Shoeless Joe, Hall of Famer

A pair of South Carolina lawmakers say the "Black Sox" star's lifetime ban from baseball should be lifted. They're right.

By Gary Kaufman

Published June 15, 2000 7:06PM (EDT)

Sen. Strom Thurmond and Rep. Jim DeMint, both of South Carolina, met with baseball commissioner Bud Selig Wednesday to argue that Shoeless Joe Jackson's lifetime ban should be lifted.

Jackson's lifetime actually ended in 1951, so lifting the ban would have little effect on him, but it would make him eligible to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Jackson, a South Carolinian who played briefly for the Philadelphia A's before starring for the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox from 1911 to 1920, had a lifetime batting average of .356, behind only Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. He led the Sox to the world championship in 1917 and the American League pennant in 1919. A young Babe Ruth studied his swing.

The problem is, Jackson took $5,000 from gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series, which is the kind of thing baseball frowns on. Jackson and seven teammates were banned for life in 1921 by baseball's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who'd been brought in to restore the game's image after the scandal came to light. The suspensions were handed down despite the fact that the eight were acquitted in a highly fishy trial. (The players' confessions ... disappeared!)

Players with lifetime bans from baseball are ineligible for the Hall of Fame because of a 1990 rule that was enacted to keep out Pete Rose, banished in 1989 for gambling. Jackson is the only other player affected by the rule, although when he was eligible he was never voted in by baseball writers, who took it upon themselves to snub him.

Rose has no lawmakers lobbying on his behalf because while Jackson has been dead for 49 years and is made to look dreamy and saintly in elegiac movies like "Eight Men Out" and "Field of Dreams," Rose has a bad haircut, says impolitic things on his radio show and hawks autographed tchotchkes on cable TV.

Baseball ought to lift the ban on Jackson if for no other reason than that it was ordered by Landis, a vicious little fool who ruled baseball by whim. He fought the farm system for 20 years because he just didn't like Branch Rickey, the Cardinals exec who developed the idea. And it's no coincidence that baseball wasn't integrated until after Landis died.

The South Carolina lawmakers asked Selig to lift the ban without commenting on whether Jackson had participated in the "Black Sox" scandal. Backers of Shoeless Joe like to cast doubt on whether he took part in the dive by pointing out that he tried to get out of it before the Series started, asking owner Charlie Comiskey to bench him. Then they point to his .375 average in the Series, his six RBIs and his record 12 hits. And then there's the fact that he was illiterate.

Look, he took the dough. He did it. And maybe he couldn't read or write but he knew not to take money to fix the World Series. But the punishment is hypocritical -- as death penalties almost always are. Baseball told itself that it had spotted the influence of gamblers and wiped it out, but gambling on baseball was common then, as it's common now, and anybody who thinks the 1919 Series was the only case of thrown games for money in those days of penurious player salaries is kidding himself. Cobb himself was accused a few years later of fixing the last game of the 1919 season along with Tris Speaker, another all-time great, but Landis let the case fizzle.

Shoeless Joe has done his time. The Hall of Fame should be about achievement on the field, and it's incomplete without the inclusion of one of the greatest hitters the game has ever known. Make that two of the greatest: Rose belongs too.

Gary Kaufman

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