Where is the love for Shoeless Joe?

With the All-Star Game returning to Cincinnati for the first time since 1988, and the departure of Pete Rose‘s sworn enemy Bud Selig from the office of the commissioner, there has been incessant chatter the past few months about Rose’s status as persona non grata within Major League Baseball. New commissioner Rob Manfred has at least given lip service to allowing Rose to present his case for reinstatement, and he will take part in festivities from Great American Ballpark as a member of the Fox Sports broadcast team and a member of the Cincinnati Reds’ Franchise Four as voted upon by the fans.

Despite the fact that allegations continue to surface regarding Rose’s gambling activities — it now appears more than probable that he bet on the Reds while still a player, something he always denied — and a general lack of remorse, the case for reinstatement for Rose and his possible inclusion in the Hall of Fame is picking up some serious steam in the public forum. Rose has served his time — 25-plus years — fighting his sentence the whole time, repeatedly lying only to recant his story and admit to various misdoings involving gambling. Through it all, he has been a shameless self-promoter. A Pete Rose autographed baseball can be had for under $50 depending on your source, and for closer to $100, you can purchase a ball with the inscription, “I’m sorry I bet on baseball.” Rose will also gladly ink his signature on a copy of the Dowd Report, the official case against him, the contents of which he vehemently denied at the time. That was, of course, a flat-out lie. Rose is doing just fine without being given a spot in the Hall of Fame. If anything, he has benefited more from being kept out by having his name constantly discussed. That’s got to help you sell very remorseful, apologetic biographies, doesn’t it?

I have no problem with Rose the player being given the due he rightly deserves for collecting 4,256 career hits. The story of the game of baseball, something which the Hall of Fame is tasked with telling, cannot be told without its Hit King. Love him or hate him, label him a liar and a phony, the fact cannot be denied that Pete Rose belongs in baseball’s museum.

This swirling debate about Rose, however, has me thinking about one player whose exclusion from the Hall of Fame is in fact an actual injustice. Throughout the ongoing debate on Pete Rose’s status in the game of baseball, I have not heard the name of one Shoeless Joe Jackson mentioned. No, not one single mention of the player whose lifetime batting average of .356 ranks third all-time, two points behind Rogers Hornsby and only eight points behind the great Ty Cobb, an unabashed racist who enjoys the comforts of a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Jackson played only nine full Major League seasons, collected 1,772 hits in only 1,332 games, and of course got himself tied up with the blackest members of his 1919 Chicago White Sox team who schemed to throw the World Series. Jackson, a humble country bumpkin from South Carolina, who had never attended school or learned to read and write, got swept along in the fix. Whether Jackson fully understood what was at stake in the plot will never be totally understood. What can be understood, is the fact that he spent the eight games of that fateful series slashing .375/.394/.563 with six RBIs and only two strikeouts. Eddie Cicotte, in on the fix, posted an ERA nearly a run higher than his season average in the series, lost two games, and made two crucial errors in a Game Five loss. Chick Gandil, the leader of the fix, batted just .233 in the series. On one key play in the series, Gandil ordered Cicotte to intercept a relay throw from Jackson, who had five outfield assists in the series, to prevent an out at the plate.

At the time of the scandal, gambling was a major problem for all of professional sports. The country operated differently in that era, and athletes were far from wealthy. An example had to be made, and all players involved in the scandal received lifetime bans, including Jackson, despite the fact that a real case against him was foggy at best. He could not be tied directly to any of the meetings with gamblers, and years later, teammates copped to threatening him and his family as well as using his name in an effort to gain credibility with the gamblers.

Jackson maintained his innocence until the day he died, but despite being acquitted in a trial by jury, his lifetime ban still holds. Perhaps there have been various movements over the years to reinstate Jackson, but they have largely faded from the public consciousness. The Cleveland Indians elected Jackson to their team Hall of Fame, but that is about as far as his recognition as a crucial figure in baseball history has gone. To me, it is a crying shame that any discussion that starts with reinstating players accused of gambling does not begin with Shoeless Joe Jackson. Jackson handled his banishment from the game with dignity, accepting his personal responsibility in the situation, however small it may have been. He returned to the South and lived out a life doing what he did best, playing baseball on semi-pro teams in leagues far removed from the glistening stadiums he should have rightfully called home.

Jackson died in 1951. Any video footage of him playing the game of baseball is grainy, black and white, and looks as if it should be set to organ music. Anyone alive to see him play in 1919 would be at least 96 years old today, and is most likely not affiliated with Major League Baseball in any way. Perhaps the 104-year-old woman who threw out the first pitch on Saturday in Baltimore can help to lead the campaign for Shoeless Joe. Jackson is just too far removed from the public eye, and there are no videos of him running through Ray Fosse like a runaway freight train to remind everyone of how special a player he was.

Commissioner Manfred is well within his right to reinstate Pete Rose if he feels enough time has been served. It would be a grievous mistake, however, to allow Rose entrance back into baseball without Shoeless Joe. Jackson’s star has dimmed over the 64 years since his death, and he appears all but forgotten. His banishment from the game of baseball was an injustice, but it would be a far greater injustice for Pete Rose to be allowed back into the game while Jackson’s legacy continues to languish.

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