Going to bat for Shoeless Joe

SUN JOURNAL

Campaign: Supporters of Joe Jackson, banned from baseball after the `Black Sox' scandal of 1919, are trying to end the exile of one of baseball's best hitters.

July 26, 2000|By Michael Hirsley | Michael Hirsley,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

GREENVILLE, S.C. - Lester Erwin leads the way into a sanctuary that holds what is, in his world, Excalibur and the ghost of King Arthur.

Amid collectibles on a table, cradled between two wooden holders, there it is.

Dark as baker's chocolate, slightly bowed in the shaft, with loosened black tape at the handle, the hickory bat looks as exotic as the tiny baseball gloves players wore 80 years ago.

"This is Black Betsy," he says proudly, as if introducing one person to another.

Fabled like Excalibur, the sword supposedly drawn from a stone by King Arthur, Black Betsy is the baseball bat once pulled from the rack by Joe Jackson.

Nearly a half-century after his death, Shoeless Joe is still considered one of baseball's greatest hitters and one of its most wretched exiles.

But in certain places in Greenville - business offices, a stretch of highway, a cemetery, a restored ball field and, on special occasions, City Hall - Greenville keeps his memory alive.

Joe Jackson died in Greenville in 1951, reasonably prosperous, the owner of a liquor store, a dry-cleaning business and a pool hall. But he came back home to live isolated from his true calling, which had neither acknowledged his fame nor forgiven his infamy.

Jackson, with a .356 lifetime batting average, third behind Ty Cobb (.367) and Rogers Hornsby (.358), never has been honored by the Hall of Fame.

That's because Jackson was part of the "Black Sox" scandal, one of eight White Sox players banished from baseball for life after being accused of conspiring with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series, which the Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds.

Jackson admitted receiving $5,000 from gamblers but always denied that he played to lose.

Erwin, 53, is at the heart of efforts to vindicate Jackson, trying to get him reinstated by baseball and enshrined at Cooperstown. A longtime high school and American Legion baseball coach, he heads the Shoeless Joe Jackson Historical Society.

The society's efforts have spawned resolutions from Congress and petitions to Major League Baseball from Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bob Feller.

The society argues that Jackson's lifetime ban was a sentence completed with his death and that baseball should therefore "quickly affirm" that "its jurisdiction and the deceased player's ineligibility ended in 1951."

Commissioner Bud Selig vowed to be open-minded on the issue.

"Ted [Williams] has talked to me about it," he said. "I think it deserves a fair hearing. I want to do it as soon as possible, but when something is 81 years old, there is a lot to look at and consider."

Any favorable action on Jackson would probably lead to demands to revisit the Pete Rose case, which Selig has been reluctant to do. The former Cincinnati star has been banned from baseball for gambling and has been denied Hall of Fame membership.

Williams was barely a year old when the 1919 World Series was played. In a phone interview from his home in Hernando, Fla., he conceded that he doesn't know what happened then behind closed doors and doubts that it ever will be revealed fully or understood.

But he believes that Jackson was wronged and deserves a fair hearing.

"I don't feel free in my mind yet about Joe Jackson," Williams said. "But the way this has been treated for 80 years, I don't think baseball has done justice in this case. Everybody knows he should have been given more consideration than he got."

Williams said Jackson's situation is different from Rose's because Jackson "never truly had his day in court."

Erwin's mother was a cousin of Jackson's wife, Katie. When his family visited the Jacksons, young Lester would admire the ballplayer's mementos, particularly the brown bat.

When Katie Jackson died in 1959, she left him Black Betsy.

His fascination with Jackson led him to explore beyond the avuncular adult who played with him and other neighborhood kids. He looked beyond Jackson's statistics, including a .408 batting average for the Cleveland Indians in 1911, beyond the world championship he and his White Sox teammates won in 1917, to the shadowy world of the 1919 Black Sox.

"I look at what happened on the field, and Joe had one of the best World Series ever played," he said.

Shoeless Joe had 12 hits in the eight-game series - it was best of nine then - led both teams with a .375 batting average, played errorless ball in left field and hit the only home run of the series.

The most incriminating charge against Jackson is that he took $5,000 from gamblers seeking to ensure their bets against the formidable and favored White Sox.

His supporters say he felt uneasy after receiving the money and sought a meeting with Charles Comiskey, the imperious White Sox owner, intending to turn it over. Comiskey wouldn't see him.

A Cook County jury acquitted the eight players in 1920, just before the new commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, ordered them banned from baseball.

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