If there's a sadder figure than Shoeless Joe Jackson in the long and intricate history of baseball, his name doesn't come quickly to mind. No better "natural hitter" may ever have played the game, yet throughout Jackson's career he was vilified as an illiterate and a coward. His rivalry with Ty Cobb was more a creation of the sportswriters than a reality, but he always seemed to come out second best anyway. And his career ended in utter disgrace when he was barred from organized baseball because of his role—the exact nature of which has never been clear—in the Black Sox scandal of 1919.
Jackson was, Cobb recalled in his autobiography, "a Southerner like myself, a friendly, simple and gullible sort of fellow." He seems to have deserved little if any of the calumny heaped upon him, to have been a victim of circumstances he could neither control nor fully understand. So it is good that a sympathetic biographer, Donald C. Gropman, has made an effort to set the record straight in Say It Ain't So, Joe! The Story of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Little, Brown, $9.95) an excerpt of which appeared in this magazine in the June 25 issue.
Gropman has done plenty of digging and has found much material favorable to his subject. His basic argument is that sportswriters of Jackson's day fabricated the myth of Jackson as South Carolina bumpkin and tailored their copy to fit it: "...most writers wrote what they wanted about Joe, as if he were a fictional character whose exploits they were inventing."
Jackson's illiteracy was undeniable, but he proved to be quite savvy in off-the-field business dealings. The "cowardice" rap originated with his reluctance to play ball in the big city; but Gropman can find no evidence that Jackson shirked any important challenges. As for his role in the Black Sox scandal, it seems to have been peripheral at worst—a view supported by other writers who have pointed out his excellent play in the 1919 Series.
There can be no question that he was the victim of arbitrary treatment by Commissioner Landis, who expelled him from the game despite a jury's finding of innocence and then refused to give him a fair hearing on appeal. If Gropman's biography helps Jackson gain posthumous restoration to baseball's good graces, it will have been worth the writing. It's a rather flat book in which Jackson's personality never really emerges, but Gropman's heart is in the right place.