Shoeless Joe Jackson's Bat and the Invention of Baseball history.(Biography)

By Brody, Saul Nathaniel | Nine, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Shoeless Joe Jackson's Bat and the Invention of Baseball history.(Biography)


Brody, Saul Nathaniel, Nine


Almost every work that is neither fiction nor an account based on personal experience relies in part on secondary sources... or primary sources.... A direct quotation from any of these must be identified in a footnote.... Ideas and interpretations attributed to, or facts discovered by, another writer should also be documented.

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Joe Jackson, one of the most talented baseball players ever, has figured more prominently in newspaper and magazine articles, books, and movies than most great ballplayers. Sadly for his reputation, the interest in Jackson is due less to his achievements as a hitter and fielder than to his alleged participation in the so-called Black Sox scandal, a scheme to throw the 1919 World Series.

Jackson's story is a Horatio Alger narrative turned on its head. Jackson was born in a textile town in South Carolina and raised in poverty. He played baseball for a local textile mill team, entered the Major Leagues, rose to fame as a powerful hitter for the Chicago White Sox- and then lost it all by purportedly entering into a conspiracy to let the Cincinnati Reds take the 1919 baseball championship. Found not guilty in a court of law along with seven of his teammates, he and the others were nevertheless thrown out of professional baseball by the baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. As details of the prosecution emerged, public opinion became divided on the question of Jackson's guilt. Some saw his punishment as the just reward for his betrayal of the great American pastime and the boys who worshiped him. Others, particularly those who viewed Jackson as a small-town boy, saw him as an innocent victim of city slickers, a greedy baseball owner, and a baseball commissioner in need of a scapegoat.

These views of Jackson are reflected in two kinds of narratives that offer histories of the man and his role in the gambling conspiracy. These books tend to picture Jackson as either clearly innocent or clearly guilty. Their frequent disregard for nuance probably does not trouble the ordinary reader, and books of this kind--that is, biographies aimed at a popular audience--usually give little reason to be troubled. On the other hand, some readers will be uneasy with the Jackson biographies, and for good cause. In addition to their oversimplification of motives and moral complications, they characteristically describe Jackson's life and the events surrounding the Black Sox scandal with little or no supporting documentation. Hence, the reader who wants to consult the source for any assertion-for example, that Jackson is the only man ever to have hit a ball out of the Polo Grounds in New York--ordinarily has nothing more to fall back on than a list of books and the titles of a variety of newspapers and journals provided at the end of the biography. These writers simply do not follow the basic principles of scholarship that the source for an assertion must be fully documented, even if the original is paraphrased, and that quotation marks must be used around phrases or sentences drawn from a source. Publishers of popular biographies probably view such academic trappings as poison for the ordinary reader, but unless readers are willing to accept the reliability of a book without footnotes through an act of faith in its author, they ought well be on guard as they turn its pages.

I want to illustrate this point with reference to stories about the bat that Joe Jackson named "Black Betsy." Black Betsy was no ordinary bat, and like Joe himself, it came to be the stuff of legend. Readers of Jackson's biographies discover that he acquired it while still a boy in Greenville, South Carolina, possibly as early as 1903, that it became his favorite, and that he used it (to quote a phrase often repeated in the biographies) "throughout his career." Jackson played Major League baseball between 1908 and 1920, and he continued playing baseball, according to one of the biographers, until 1932. …

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