Out of Cooperstown the other day came a speculative story that Bud Selig might be softening on Pete Rose and his “lifetime” suspension from baseball. A Hall of Fame board of directors, including several former players — such as Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson and Joe Morgan — came out of the meeting in support.
On the other hand, the commissioner said he had nothing more in mind than “to review the matter.” And added, “I would remind you that he [Rose] voluntarily accepted a lifetime suspension” when Bart Giamatti laid the wood to him. Giamatti died nine days later, thus removing from the office the best man whoever held the title. Later, there was a report that Commissioner Selig was into his waffling act again, at which point I might suggest that while he’s waffling, he might reconsider the case of the most controversial victim of a commissioner’s sword, Shoeless Joe Jackson.
It is a case I know well and which still comes up often in my life. It was 60 years ago, and Joe Jackson had finally decided he should tell his story, and so we sat in the front yard of his modest home near Greenville, S.C. He talked, I listened, and the story is still repeated across the Internet.
“When I walked out of Judge Dever’s courtroom in 1921, I turned my back on the World Series of 1919, the Chicago White Sox and the major leagues,” he began. Jackson and seven other White Sox players had been charged with “dumping” the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. All were banned from major league baseball for life. Shoeless Joe didn’t go quietly. He took his case to civil court. “If found innocent of any wrongdoing, I would be reinstated,” he said. “If found guilty, I would be banned for life. I was found innocent, and I was still banned for life. I had been acquitted by a 12-man jury in a civil court on all charges, an innocent man in the records,” he said.
“I thought that Judge Landis might restore me to good standing after the trial was over, but he never did.”
On the record, it was a case of sadly miscarried justice. Jackson led both teams with his batting average of .375, set a record for most hits that stood for years, hit the only home run, never made an error and threw out five Reds base runners at home plate. That’s hardly the record of a player betraying his team.
“To this day,” he said, “I have never made any attempt to be reinstated. This is not a plea of any kind. This is just my story. I’m telling it simply because after all these years, it seems the world should hear what I have to say. Baseball never kept faith with me.”
He later played in semi-pro leagues, operated a successful dry-cleaning business in Savannah, later managed a liquor store in West Greenville and finally retired to the little mill village were he had grown up. Never at any time did he participate in any of the campaigns to clear his name. Strange, you might say, and I thought so myself, but this was his story.
So just as surely as Rose’s case may come to rest on Bud Selig’s desk, you can be certain that the Shoeless Joe Jackson campaign will rise again, and this time with surely as much, or better, a chance than Rose’s. Tough to separate a major-leaguer from gambling for or against a team he is managing. Time is against Shoeless Joe in that so many of his advocates have long since departed. Ted Williams, for one.
Joe Jackson died two years after our collaboration. Oh, and I should add that the fable of “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” is just that. Never happened, he said.