Book Review:

Shoeless--but not Innocent

Reviewed by Joseph Rosenberg
Shoeless--The Life and Times of Joe Jackson
by David L. Fleitz
314 pages; McFarland, 2001

Ever since the release of two movies about our national pastime, "Field of Dreams" and "Eight Men Out," Joseph Jefferson Wofford Jackson has been the subject of an intense campaign to resurrect his reputation and be elected into baseball's Hall of Fame. In this excellent book, David L. Fleitz provides a definitive biography of Jackson and his baseball career. He delves deeply into the Black Sox scandal involving the fixing of the 1919 World Series, and the continued efforts to fix games in the 1920 season. Because of what eight White Sox players did, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned Joe Jackson, for life and thus made him ineligible for selection to the Hall of Fame.

In crisply written prose, Fleitz shows that Jackson, though illiterate, was no idiot. Jackson had the nerve to sue the White Sox for back wages after Landis kicked him out of baseball.

"Shoeless Joe," a great ballplayer, is shown to be a flawed human being. What is even more fascinating than the debunking of Jackson's claims to innocence is the author's portrayal of the corrupt and venal atmosphere surrounding baseball at the time. White Sox owner Charles Cominsky not only tried to cover up what he knew of the fix, he forged an alliance with the very gamblers who stole his World Series title. Landis, once he showed his control of the game, covered up a subsequent scandal involving Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, two original Hall of Famers. These guys could have been charter members of the Nixon White House for all their practiced back-stabbing and venality.

So Shoeless Joe threw games because he was underpaid and out-negotiated by Cominsky. Does he have the third-highest batting average of all time? Was he baseball's first slugger? Should he be in the Hall of Fame? According to Fleitz, the answer to all three is yes. The aforementioned Cobb and Speaker fixed games and are in the Hall, as are some others whose character is less than dubious. Being a Hall of Famer means you were great in your field. Period.

Now, if we let Shoeless Joe in, what about Pete Rose? Rose managed teams he bet on. There is no doubt about that. He wasn't one of eight miscreants. He had direct control of a game's outcome. He was a Kenneth Lay. He is also an unrepentant denier of his gambling "jones." As shown in this book Joseph Jackson was a man who made a bad decision, but spent a productive life afterwards. Pete Rose a.k.a. Charlie Hustle is still trying to hustle us into thinking what he did was minor. That's not a Hall of Famer to me.

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This story was published on May 2, 2002.