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Shoeless Joe Jackson, and how some things never change

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One of the greats in Cleveland baseball history fell prey to a familar situation

Cleveland Naps Photo by The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

There’s a familiar thread throughout Cleveland baseball history where stars, or even just players that were good and loved by fans, end up leaving for more notable cities and make a name for themselves as legends of other teams, keys in the history of a different franchise.

Whether Manny Ramirez to the Red Sox, CC Sabathia to the Yankees, Dennis Eckersley in Boston and elsewhere, there has always been talent in Cleveland, it just hasn’t always made its mark on the history of the game while there.

Perhaps he’s not the first, but the first great, memorable example of this is Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Known for being a member of the White Sox — or more accurately the Black Sox — Jackson ranks 20th in career WAR in Cleveland history at 34.9. He had his best years with Cleveland, and just in general deserved a better shake of it. By all rights, he should have been a god of Cleveland sport, but fate held a different path for him.

It is simply astounding how good Jackson was, and how high he climbed on the franchise ranks in just a handful of years. Where others on this list were there for a decade or more, for a guy to compile that much value in only six years is a feat in itself. His rise was, in a word, meteoric.

Like so many other players pretty much before World War 2, Jackson emerged as if from the ether, already a fully minted superstar caliber talent as soon as he picked up a bat in the major leagues. That’s not quite a fair statement — he did hone his abilities in the factory leagues and semi-pro games around Greenville, North Carolina, and lucked out a bit when Greenville got itself an affiliated minor league team.

That squad, the Spinners, gave Jackson a platform to get noticed by Connie Mack, and he had an ill-fated two-year career in Philadelphia. Playing just 10 games combined, the big bustling city of Philly was too much for Jackson, so the small-town vibe of Cleveland seemed to be perfect for him, a calm cocoon for him to grow into a superstar.

Not that he needed it. Like I said before, he just needed a shot and a bit of comfort, and he got right to work. After a .387/.446/.587 batting line in an introductory 20 games in 1911, Jackson put together a brilliant career over the next five years. All told, he hit .375/.441/.542 for Cleveland, coming in as high as second in MVP voting, and averaging 7.6 WAR per 650 plate appearances.

He led baseball in hits twice over that span, OBP once, triples and doubles once each, and a baseball-best 1.011 OPS in 1913. He’d have won that MVP if not for Walter Johnson pitching 346 innings and going 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA. If you were curious, Johnson topped more than doubled Jackson’s 7.6 WAR that year at 16.5. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to a better player, especially when he was most of the pitching staff of another team.

Jackson was a remarkable player, singular in his talent, fable-like in his emergence from the mists of semi-pro ball in North Carolina, and full of fun little foibles including his 46-ounce bat Black Betsy, the fact he’s known (despite his own protestations) as Shoeless, that he signed his first contract with an ‘X’, and so much more. He sounds like a movie character, basically Robert Redford in The Natural. What’s not remarkable, what sounds like a story that someone else on this very website wrote just last week, was why he left Cleveland for Chicago.

If you remember your baseball history, you know that the reason the 1919 White Sox were banned from baseball was that they took money from gamblers to throw the World Series. The reason they took that money was that the owner of the team Charles Comiskey was known as a notorious skinflint. Baseball being what it was in the early 1900s, guys like Comiskey, Connie Mack, Clark Griffith, all those guys ran the team like a business because they depended on the bottom line of the team to survive. It was literally the family business, but instead of furniture or flowers, they sold baseball. The Reserve Clause kept their players’ salaries down and treated them, to quote billionaire Ted Denslow, like “indentured servants.” Free agency wasn’t an option at the time, so players needed to make their money elsewhere, whether barnstorming or at offseason jobs.

In short, the Chicago players were offered a lot of money and took the deal because their owner was cheap as hell. The rest was history.

What’s not talked about is just how the White Sox actually got Jackson. Remember, Comiskey was known to be cheap. And yet, one of the great problems Jackson was having by 1915 when Cleveland ultimately sold him to Chicago. Comiskey even said to his head scout, “Go to Cleveland, watch the bidding for Jackson, and raise the highest one made by any club until they all drop out.” This according to a Sporting News article from their August 1915 issue.

So Cleveland sold him, just as they had their fading legend Nap Lajoie just a few months prior, to Chicago for $31,500 and three players whose value sat at about $34,000. At the time the total valuation was the most expensive deal in baseball. Plainly Comiskey was willing to pay for the player, just not for full value for the players’ services. The Cleveland ownership was at the brink of bankruptcy and needed to rebuild, so this was a deal that needed to be made.

The rest is as we know it, and how we remember Jackson. He won a title with Chicago in 1917, was banned in 1920, and eventually retired back to Greenville where he evidently ran a successful restaurant and liquor store. He’s in Cleveland’s Hall of Fame and should be in the one in Cooperstown, but that’s a story for another day.

What’s amazing is just how little has changed. This was a star. A player that absolutely changed the future of a franchise, and somehow, someway, the ownership ruined it. Now, Jackson did say he was hoping for a change of scenery around the time he was traded, not happy with how things were going for him in Cleveland, but how can a fanbase turn on a guy who is at worst the third-best player in the game? Yes, his batting average did fall all four full seasons he was with Cleveland, from .408 all the way to .338. That last number was sixth-best in baseball if you were curious.

The media at the time called him a “me first” type of player, which honestly is silly, and sounds suspiciously like the “access journalism” crap that we hear today — basically a mouthpiece of the front office. Baseball is the most individual team sport there is. If only every player were out there trying his best to have the highest batting average or OPS possible. That would pay dividends.

This should be an article about one of the greatest Cleveland players ever, and I should be writing it in mid-February when we’re deep into the top 10 on the all-time WAR list. Instead, it’s about yet another mismanaging ownership group that cost the team a bridge between Lajoie and Tris Speaker. Someone who should be spoken of as no more and no less than a Cleveland great, and nothing beyond that.

The Cleveland brass thought they were getting rid of an asset at its highest point. In 1920, five years after they traded him and just before being banished, Jackson had the third-best batting average in baseball, fourth-highest WAR led the AL in triples, and his 7.5 WAR ranked sixth in the game. One would have to think that he’d see what Babe Ruth did that year with those 54 home runs and, I don’t know, get a lighter bat? Who knows.

Sadly, Jacksons’ career was cut short by two cheap owners and a predatory Chicago underworld. At just 32 he was out of the game, and who knows what his final numbers would have looked like. You’d think he’d have had at least a handful of solid seasons left in him, and get to have at least some semblance of a graceful fade into his twilight years, especially with the ball getting a bit more life to it in the ’20s. Maybe he finally would have snagged an MVP with a 30/30/30 season of some kind, and have another legendary feather in his cap.

That’s neither here nor there though. Judge Landis certainly robbed baseball of a legend when he banned Jackson, even if he created a different sort. Cleveland shot themselves in the foot too though, shipping Shoeless off for a handful of cash and a couple of middling players.

It’s comforting in a way to know that some things never change. He should be remembered differently, but looking at just the years in Cleveland tells me that Jackson was simply one of the great players in the history of the game, and should be remembered for that as much as anything else.