Sunday, November 4, 2018

Shoeless Joe Jackson, as told to Furman Bisher

Joe and Katie Jackson on their wedding day in 1908

 Sunday would have been the 100th birthday of Furman Bisher, the esteemed sports columnist for the Atlanta Constitution. He was born Nov. 4, 1918 (three days before Billy Graham) in Denton, N.C., named for a Baptist preacher named James Furman, and matriculated to Furman University (why not) before completing his education at the University of North Carolina.
 Bisher was elected the Georgia Sportswriter of the Year 18 times in a span of 50 years, which brought him back home to the national sportswriters' awards in Salisbury, N.C., just 24 miles from where he was born. On one of those occasions I had the opportunity to meet him at the North Carolina Transportation Museum, where he guided me through a Pullman car and reminisced about the days when sportswriters rode the rails.
 I was thinking about Bisher (who died in 2012) this weekend because he was such an authority on Shoeless Joe Jackson, and there was an event in Greenville this weekend promoting the latest movie about Shoeless Joe. The only time Jackson ever gave an interview about the 1919 Black Sox scandal was with Bisher in 1949. After Jackson died in 1951, Bisher wrote the following tribute: 
Shoeless Joe Jackson was a plain and simple man who thought in plain and simple ways. He stood out from his kind only by a remarkable athletic instinct, and an extra sense that made him one of baseball's great hitters. Fact is, they say he was the greatest natural hitter that ever lived.
 But without a bat in his hands, he had a weakness. He relied heavily on his friends for mental guidance. Any person kind to him got in return warmth and trust, and it has since been proven that Joe's trust was in bad hands.
 I'm sure that he went to his death the other night in Greenville, S.C., still clear of conscience. I'm sure that when and if he did accept a spot of cash for an intended part in fixing the scandalous World Series of 1919 between his Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds he did so without realizing that he was committing a wrong. He was that simple a man, and that trusting in the teammates he thought he knew so well.
 I know his own story because I spent several days with him a couple of years ago recording it for Sport Magazine, which published "by Joe Jackson as told to, " etc., though Joe to his death had never learned to read or write.
 He began in plain and simple manner one August day as we sat under a small tree on the lawn of his neat little home [which is now the Joe Jackson museum, across the street from Fluor Field, Greenville's new ballpark.]
 "I'm not what you call a Christian, " he said, "but I believe in that Good Book. What you sow, so shall you reap. I asked the Lord for guidance and I'm sure he gave it to me.
 "Baseball failed to keep faith with me. When I got notice of my suspension, three days before the 1920 season ended, it said that if I was found innocent, I would be reinstated. If found guilty, I would be banned for life.
 "I was found innocent. I walked out of Judge Devert's courtroom in Chicago in 1921 a free man. I had been acquitted by a 12-man jury in a civil court. I thought when my trial was over Judge Landis would restore me to good standing. But he never did. And to this day I have never gone before him, sent a representative before him, or placed any written matter before him pleading my case. I gave baseball my best, and if the game didn't care enough to see me get a square deal, then I wouldn't go out of my way to get back in it.
 "It was never explained to me officially, but I was told that Judge Landis said I was banned because of the company I kept. I roomed with Claude Williams the pitcher, one of the ringleaders, they told me, and one of the eight players banned. But I had to take whoever they assigned with me on the road. I had no power over that."
 Didn't he know something was going on?
 "Sure I'd heard talk. I even had a fellow come to me one day and proposition me. It was on the 16th floor of a hotel and there were four other people there, two men and their wives. I told him, ‘Why, you cheap so-and-so, either me or you one is going out that window!' I started for him, but he ran and I never saw him again.
 "I even went to Mr. Charles Comiskey (White Sox owner) before the World Series and asked him to keep me out of the lineup. He refused and I begged him to tell the newspapers he suspended me for being drunk, or anything, but leave me out of the Series and then there could be no question.
 "I went out and played my heart out against Cincinnati. I set a record that still stands for the most hits in a series. It has been tied, I think. I made 13 hits, but after all the trouble came out they took one away from me. Maurice Rath went over in the hole and knocked down a hot grounder, but he couldn't make a throw on it. They scored it a hit then, but changed it later. I led both teams in hitting with .375. I hit our only home run of the Series. I handled 30 balls without an error. I came all the way home from first and scored the winning run in a 5-4 game.
 "That's my record in the series, and I was responsible only for Joe Jackson. There was just one thing that didn't seem quite right now as I think back over it. Eddie Cicotte seemed to let up on a pitch to Pat Duncan and Pat hit it over my head. Duncan didn't have enough power to hit the ball that far if Cicotte had been bearing down."
 Joe strengthened his case of conscience by pointing to the good fortune that followed him after his banishment.
 "Everything I touched seemed to turn out good for me. I've got a nice home and a 17-acre farm. See that lot across the street over there? I paid $240 for it and sold it for $800 in 24 hours."
 What you sow, so shall you reap. . .
 Joe always did say that "Say it ain't so, Joe" story was a hoax. He charged it to a Chicago sportswriter named Charley Owens, who at least must be given a stout hurrah for his imagination.
 "It was supposed to have happened the day I was arrested in September, 1920, when I came out of the courtroom hearing. There weren't any words passed between anybody, except me and a deputy sheriff. He asked for a ride to the Southside and we got into the car together and left. Charley Owens just made up a good story and wrote it. Oh, I'd have said it wasn't so, all right, just like I'm saying it now."
 Joe lived his last years in quiet comfort, a man who dressed well, drove a Packard and doted on the respect of his South Carolina neighbors. It is perhaps odd, but when he died he was chairman of the protest committee of a semipro league around Greenville.
 Someone else was always delegated to read the protests and write the committee reports, it should be added.
 To Joe, this was equal to exoneration. The people who knew him longest and best felt he was morally innocent. I'm sure he went with a clear conscience.
 As Bisher would say ... Selah. 

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