There are no gloves. The hurler – err, pitcher – delivers the black leather ball underhanded.
It’s base ball (yes, with a space), and it’s different. It seems backward in this match (game) on Oct. 15 in Greenville, South Carolina, but it’s just the way each club nine – team – likes it.
Each year the Shoeless Joes from the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Baseball Library take on the Georgia Peaches from the Ty Cobb Museum in a vintage baseball game. The teams alternate hosting the game – in Greenville or Cobb’s hometown of Royston, Georgia – using rules from the 1880s. This year the Shoeless Joes are playing host.
Peter Gibbons made the trip from Hartwell, Georgia to play for the Peaches. He’s played in the game a couple of times, and he loves it.
“It’s just a great show of the sport,” Gibbons said. “You’ve got two of the greatest legends in the game, and to be able to wear his name on my chest, I about teared up the first time I came out here. The romance of baseball, the legacy of that and getting to play the Shoeless Joes.
“The first year I played, Ty’s great-grandson was out here with us. Here I am, on the field, wearing the Ty Cobb name, playing catch with Ty Cobb’s grandson, it was something out of a movie like Field of Dreams. I just love to play. Anytime someone says, ‘Pick up a bat or ball,’ I’m not going to pass up that chance.’”
This year was a special for him because he got to share the field with his son, Patrick.
“I’ve played baseball my whole life, high school, I played college ball, growing up in Chicago, some semi-pro ball, had some tryouts with some minor league teams here and there,” Gibbons said. “It’s always been my passion. And to get out and share it with my son – you don’t get to play baseball at my age anymore – my son is 10 and has never gotten to see his old man on the field ever, so it’s nice for him to get that opportunity and share it with him.”
In the game’s rather short history, the Shoeless Joes have enjoyed the most success. Since the museums began play in 2009 (and not including the canceled 2020 game), the Peaches have only won twice.
The teams play a pair of seven-inning games, with the first being the most important – the winner takes home a trophy to display at its respective museum for the year.
Before the games began, the field – located in Shoeless Joe Jackson Memorial Park – looked like any baseball field in America. Both teams took some batting practice. Some threw by the foul lines in left and right fields. Once everyone was ready, they played ball.
However, unlike games of today, there wasn’t a ton of pomp and circumstance. No anthems, no festivities, just a team member delivering lineups to the scorekeeper – a tallykeeper in the 1880s lingo – and the teams got underway.
And the first game wasn’t really close. The Shoeless Joes, wearing matching jerseys with Jackson’s .356 career batting average on the back, won 8-0, plating two in the first inning and busting the game wide open with a five-run third.
It wasn’t close, but it was special.
It wasn’t played like Game 7 of the World Series. This was just pure baseball. The scene was relatively quiet, save for cheers and applause on good plays and the chatter of teammates to one another. Oh, and the bell: it was an 1880s rule that you ring a bell after you step on home plate and score a run. The crowd of fewer than 50 sat in the bleachers or folding chairs they brought from home.
Just steps from the field lies an abandoned factory, one where Shoeless Joe Jackson worked until it was discovered he could play ball at a high level.
“It’s a nice field,” Gibbons said. “It has that old-timey feel – in baseball words, you’d be playing in the steps of a factory, you’ve got that rusted-out water tower, that’s the kind of stuff the minor league teams that Ty Cobb grew up playing on, and Shoeless Joe as well – kind of gives that nostalgia.”
The teams were as unique as the setting. They varied in age, ranging from children to young adults to older men. The Joes’ second baseman was a woman, a distinct departure from the norms of the 1880s. Several individuals with physical impairments took part, swinging and fielding like everyone else.
“It’s nice to get everyone involved and included,” Gibbons said. “That’s kind of what it’s all about.”
Jeff McCall, a licensed agent and former MLB scout, turns 70 soon, but he still suited up for the Peaches. He even made some diving attempts in left field.
“I don’t ever plan to play, but we’re always short, especially when we’re away,” McCall said. “Most of the time, I don’t. I want to help and let other people play. If they do come, people like to play in this game because everyone is welcome, there’s no stress.”
The teams welcomed locals and those who drove a ways to get there.
Heck, they even drafted me.
After a break for lunch and refreshments after game one, the Peaches were down a player. McCall, the away team’s skipper, told me to put the camera down and join the team. I obliged and put on a vest and hat.
I was put in the nine-hole and stuck in left field. I’d like to think my career batting average of .333 would be a bit higher than Mr. Jackson’s if it weren’t for the vintage rule of foul outs: foul balls that bounce once can be caught for an out.
We played seven more innings, and the Shoeless’ Joes took game two. I couldn’t tell you the score – the Joes blew the game open somewhere in the middle innings – but I can tell you there’s nothing better than swinging a wooden bat in October.
Unlike the majors, both teams shook hands on the bump after the games. There were handshakes, hugs and many thanks given from one side to the other for driving and playing.
And then everyone headed home.
As quickly as it began, it was over. The dugouts were cleaned, jerseys turned in, and everyone headed to the cars, many to listen to the Braves-Phillies radio broadcast on the way home.
Mike Nola had a long trip back to Tallahassee, Florida. He’s played in eight or nine of the games through the years and thinks the game is a good reminder of the players and the game.
“I believe the importance of keeping these games going is simply to keep the memory of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb alive, keep their names fresh in people’s minds, if not only for just that only one time a year,” he said. “For a lot of people, they don’t get to hear the name Joe Jackson or get interested in him unless they hear his name being mentioned in the press and he’s got a cool nickname – Shoeless – so that gets a lot of people interested to try to find out more information about him.
“The games are simply to bring goodwill between the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and the Ty Cobb Museum and keep those two mens’ names alive in the public.”
Both museums do their best to do just that. Leah McCall, who works with the Ty Cobb museum, said there are many ways Cobb is still making an impact today. The legendary ballplayer started an education foundation that has paid out more than $20 million to date and helped create a healthcare system that has impacted countless people.
“He did not forget his roots, didn’t forget where he came from,” she said. “He paved a way for a lot of major leaguers today.”
The Cobb museum will turn 25 next year, and it has plans to commemorate this anniversary. It has other ways of remembering Cobb, including a Youth Baseball clinic held in conjunction with the MLB Players Alumni Association.
Surprisingly, there are others that still use the wooden bats and older rules. Nola has friends across the country that play in games throughout the year.
“To my knowledge, there are vintage games across the country,” he said. “I know there are vintage leagues around, but this is the only one I know about – Shoeless Joe versus Ty Cobb.”
Next year, the game will head back to Royston as the Peaches look for a win at home. But no matter the outcome, both sides will do what they do best – have fun and play ball. They’ll decide on a date at some point in the coming year, but one thing’s for sure, it’s a pretty darn good way to spend a Saturday.
“People just need to come and see what it’s all about,” Nola said. “It’s definitely interesting, definitely a lot of fun. We try to make it fun, that’s for sure.”