At the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, S.C., it ain’t so
By Marc Fisher,
Greenville, S.C., is where everything you think you know about “Shoeless” Joe Jackson is wrong.
Here in his home town, where a statue of Shoeless Joe occupies a prominent spot on Main Street, where kids still play on Shoeless Joe field and the Shoeless Joe museum sits just outside the entrance to the lovely minor league baseball stadium, Jackson is no goat. He’s a great baseball player and a good man who has been wronged by the keepers of history.
That’s certainly not what I learned growing up. Sure, Jackson’s statistics are stellar, but most fans have heard of him only because of his enduring place in popular culture as the most famous symbol of the Black Sox scandal: the Chicago White Sox players’ decision, 93 years ago, to throw the 1919 World Series.
“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” a plaintive young fan is said to have pleaded as his hero walked by after news of the players’ corruption broke.
But in the tidy little red brick house with white aluminum awnings where Jackson died in 1951, that confrontation never took place. Here, in a museum with a single purpose — to clear one man’s name — that famous quotation is revealed as just one more fantasy, one more piece of anti-Jackson propaganda that got glommed onto a narrative in which fiction like the movie “Field of Dreams” has became hopelessly blended with reported accounts such as the book (and movie) “Eight Men Out.”
I’m a sucker for baseball museums; my kids and I have been known to enter the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., at opening time for fear of not being sated by the end of the day. But I’m also a reporter, suspicious of any institution dedicated to polishing one person’s image.
Goodness knows that such places are sprouting up all over the country. In addition to the halls of fame for each major sport — and lesser ones too, such as the Trapshooting Hall of Fame and Museum in Vandalia, Ohio — there’s an ever-expanding universe of museums devoted to trumpeting the wonders of a single player.
Some host extensive collections that tell dramatic, inspiring stories — the Ted Williams Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., for instance, or the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore. Some are just fun amusements: There’s not much controversy at New Jersey’s Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center or Iowa’s Bob Feller Museum. The Ty Cobb Museum, in Royston, Ga., is only 66 miles from the Shoeless Joe museum; teams representing the two play each other every year in a vintage game that follows 1860s baseball rules.
But museums created by fans aren’t places where you’re likely to find a rigorous examination of, say, the Babe’s sometimes rough and tumble life. Museums devoted to one person’s story tend to be uncritical; too many are downright adulatory. The Shoeless Joe museum doesn’t so much play down Jackson’s misdeeds as argue that he never committed them.
I arrived at the museum with only the vaguest notion of a growing movement to restore Jackson’s reputation. I entered hungry for something that might make me feel a little more optimistic about the country. (I was in South Carolina covering the presidential primaries, which can leave you hankering for inspiration.) But as a newspaperman, I do love a rogue.
Then I met Arlene Marcley. No rogue she. A decade ago, Marcley, the museum’s founder and director, knew almost nothing about Jackson except that he came from Greenville. She’d mainly heard the accepted version of history in which Jackson was complicit in the White Sox’s misdeeds.
In 2005, Marcley, who was chief of staff to Greenville’s mayor for 13 years, was in her office when a crew from “Flip This House,” a home-renovation TV reality show, arrived, led by a director who wanted to buy Jackson’s then-vacant house, renovate it and give it to the city for use as a museum.
The city didn’t have money to start a museum, Marcley says, “but even though I really didn’t know Joe’s story, I knew we had to save his house.”
She knew that in part because Greenville had already become a mecca for legions of fans who believed that Jackson had been wronged. His gravesite, an ordinary bronze marker at Woodlawn Memorial Park near the Bob Jones University campus, has long drawn visitors from across the country. On the day I visited, fans had left three baseball cleats — including a brand-new pair — and a miniature mitt, a Bible and 31 baseballs, some worn down to the string from use, others fresh from the box, some with inscriptions such as “Thank you, Joe” and “Forever innocent.”
When the city decided to commission a statue of Jackson a decade ago, $60,000 in donations rolled in over less than three months. Wow, Marcley thought: Somewhere out there, a lot of people believe that Shoeless Joe got a raw deal.
After Marcley accepted the gift of the house, she turned to local businesses and foundations for money and found another deep reservoir of support for Shoeless Joe’s cause. As she explored turning the house into a museum, she tapped into the remarkable staying power of the Shoeless Joe story.
Today, in the five cramped rooms where Jackson and his wife, Katie, lived out his exile from baseball, that story is told through news clippings, quotations from court documents and testimonials from fellow players.
