Saturday, February 1, 2014

Another Quick Book Preview: Shoeless Joe Jackson

One of my favorite stories I have written on this site has been the day-in-the-life of Joe Jackson during his days as a baseball mercenary. When I started envisioning the stories and drawings I wanted to include in my book, this one always can to mind first - indeed it was one of the handful I included in my book proposal. I knew from the start that I wanted to make it a 6-7 page story with 3 different illustrations interspersed with the text. I saw the main, full-page drawing being of Jackson in action on that bush-league Hackensack ball field, a million miles away from Comiskey Park. Knowing that I would be giving it full-page status, the extra space enabled me to expound on what I had wanted to do with the original drawing. One of those things was that I wanted to portray the overflowing crowd that lined the rural ball field, and opposing players and cars in the parking lot - all of which I now poured into this piece. Other little details include Jackson's trademark two-toned "Black Betsy" bat and his plain, grubby, second-hand gray flannel uniform. 

And now, here is the story behind the drawing...

Shoeless Joe Jackson's One Day in Baseball Purgatory  
The man standing in the shade of the building was deeply suntanned and wrinkles ran round his face, making him seem older than his 32 years. He wore a black suit, finely tailored, though of an older style cut and starting to show it’s age around the edges. In his rough, calloused hand he gripped a leather travel bag, which, upon closer examination, showed that the ornate brass plaque between the handles had been crudely altered: someone had scratched away all traces of the original engraved initials.

The man stood outside the box office entrance to the town ballpark. It was a small, well built ball yard, but in actuality he hardly took notice. After all, he’d played in a different one almost every weekend that summer and now they were all starting to blend together. If he hadn’t stopped at the coffee shop back in the train station he’d probably have had no idea where exactly he was, which, by the way, was Hackensack, New Jersey.

After standing around in the late morning sun for a few minutes a caravan of dirty open cars turned into the dirt lot beside the ballpark. Stopping in a cloud of dust, a dozen men poured out. These were to be his teammates for today’s ballgame. He watched as the men unloaded canvas bags of equipment. The oldest looking one of the group saw him standing near the box office door and walked quickly over to him, extending his hand. He introduced himself as the manager. In his other hand he offered up a manila envelope. The suntanned man opened it and pretended to count the money inside and quickly shoved it in his coat pocket. It was time to get ready.

The locker room was a locker room in name only. The small room was damp and had 2 long wooden benches that ran the length of the room and the walls had a shelf about neck high opposite each bench and a row of hooks beneath that. Each of the ballplayers staked out a space on one of the benches and unpacked their small traveling bags. Most of the players talked loudly with one another, laughing and throwing around swear words. Their accents were harsh to his ears and sometimes not too easy to follow. A few of the players stared unabashedly at the suntanned man and he began to grow more uncomfortable than he usually felt. As the suntanned man undressed he hung his jacket from the hook and folded his black pants and silk pink shirt. Running his hand over the folded silk garment to smooth it out before placing it on the shelf, he quietly touched the gold embroidered “J” monogram over the pocket.

The suntanned man removed a worn baseball uniform from his leather satchel. It was of a rougher quality wool than he was used to but it was a baseball uniform just the same. There was no name on the front, just black pinstripes. The cap he retrieved from the satchel was black as well, with a white button and white “P” on the front - a souvenir of an afternoon up in Poughkeepsie the week before. His name was “Joe Nutter” that day.

The manager appeared with another ballplayer in tow. He introduced him as “Smith” but the suntanned man recognized him as a young pitcher with Toronto. He couldn’t recall his name, but it sure as hell wasn’t Smith. The manager repeated the story he’d already heard - that his Westwood town team, traditionally a local powerhouse, had been unexpectedly clobbered by Hackensack a month before. There was always a heated rivalry between the two towns and the games always attracted spirited betting, the action being covered by heavies from nearby New York City and Newark. Westwood swore Hackensack had a few ringers on their team that day and, needless to say, much money was lost by Westwood’s fans that day. Plenty of people were pissed off and thirsty for revenge. Taking up a collection, Westwood decided to purchase some insurance for today’s game, hence the manila envelope of cash. Today, the suntanned man’s name was “Josephs,” at least that’s what it said on the lineup card.

