In the Town of True Believers Folks in Greenville, S.C., where 'Shoeless' Joe grew up, knew the man, not just the myth. Now their faith in baseball is buoyed by the great Ted Williams - and a shot at the Hall of Fame.

August 02, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

You've seen this man before. This fellow in the black-and-white photograph the size of a baseball card. But this is not how you saw him. You saw him betraying a nation's faith, maybe walking out of a courtroom with a sad little kid hanging from his coat sleeve pleading with him to deny the awful corruption. Or maybe you saw him as a ghost in an antique baseball uniform stepping out of an Iowa corn field.

This fellow in the snapshot is from another place, a pleasant balding man with big features who seems to have not a trouble in the world.

There he sits in a lawn chair outside his home in Greenville, S.C., wearing slacks, white shirt, leather shoes, his left foot crossed to his right knee, his broad-brimmed white hat tossed casually on the lawn beside him. His face is lifted to us, gazing to the right past the camera and squinting. It's as if he's sizing up an opposing pitcher. But Ty Cobb once observed that "Shoeless" Joe Jackson didn't study pitchers. He just swung. As natural, level and dangerous a swing as Cobb or anyone in the majors ever saw.

It's something you have to imagine: "Shoeless" Joe innocent of all the mythology and melodrama, innocent of scandal. Lester Erwin can do that. This is the picture he carries in his head, the same one he keeps in an album.

"This is the way I remember Joe, right here. In the front yard, in the lawn chair," says Erwin, 51.

He was 5 years old when Jackson died, but he says it's true, he can remember the man sitting in that spot outside the brick bungalow on East Wilburn Street. Jackson lived there during the last years of his life with his wife, Kate. She and Erwin's mother were cousins. In summers Erwin and his family would visit and little Lester would wander off into the room where Jackson kept his mementos and trophies and an old hickory baseball bat, bumpy from wear, wrapped at the handle with black tape and stained brown. Stained brown with tobacco juice, or so the story goes.

The little boy knew this gentle man named Joe had once played major league baseball. Years later he would learn that as left fielder for the Chicago White Sox, Jackson was banned from baseball because he was mixed up in a scheme by gamblers and ballplayers to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. He'd have to wonder if he'd seen the man, or that photograph, in the right light.

Nostalgia clashes with harsh baseball history in Greenville, where, in a City Hall ceremony, July was declared "Shoeless" Joe Jackson Month. "Greenville's Goin' Shoeless" the posters and bumper stickers said. Jackson was raised, learned to play ball and died here at 63 in 1951. It's not hard to find folks around town who can tell the "Joe Jackson I knew" stories.

Years after he became a national emblem of the most heinous scandal in baseball history, Jackson settled into a quiet life running a liquor store in West Greenville. He didn't talk much about the 1919 mess. And if he was bitter about the game, he never showed it. The fact is he couldn't stay away from baseball. In exile from the majors, he played for traveling teams, picking up a few bucks here and there. When that ended and he came home to Greenville, you could often find him on the local sandlot playing with the kids. He loved kids, though he had none of his own.

"He'd roll his sleeves up, but never took his hat off," says John Burgess, 58, who as a boy delivered the evening paper to the Jackson home. "He'd pitch for both sides. He'd give us instructions. ... Never hollered at anybody. He was very encouraging."

Fond memories nurture endless hopes for one man's professional redemption.

Erwin felt strongly enough to lead a campaign in 1983 to put Jackson's name on a 7,000-seat ball park going up in the southeast end of Greenville. He and troops of volunteers got thousands of petition signatures, wrote to members of the state legislature and Congress. It didn't work. The mayor and city council decided instead on Greenville Municipal Stadium, now home to an Atlanta Braves minor league team.

"It was a disappointment. We put a lot of work into it," says Erwin, a district circulation manager for the morning paper, Greenville News. The Shoeless Joe Jackson Society, founded to pursue the stadium campaign, went dormant. The society and Erwin's name are listed still on one of several Joe Jackson Web sites.

Since the stadium campaign, other groups have succeeded in putting Jackson's name on a stretch of local highway. And the old Brandon Mill field Jackson played on was rebuilt and dedicated in 1996 as the Shoeless Joe Jackson Memorial Ballpark. He has been enshrined in the Greater Greenville Baseball Hall of Fame. In honor of his six years playing major league ball in Cleveland, he's got a spot in that city's Baseball Hall of Fame.

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