There’s very little in the house that belonged to Jackson — a piece of china, Katie’s hand mirror and a chair from the textile mill where Joe worked as a boy. But there’s a sweet little library — formerly a narrow screened porch — with a couple of thousand baseball books, donated by a researcher who’d devoted a good chunk of his life to Jackson’s vindication. And the 1940s kitchen, a modest mash-up of checkerboard linoleum, low counters and a petite pantry, has been restored to the homey look of Jackson’s time.
Jackson’s famous bat, Black Betsy, used to be owned by a Greenville man who would display it publicly, but it was sold at auction in 2000 for almost $600,000 and is now believed to be locked away in a vault in Pennsylvania.
The paucity of original objects is little impediment to the dozens of people who visit the museum during its regular Saturday hours (Marcley is generally happy to open the house to visitors who e-mail her for private tours during the week.) They come because they want to know more, to see if indeed a great injustice has been committed, to hear the version that isn’t told in Cooperstown.
Baseball’s official Hall of Fame has only this to say about Jackson: “On January 19, 1934, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis turns down ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson’s bid for reinstatement. Jackson was one of eight Chicago White Sox players banned for their part in throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.” Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig remains silent even as Jackson’s latter-day supporters mount legal and moral arguments on his behalf.
To most of the country, the Black Sox scandal is a metaphor for lost innocence, a moment in our history when a beloved institution faced up to corruption, punished the bad guys and restored our faith in the game.
But in Greenville, it’s always spring training for the next season in Shoeless Joe’s career. Here, on walls covered with evidence of how Jackson’s case differed from those of the other players who took the blame, there’s an unabashed argument for his reinstatement on the roster of players eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Marcley started her research on Jackson by meeting his only surviving sibling, Gertrude, then in her 90s and living in a nursing home. The museum’s approach was shaped by the stories that the sister and Jackson’s friends told about his deathbed statement that “I’m innocent.”
Jackson was unquestionably one of the best hitters in baseball history, a role model for Ruth and Ted Williams alike. And the legal record is clear: Juries acquitted Jackson of any involvement in the conspiracy in the criminal trial in 1921 and again in a 1924 civil suit that Jackson filed. In the latter, Jackson won a $16,711.04 judgment against White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.
Jackson rarely spoke about the scandal after that, but when he did, he contended that he had tried to report his suspicions about a fix to Comiskey, who allegedly rebuffed him.
But Jackson, who hit a convincing .375 in the Series, setting a major league record for hits, did take $5,000 from a teammate after Game Four of the eight-game series. In the museum’s version, Jackson refused to take the cash in his hand, so the teammate simply left it on a table for him. Jackson told a grand jury in 1920 that he’d accepted the money but hadn’t participated in any effort to lose a game.
In the years after he was banned from baseball, Jackson started a barbecue restaurant in Greenville and later ran a liquor store. He never learned to read or write. He’s believed to have signed his name all of five times in his life — on his draft card, his driver’s license, his mortgage, a baseball and his will, which is in the museum.
In 2005, Congress unanimously passed a resolution seeking Jackson’s reinstatement. Since the museum’s opening, the fans have just kept coming, young and old alike, making the house what Marcley calls “ground zero for clearing Joe’s name.”
It’s easy to emerge from the Jackson house moved by the display of a baseball that a young boy once left at Shoeless Joe’s grave, inscribed with this message: “Mr. Jackson, please watch over me as I play your game to the best of my ability. I’m going to play for all the years you couldn’t.”
Marcley has decided to devote the rest of her days to clearing Jackson’s name. Six decades after his death, she thinks that the only reason baseball hasn’t altered its stance is that no commissioner wants to overturn a predecessor’s decision.
As I moved through the rooms, standing in the junior-size kitchen where Katie cooked for a man who once dined in the finest hotels in the American League, I concluded that Jackson was no innocent, that he played a far more minor role in the conspiracy than most of the other players who were punished and that he may well have tried to blow the whistle on the scheme.
But I also decided that parsing the degree of Jackson’s guilt is less important than understanding the enduring power of his story.
Greenville is a modern city with a beautifully rehabbed downtown, yet it is still — curiously and marvelously — a place that carves out a position of prominence for a hometown man who has been relegated to a dark space in the history books. Shoeless Joe’s place in Greenville reflects a deeply American expression of optimism, a belief in the underdog, a shining confidence that wrongs are ultimately put right.