Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Case For Putting Shoeless Joe In The Hall

by Mark Lawrence, Down Under Editor

Sydney, Australia. Recently, I and other members of the Internet Baseball Writers’ Association of America were asked to nominate candidates for Hall of Fame consideration under a Veterans-style system – acknowledging those players whose stats might not have propelled them to the forefront of baseball history, but whose actions have had some significant impact on the game’s history itself.

I came up with Curt Flood, Pete Rose and Joseph Jefferson Jackson.  The IBWAA’s Director, Howard Cole, wrote me shortly afterwards, advising me not to get him started on Rose and letting me know I was the only Association member thus far who had nominated a banned player. I said that was probably due to my convict ancestry. But Howard’s response got me thinking – no mean feat – and I decided that a little careful research might be in order.

To my mild surprise, I found that forty three people have been banned from the Game – for offenses ranging from attempted bribery to gambling to simply hanging around in casinos – and of that number, thirteen were reinstated, including Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins (cocaine, hashish and plain old marijuana) and repeat offender Steve Howe (cocaine and booze).  Even someone as despicable as Reds’ owner, homophobic racist and alleged Nazi sympathizer Marg Schott somehow had her ban overturned.  Of course, not all of those on the list had Hall of Fame-worthy statistics or could claim a significant impact on the Game – but some of them very definitely did.  And, to me, there is one who stands out.

Shoeless Joe Jackson, an illiterate mill hand who would become one of the most iconic names in Baseball, did pretty well in his rookie year – a .408 batting average, second that year to Ty Cobb – and .468 OBP. The following year, 1912, he would lead the American League in hits and triples.  And the year after that, he led the League with 197 hits and a .551 slugging percentage.  He was definitely someone with a bright future in baseball.

Of course, all that changed.  The Black Sox Scandal saw Jackson and seven other players banned from baseball by craggy old Judge Landis – and despite being acquitted in a court of law, the banishments have stayed in place ever since.  There’s a plethora of conflicting opinions about Jackson’s involvement, but his on-field performance during that Series can hardly be regarded as that of a man trying to throw a game – a .375 batting average, the Series’ only home run and six RBIs. Not only that, but he played beautifully in defense, errorless in thirty fielding opportunities.

In the years subsequent to the scandal, all of the other seven players declared that Jackson was not present at any of the conspiratorial meetings leading up to the Series – and, in today’s popular culture, the general impression is that the illiterate, easily-led Jackson had little concept of the reality of the situation and just kinda-sorta tagged along, happy enough just to play. Factor in his acquittal, America’s cherished principle of Presumption of Innocence and in that light, Jackson’s exclusion from Hall of Fame consideration becomes simultaneously sad, aggravating and unjustifiable. And in a world where a fictional boy magician gets his face on a postage stamp faster than Ted Williams, well, there simply has to be room for serious re-examination of Jackson’s case by Major League Baseball.

One day in 1933, Ty Cobb walked into a liquor store in Greenville, South Carolina. The owner, Joe Jackson, stood at the cash register in silence, giving no indication at all that he recognized his old friend, the Georgia Peach. Astounded, Cobb looked at Jackson and asked, “Don’t you know me, Joe?”

“Sure, I know you, Ty,” Jackson answered softly. “I wasn’t sure you wanted to know me. A lot of them don’t.”

It’s been more than ninety years since Jackson’s banishment was handed down, a time span that exceeds both the Curse of the Bambino and the Curse of the Black Sox and despite the sincere efforts of many, Joe’s eminently reasonable case for reinstatement is still ‘under consideration’ by Major League Baseball.  It seems to me that Shoeless Joe has more than made his penance and the decision as to whether or not Jackson should be in the Hall ought to rest solely with those who have that responsibility. Simply put, the Commissioner should reinstate Jackson’s eligibility and let the writers hash it out.  That would surely be in keeping with that great American tenet of bias towards none and justice for all.