM

    Jackson in…
    Pete Rose never.

  21. David - Sep 10, 2009 at 10:10 AM

    Joe Jackson in the 1919 World Series hit for a 375 average, highest in the series.
    He 12 hits in the series. A record not broken until Bobby Richarson had 13 hits in 1964, and he also hit the only home run in the series.
    A-Rod has never had a World Series or play-off series like that.
    Could we assume he is on the take.

  22. christopher - Sep 10, 2009 at 3:20 PM

    “…does not make an affirmative case for Jackson’s innocence.” It doesn’t need to. The presumption of innocence means you need to make an affirmative case for Jackson’s *guilt*. It’s more than sufficient from a legal or even historical perspective to illuminate the shortcomings of “8MO” in order to disprove a long-held theory or conclusion.
    You wouldn’t be able to start gleaning the truth — if possible after all this time — without first dismantling the fictions.
    -C

  23. Alberich - Sep 10, 2009 at 6:56 PM

    Clearly, from the comments that I have read so far, the Baseball Hall of Fame represents different premises/notions/concepts/ideas to different fans. Can someone please state just what the basic principles and/or statutes behind the HOF were at its establishment governing the issue of ‘permanent ban’?

  24. Matt - Sep 11, 2009 at 1:08 PM

    “Pete Rose did not bet on his team to lose.”
    No, he only made sure to rest his best relief pitchers during the games he didn’t bet on though.
    If you review the way he managed the games he didn’t bet on the evidence is pretty compelling that he wasn’t on the level, whether he bet or not.
    After seeing those stats, I changed my mind about Pete’s innocence regarding not betting on his team to lose.

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