Tuesday, February 14, 2012

107. Joe Jackson: The Big Easy

This is the third and last post on the minor league career of Shoeless Joe Jackson. If you missed the previous entries, HERE is the first on his season with Greenville and HERE is the story of his 1909 season in Savannah.

After a second attempt to bring Joe Jackson up to the Philadelphia Athletics, Connie Mack resigned himself to the fact that the sure-hit superstar in the making was just not mentally able to cope with life in the big leagues. At the same time, he couldn’t simply trade the kid to another big league team because of the chance that it could come back to haunt the A’s one day. The only logical option was to lend him to another minor league club down south and hope that another year marinating in the minors would be the right prescription to make Jackson ready for the big time.

Jackson reported to the training camp of the New Orleans Pelicans in March, 1910. Arriving there he found his old Greenville teammate Scotty Barr, who had been called up at the same time to the A’s and had just been released by Mack.

The Pelicans played in the Class A Southern association and had a working agreement with Cleveland (at this time called the “Naps”). Joe’s manager from Savannah, Bobby Gilks, was now a scout for Cleveland and the two were reunited again down in New Orleans.

Realizing that he was probably never going to play for Connie Mack again, Jackson set himself to becoming a mature ballplayer. Besides disciplining himself to show up for practice and to work as a member of a team, Jackson also developed a make-shift training routine to strengthen his body. Holding the heaviest bat he could find, Jackson would hold it out at arm’s length and keep it raised for as long as he could keep a hold on it. Then he would do the same with the other arm. To sharpen his eyesight he came up with the strange regimen of closing one eye and staring at a lit candle until the flame became out of focus and then he would repeat with the other eye. How this was not harmful I have no idea, but Jackson swore that it strengthened his eyesight and helped him keep a pitched ball in clear focus.

As in Savannah, the local press was much kinder to Jackson and the fans less caustic in their comments. Coupled with his new-found maturity, Jackson commenced to eating up the Southern Association pitching. Once again he led his league in batting with a .354 average and his skillful base running helped him steal 40 bases. The Pelicans were a much better team than Savannah and they won the pennant that year and once again Jackson was selected for the league all-star team. The New Orleans Picayune called Jackson a “star of the first magnitude” and no one argued differently. After another brilliant year down south, there was no way around it - Joe Jackson was bound for the big leagues.

Since Jackson’s former Savannah manager Bobby Gilks was now a Cleveland scout, it was probably him who put the bug in the ear of the big club to sign this kid right now. Connie Mack, who still owned the rights to Jackson, consented to a trade. After a confusing round of side-trades and money exchanging hands, Jackson became property of Cleveland. Finally mentally and physically up for the challenge, Joe Jackson was big league bound for good.

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