Tuesday, February 14, 2012

106. Joe Jackson: Southbound and Down

One of the most popular posts I've written was THIS ONE on Shoeless Joe Jackson and his first season of professional baseball with the Greenville Spinners. It was during that 1908 season that Jackson was saddled with the "Shoeless Joe" nickname he hated so much. This week I'd like to continue the saga of Shoeless Joe Jackson's early days...

We last left Joe Jackson in late August, 1908 as he and his Greenville manager Tom Stouch boarded the overnight sleeper to Philadelphia in order to join Connie Mack’s Athletics. Though Stouch’s prized protegee took some convincing to make the trip to Philly, the Greenville manager woke up the following morning sure Connie Mack would love this rookie. But there was only one problem: that prized rookie wasn’t on the train! Stouch searched high and low for Jackson but by the time the train stopped in Philadelphia a confused and empty-handed Stouch showed up at Shibe Park. Connie Mack handed the confused manager a telegram sent from Charlotte the previous night:


It seems Jackson slipped off the train in the middle of the night as it stopped at Charlotte, North Carolina. Undaunted, Mack sent “Sock” Seybold back down to Greenville to fetch the kid and on August 25th he was in an A’s uniform in Shibe Park.

The local press made much of the unknown busher, comparing him to the great Ty Cobb and lavishing a generous heaping of praise on him before he even had his A’s cap on. In his first game he had an RBI single and made a few outstanding catches and throws in the outfield that sufficiently sated the press corps and the evening papers were full of enthusiasm for the young find.

The Tigers came to town next for a four game series and Philly fans couldn’t wait to see how their new boy measured up against Cobb. His new teammates also talked amongst themselves about this superstar in the making and when bad weather delayed the Detroit series by two full days, the downtime enabled the newspapers to whip-up the story of the wonderboy from Greenville into a media tsunami.

But when the skies cleared, Joe Jackson was nowhere to be found. He’d slipped away again, headed due south.

Jackson always maintained he was homesick, but his disgruntled teammates, left short-handed for 2 double-headers in 2 days against the powerhouse Tigers, let the press know they thought the kid a coward, unable to face his show down with the great Cobb. Jackson returned to the team again in early September but just as before, fled south once more before the season ended.

In retrospect, cowardice probably had little to do with Jackson’s desertion of the Athletics - embarrassment and bullying did. Since he couldn’t read nor write, Jackson was at the mercy of the other players who could and rather than let his illiteracy become known he tried to cover it up, the result of which only made it worse. There is one story that Connie Mack caught the busher sitting alone at breakfast with almost a dozen fried eggs on his plate. A shocked Mack asked the boy how he expected to play ball after such a feast and Jackson sheepishly explained to his manager what happened. He actually wanted two eggs for breakfast, but since he could not write a “2” he made 2 slash marks on his breakfast order card which the kitchen interpreted as an 11. It was incidents such as this, compounded on the resentment of his abandoning the team that led to teasing by the other A’s. It didn’t help any that the “Shoeless Joe” moniker followed him up to Philadelphia.

The Athletics held their 1909 training camp in Savannah, Georgia and Joe Jackson tore up the ball all spring. Although Mack was sure Jackson’s skills were up to the major league level, he wisely acknowledged that mentally the ballplayer was just not ready. So when the Athletics broke camp to head north, Jackson stayed behind, the newest member of the Class C Savannah Indians of the South Atlantic League, affectionately called the “Sally League”.

More comfortable playing in the south, Joe smashed the ball at a .450 clip in the beginning of the season and started to be called the “Ty Cobb of the Sally League.” Here in Savannah, the sportswriters were less ruthless than back in Philly and the crowds didn’t heckle him - here back down south Jackson was amongst his own people. The Indians had a mediocre team in 1909 and would finish the season with a losing record. Jackson for his part played splendidly, leading the league with a .358 average, 19 doubles, 12 triples and couple of home runs. He swiped 32 bases and his arm and fielding skills impressed even the most jaded observer. The sportswriters spent columns and columns of space praising the young star and he was named the center fielder of the Sally League All-Star team. One paper wrote of him: “Jackson is a sensation in all departments of the great American game, and that’s saying a whole lot.” It was obvious a player of Jackson’s talent had no business playing around in the Sally League - this boy was a big leaguer.

But the sure-bet big leaguer also seemed to have a problem with authority and a propensity towards strange, immature acts. Sometimes he didn’t show for batting practice or miss games completely. His manager in the first half of the season was Bobby Gilks who seemed to know how to handle the budding star. Under Gilks, Jackson was given a long leash and as long as he produced on the field he was left alone. But with the Indians stuck in the lower half of the standings, Gilks was fired and the new manager, Earnest Howard, didn’t understand how to harness the young Jackson. Hurt by the loss of Gilks, Jackson moped around the clubhouse and sulked openly.In one bizarre instance, he and a teammate left the game in the middle of an inning and took seats in the stands, sharing a bag of peanuts. The Savannah management fined the hell out of him for that stunt, but it didn’t seem to put a stop to his immaturity.

At the end of the season Mack brought Jackson north again to ease him into the Athletics clubhouse. The A’s were in a pennant race with the Tigers and Mack used the uneasy busher very sparingly. He didn’t play well at all and managed an anemic .176 in a handful of games. The teasing was relentless as well.

It was supposedly during this period that one of the most famous Jackson stories took place - while standing on third base a fan called out “hey Joe - can you spell cat?” to which Jackson spat back: ”Hey mister - can you spell shit?”

The kindly Connie Mack was sympathetic to Jackson’s plight and offered to pay for a tutor to teach him how to read and write, but the ballplayer refused. But even the saintly Mack had his limits and Jackson was approaching the breaking point. His behavior became more and more erratic, sometimes showing up late to the park, then skipping practice and sometimes whole games. Then Mack found out his new outfielder went to a burlesque show instead of a game and that was the end of Jackson’s stay in Philly.

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