Saturday, January 29, 2011
65. Shoeless Joe Jackson: What's In A Name?
Nicknames can be great if you have one like "T-Bone" or "Lefty." They're not so good if you get saddled with one like "Ears" or "Blimpy." Take this kid Brian Mauser (name ever-so-slightly changed) from my neighborhood growing up. In kindergarten he was just like the rest of us, no more or less awkward or memorable. Then came that fateful day early in 1st grade when he was caught picking his nose and eating it. Now I'm sure Brian wasn't the first kid who slipped a crispy one in his mouth to see what it tasted like, but he had the misfortune of getting caught. Kids being cruel, Brian was forever after ostracized and his nickname, "Booger Boy" was born. That name hung around his neck not only the rest of the year, but throughout grammar, middle AND high school. Forget about getting a date or being invited to any parties, his life was forever changed by that ill-advised snack in 1st grade. Slugger Joe Jackson was likewise saddled with a derogatory nickname which was, while not as devastating as "Booger Boy," none-the-less caused him great embarrassment over the course of his playing career and the remainder of his life.
One of 8 kids, Joe Jackson was born into extreme poverty. At the age of six Joe took his place alongside the rest of his family in one of the sprawling textile mills that dotted the rural South Carolina landscape at the turn of the century. Because of the need to contribute money to the family he never had time for proper schooling and much to his shame remained unable to read and write for the rest of his life. The one bright spot in Jackson's grim life of industrial-age toil was baseball. Showing great skill at an early age, by 13 Jackson was playing outfield for the Brandon Mills men's ballclub. South Carolina's textile leagues had an impressive amount of talent playing on the various mill teams and for Jackson to make a mark amidst all this talent was quite impressive.
He quickly became a local legend and during games his brothers would roam the stands passing a hat taking donations after Jackson made another impressive play of timely hit. Word soon spread of his talents and in 1907 the Brandon Mills team was playing an exhibition game against the Greenville Spinners of the Carolina Association. Their manager Tom Stouch was shocked and dismayed when a young player on the team seemed to get on base every damn time he got up to the plate. In the field he dazzled as well. By the end of the game Stouch knew the kid had what it took to play professionally and the next year Jackson inked his "X" to a contract for the staggering sum of $75.00 a month to play for the Spinners.
Although he was brimming with ability he was still raw around the edges. On a few occasions he was caught trying to steal bases already held by his own teammates, but he was the local boy and the fans of Greenville readily embraced him. He had done what most of them were unable to do - escape the drudgery of the textile mills. The 1908 team featured two other players destined to play in the big leagues, Ezra Midkiff and Scotty Barr and along with Jackson the Spinners quickly made it to the top of the 6-team league. Jackson played the outfield but was also brought in to pitch on occasion. He had a tremendous arm but retired as a pitcher after he broke the arm of an opposing batter and the rest of the league refused to hit against him. It didn't matter, he made his mark elseware. His speed and skill in the outfield led fans to dub his mitt "a place where triples go to die." He belted the ball at a .400 clip for most of the summer. Locals noted that the sound his bat connecting with the ball made had such a unique sound that they could tell it was Joe Jackson even if they were blindfolded.
It was during a Sunday double-header against the Anderson Electricians that Joe Jackson earned his nickname.
Finally earning a decent salary, Jackson treated himself to a well-deserved new pair of spikes. While playing in the first game of the double-header the unbroken-in shoes gave him blisters. By the end of the game he was in terrible pain and begged Stouch to let him sit out the second game. A Sunday double-header back then was the place to be for a small rural community and Jackson was the great attraction. Stouch couldn't let him sit out the game, everyone would not only be disappointed but there was always the potential for violence. People took their baseball seriously back then.
So with great pain, Joe Jackson made the fateful decision to remove his brand-new spikes and took the field in just his stocking feet. All went well for most of the game until the top of the seventh when he smacked a triple and slid stocking feet-first into third. An angry Anderson fan, seeing Jackson called safe at third base and noticing his stocking feet cried out "you shoeless son-of-a-gun, you!" A sportswriter overheard it and a timeless nickname was born.
Jackson hated it. Already sensitive about his inability to read or even sign his own name, he felt the nickname made him look even worse, bringing to life the image of a back-woods bare-foot illiterate. He spent the rest of his life trying to explain the circumstances around his moniker, telling the story over and over again that he never played ball bare-foot and it was but one game in his whole career that he took the field in his socks.
Shoes or no shoes, it was obvious to all that Jackson didn't belong in the minors for long. Manager Tom Stouch wrote to Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics letting him know about the potential of two of his outfielders, Joe Jackson and Scotty Barr. Mack must have been impressed by the description Stouch wrote because in mid-August he dispatched one of his players on the disabled list to Greenville to take a look. "Socks" Seybold sat in the stands as the Spinners played the Charlotte Hornets and watched as Jackson belted a double, triple and home run. He noted that the kid also had a rifle for an arm. He quickly telegraphed Mack who in turn sent his assistant Sam Kennedy to verify Seybold's claims. Further assured by Kennedy, Mack signed Jackson who was batting .346 at the time and Barr, who was batting .299 as well as posting a 12-6 pitching record.
As soon as the Spinners season ended, Scotty Barr hopped on the first train to join the Athletics but Jackson hesitated. He'd never left the Carolina's and Philadelphia was as far away from Greenville as the moon. He was embarrassed by his illiteracy and because of it did not even know who the heck Connie Mack or the Philadelphia Athletics were. Manager Tom Stouch had spent a lifetime trying to get to the major leagues and even though he played in but 4 games he assumed it was every ballplayer's dream to get the call. With this in mind he decided to personally deliver Jackson to Connie Mack and at the end of August, 1908 Tom Stouch and "Shoeless Joe" Jackson boarded the overnight sleeper to Philadelphia.
Many of the photographs I used for reference were found on the valuable website called "The Shoeless Joe Jackson Virtual Hall Of Fame" at www.blackbetsy.com Not only is it a great resource on the life of Joe Jackson, but the staff are extremely helpful, a fellow named T.W. over there was extremely patient fielding my questions a few months ago when I was working on a Jackson angle for this site. I will be doing a series of cards and stories on the early years of Joe Jackson, so if you're a Shoeless Joe fan, keep checking back!