Two senators go to bat for Jackson of `Black Sox'

DeMint-Harkin resolution is latest effort to honor banned baseball great

October 22, 2005|By JEFF BARKER | JEFF BARKER,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Those old enough to have witnessed even an aging "Shoeless Joe" Jackson play baseball still marvel at a man with one of the sweetest strokes the game has ever seen.

Part of it, they say, was the size of his hands. They were so large that they seemed to envelop "Black Betsy," the slightly curved, stained hickory bat that he swung so fluidly and had lovingly mounted on a wall of his South Carolina home after he retired.

But for all his baseball acumen, Jackson would probably have had a hard time grasping that the debate over his banishment from the game would continue, with Congress playing a role, 85 years after he was among eight Chicago White Sox players banned in 1920 for allegedly conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series.

With the White Sox back in the World Series beginning tonight - they haven't won one since Jackson hit .304 to lead them to the 1917 title - the debate is as vigorous as it has been in years. Baseball is about nothing if not timing, and Jackson's backers have seized on his old club's ascent to make the case, again, that he wasn't part of the conspiracy and that, even if he took tainted money, he paid his dues.

Yesterday, Sens. Jim DeMint and Tom Harkin introduced a resolution, expected to be considered on the floor next week, expressing the "sense of the Senate" that Jackson, who died almost 54 years ago, "should be appropriately honored for his outstanding baseball accomplishments."

Said DeMint, a South Carolina Republican: "Every time I talk to [Commissioner] Bud Selig, I remind him about this. [Jackson] never got a hearing from baseball. Regardless of what they do to Pete Rose or in steroids cases, Shoeless Joe didn't even get two strikes."

Baseball doesn't seem to be swinging at pitches on Jackson's behalf, saying only that his case is under review - as it has been for at least six years.

The "Black Sox" episode remains the biggest scandal in baseball history. Two years after winning the title, owner Charles Comiskey had a powerhouse in 1919 despite underpaying some key players. Comiskey once promised a bonus if the club won the pennant. "When they did win, the bonus turned out to be a case of cheap champagne," said a Chicago Historical Society account.

"Comiskey even charged his players for laundering their uniforms," the society said.

The players, whose movement to competing teams was far more restricted than today, were ripe targets for gamblers such as Abe Attell, "Sleepy Bill" Burns and Arnold Rothstein. The White Sox entered the series as prohibitive favorites against the Cincinnati Reds, but the odds soon shifted - a signal that big money was being placed on the Reds.

When Eddie Cicotte, who had won 29 regular season games, plunked Cincinnati leadoff man Morrie Rath with his second pitch, it was a signal that the fix was in. Chicago lost the opener, 9-1, en route to dropping the series, and writers in the press box began chronicling suspicious plays on their scorecards.

It was during the subsequent criminal investigation that, according to a newspaper story at the time, a boy looked up at Jackson and said, "Say it ain't so, Joe." Like much that happened - or didn't - during the period, the account can't be confirmed.

A criminal court acquitted Jackson and the other seven accused players, but Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner, banned them anyway.

Jackson, at least to some, became a tragic hero.

In 1999, Chicago attorney Louis Hegeman drafted a petition to Selig seeking Jackson's reinstatement in the name of Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bob Feller, who had taken an interest in Jackson's case.

Hegeman, a longtime White Sox fan, is such a Jackson advocate that he once made a pilgrimage to the player's South Carolina hometown of Greenville, where a park is named for Jackson and a statue of him stands downtown. There are plans to move Jackson's red-brick home and convert it into a museum next to a new minor league ballpark.

Hegeman was struck by the passion of Jackson's Greenville backers.

One such supporter, John Burgess, 65, said he becomes incensed when he hears Jerome Holtzman, Major League Baseball's official historian, talk about how Jackson, who batted .375 in the series, failed to hit in key situations, leaving nearly a dozen men on base. This is part of the argument against Jackson - that his RBI came when it mattered least.

"I tell [Holtzman], for God's sake, the least you can do is be objective," said Burgess, who says he delivered Jackson's newspaper as a boy and recalls him driving a blue Packard. "C'mon, the numbers are there. If you say he didn't get a hit with runners on base, that's really reaching."

`A life sentence'

In the late 1990s, Hegeman had drafted a similar reinstatement petition on behalf of Buck Weaver, another member of the "Black Sox" whom the attorney had met years ago. But Hegeman says he was told by then-Commissioner Fay Vincent: "Sorry, boys, I can't play God with history."

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