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Say it ain’t so

On Sept. 27, 1920, the great "Shoeless" Joe Jackson unknowingly played his final game.

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Photo courtesy of Clemson University Libraries

A century later, the details are a bit murky. But one thing we can say with relative certainty is that in the third inning of a game at Comiskey Park on September 26, 1920, Joe Jackson went all out to make a catch on the dead run, robbing a Detroit Tigers batter of extra bases. 

In I.E. Sanborn’s Chicago Tribune account, Jackson stole a hit from Ty Cobb. According to Harry Bullion in the Detroit Free Press, the play was a “phenomenal running catch that killed a certain triple” for Bobby Veach, who batted behind Cobb in the Detroit order. 

Either way, there was little doubt that the pride of Greenville, South Carolina still had it, at the plate and in the field. At age 33, he was in the midst of his best season since joining the White Sox five years earlier. He would end up among the American League’s top five in nearly every offensive category, including his .382 batting average, 218 hits, 20 triples, 12 home runs and 121 RBIs. 

Though the White Sox still had four games left to play after that 8-1 win over the Tigers, the teams’ matchup the following day would finalize all of those remarkable stats. For on Monday, September 27, 1920 — though he couldn’t have imagined it at the time — Shoeless Joe Jackson would play his final major league baseball game. 

Aside from the urgency the White Sox felt as they continued to try and chase down Cleveland for the pennant, that game was otherwise unremarkable. The makeup date for a contest that had been rained out on April 16, it turned out to be a pitching duel between Dickey Kerr and George “Hooks” Dauss that was finished in just over an hour. 

The only runs in a 2-0 White Sox win — their 10th victory in the last 11 games — crossed the plate in the sixth inning when Dauss elected to pitch to Jackson with two on and two out rather than walk him to get to the lightly regarded Amos Strunk. Bullion waxed poetic in the next day’s Free Press

It would have been the proper stunt to pass the general, but Dauss pitched to Joe, and, losing aim, stuck the ball in Jackson’s groove. Next thing the crowd saw was Cobb going to the mat with the ball, and Weaver, who had been wounded by a pitch, sprinting for the plate. Ty got the ball in plenty of time to hold Eddie Collins on second but the peach threw badly to Bush, who partially blocked the agate with one foot as it caromed out of everybody’s reach. Collins took a fresh start and scored standing up. That is the whole story of the ball game.

In Chicago’s final turn at bat, in the bottom of the eighth, Eddie Collins fanned for the third out with Buck Weaver on third base. Joe Jackson was on deck. 

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The White Sox were off the next four days before opening a season-ending three-game series in St. Louis against the Browns. That left all eyes on the Indians, who entered the 28th with a half-game lead on the White Sox but still had six games left to play. 

As it turned out, the pennant would be determined off the field. While the White Sox pursued a third World Series berth in four years, the front-page headlines in Chicago had been devoted to the ongoing grand jury probe into accusations that some of the players had thrown the 1919 Series. 

Photo courtesy of Marc Lancaster

The morning of September 28, Eddie Cicotte went to White Sox owner Charles Comiskey’s office and confessed to taking $10,000 for his part in throwing the Series to the Reds. As the story goes, Comiskey replied: “Don’t tell it to me. Tell it to the grand jury.” By the end of the day, he had, along with Jackson.

In the meantime, Comiskey sent a letter to those two, plus teammates Oscar “Happy” Felsch, Fred McMullin, Charles “Swede” Risberg, George “Buck” Weaver and Claude “Lefty” Williams informing them they had been suspended from the team indefinitely. The eighth man implicated, Arnold “Chick” Gandil, hadn’t returned to the majors in 1920. 

With that stroke, their season was finished — those players, and the White Sox as a whole. Manager Kid Gleason rolled out a cobbled-together lineup for the final three games in St. Louis and lost twice. Chicago finished two games back of the Indians, who went on to defeat the Brooklyn Robins in the World Series. 

But what of the players? Though Jackson was quoted by the Chicago Tribune the evening of his grand jury testimony as saying, “I guess I’m through with baseball,” that defeatist assessment was hardly a foregone conclusion. Baseball had a robust track record of corruption in those days, and the men who would become known as the “Black Sox” had little reason to expect the worst despite the high profile of this particular scandal. 

Dan Wallach, executive director of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, said the players almost certainly expected to be reinstated at some point.  

“One of the reasons why the other six guys — I’m not really including Buck Weaver or Joe — but one of the reasons they felt so comfortable throwing the World Series was that there had been precedents set that teams had thrown games and potentially World Series before and nothing had happened to them, even if they had been caught,” Wallach said. “It was just part of the culture back then. It wasn’t that Comiskey was underpaying them, it was that there was such great reward and such little risk to do that. They threw the World Series because they figured, even if we do get caught, nothing’s going to happen.”


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What happened, of course, was Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Six weeks after the indictments were handed down, the owners installed the longtime federal judge as the first commissioner of baseball and handed him sweeping powers to preserve the integrity of the sport. He made excising gambling’s influence from the game his top priority, and the White Sox served as Exhibit A. 

As the accused awaited trial, Landis placed them on a newly created “permanently ineligible” list, but many seemed to believe the first part of that label would fall away if the Sox were acquitted. On August 2, 1921, they were, but there would be no triumphant return to Comiskey or any other big-league park. 

The following day, Landis announced that “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”

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So … what next? For Joe Jackson, life went on. Though he would play for various semi-pro and industrial teams well into his 40s, he quickly reverted to work that had seen him through even during his major league career. 

Joe and his wife Katie had owned a cigar store and a billiards hall in Chicago, and a dry cleaning company in Savannah, where they made their offseason home. The latter business continued to thrive into the early 1930s, when the Jacksons sold it and moved to Greenville to care for Joe’s sick mother. 

Photo courtesy of Clemson University Libraries

Upon their return to Joe’s hometown, they briefly dabbled in running a barbecue restaurant but found their greatest success with a liquor store that provided a steady income for the rest of their lives. 

“Of the ‘eight men out’ he was definitely the one who had the best life after baseball,” Wallach said. “A lot of them died penniless, and Joe wasn’t one of them.” 

In 1941, that income allowed the Jacksons to buy a red brick house at 119 E. Wilburn Ave. That house, relocated in 2006 and again in 2020, is now the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum. Though it has been closed due to renovations and expansion (and COVID-19) since December 2019, its staff continues to work toward setting a reopening date. 

When the museum does return, down the street from its old location just outside downtown Greenville, Joe’s post-baseball life will feature even more prominently among the exhibits. Among the key themes the museum hopes to convey is that Joe, while illiterate, did not spend his life wandering a corn field and lamenting what might have been had he been allowed to finish his career on his own terms. 

“He was a successful person,” Wallach said. “Yes, his baseball story is kind of tragic in the Shakespearean sense, but his life was not. A lot of people think that his only purpose and his only wish in life was to play baseball, but he came to peace pretty quickly with the fact that he wasn’t going to play anymore, at least in major league baseball, and still was able to lead a happy and successful life after that.”

That’s a reassuring thought for those who have come to know and appreciate Jackson long after his death in December 1951 thanks to “Eight Men Out” and “Field of Dreams.” But that question of what might have been if his career had extended beyond September 27, 1920 will always linger. 

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