By this time he could hear the roar of the crowd. Through the row of filthy windows that lined one wall above the shelves he could make out much movement as hundreds of people jostled for seats. He could hear men shouting and children squealing. Someone threw something through one of the open windows and every few minutes some wiseguy would bang on the glass and shout something nasty. One of the suntanned man’s temporary teammates sidled up and said: “They know you’re here.”

Emerging out from the darkness of the locker room he pulled his cap down as low as he could over his eyes to protect them from the sun. The crowd went wild when they recognized him.

“My God, it’s Shoeless Joe Jackson!”

Spectators were spilling out onto the field and bits of paper littered the field. Glancing out to center field he could see it was cleared of fans, which made him feel a little better. The roar was deafening. There must be more than 1000 here today, probably more. Ugly, twisted faces shouted unintelligible words at him. Small children stared and women craned their heads and stood on tip-toes to catch a glimpse of him. He’d seen it all before. He did this every weekend.
The game wasn’t much to remember as far as he was concerned. It was a standard affair - the Hackensack manager came over to the Westwood bench and in between swearwords made it clear his team would be playing the game under protest. Westwood held back the Toronto pitcher until he was unleashed in the 3rd inning after Hackensack scored a few runs. It was smart managing as it gave the gamblers time to settle the odds before the Toronto kid shut them down for the rest of the game.

In between hitting a home run, double and two singles there were a few notable incidents. A news photographer ran onto the field while Westwood was batting and attempted to take a photo of him as he sat on the bench. Two of his teammates started shoving the newsman and threatened to beat the hell out of him if he didn’t get back to the stands. When Westwood’s catcher reared back, ready to throw a punch, the fella ran off so fast he left his hat behind. The catcher stomped on it with his spikes and the rest of the ballplayers laughed. A few times the game was stopped, not by the umpire but because everyone paused to watch a fist fight in the bleachers. He noticed that the couple of policemen stood by and did nothing - wading into a crowd like this was pointless and after a few minutes the fighting stopped on its own anyway. At a few points in the afternoon the play was stopped while the players collected some of the larger items that were thrown onto the grass. Bottles of beer, scorecards, newspapers and even a few straw hats were picked up and thrown in a pile behind home plate. One call by the amateur umpire cause a heck of a row. When he called Westwood’s left fielder out for supposedly not touching first base on his way to an easy double, the bench cleared and for a time it looked like the poor umpire was going to catch a beating. He sat on the bench and watched. The guy missed touching first by a mile anyway. A few innings later a Westwood fan charged out of the stands and accused a Hackensack outfielder of putting a concealed second baseball in play when he couldn’t get to a deeply hit fly ball. He just pulled his cap lower over his eyes and thought about his wife.

He was proud of one play he made that day, not at bat but in the outfield. On a long ball hit out to him in center, he’d made the catch and threw a straight liner back to the surprised catcher who tagged out the equally surprised runner to end the inning. The bases had been loaded and it squelched a rally and when all was wrapped up it probably made the difference in Westwood’s 9 to 7 defeat of Hackensack. Most of the crowd cheered but some threw even more crap on the field. This wasn’t Comiskey Park.

After the game he tried to dress as quickly as possible. Half the team was drunk and in various stages of undress. One of the guys threw his spikes through one of the glass windows. He was too busy packing his leather satchel to find out why. Someone was pounding on the locker room door but no one answered. After a while he slipped his black suit coat over his pink silk shirt, once again obscuring the embroidered “J” above the pocket. He opened the locker room door and ignoring the lingering spectators in the parking lot headed off towards the train station, trying to remember where he was going to be next weekend and what his name would be when he got there.

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