(SHOELESS JOE) (1889–1951)
“Say it ain’t so, Joe!” That lament, from a boy to his big league hero, is among America’s most recognizable quotations. And one of the most famous nicknames is “Shoeless Joe,” the ballplayer who broke the little fan’s heart. How he achieved that nickname is often misunderstood. Joe Jackson was a country boy from South Carolina who got his baseball start playing for textile league teams. He did not regularly play barefoot as a young man but did once play in his stocking feet because a pair of baseball shoes was too tight and causing blisters. Once was enough, because the nickname seemed to fit Jackson’s background.
Jackson loved baseball but was not keen on playing in the major leagues because he did not want to leave the South to play in a large and strange Northern city. So when Connie Mack signed Jackson while he was playing minor league ball in 1908, Jackson was a reluctant call-up at the end of the season. Jackson’s reluctance to play in Philadelphia led Mack, despite his recognition of the player’s potential, to trade him to Cleveland in July 1910.
Finally persuaded to play in Cleveland, Jackson achieved stardom in 1911, hitting .408. The sportswriters loved writing about his exploits, at times even mocking him. There was plenty of material for the writers in addition to Jackson’s astounding hitting ability and powerful throwing arm. He used a special bat named “Black Betsy,” a 48-ounce piece of lumber especially made for him and colored with layers of tobacco juice. The lefty-hitting Jackson had used the bat in the mill leagues and disdained choking up on the huge bat, usually holding it at the very bottom, with the little finger of his right hand curled around the knob. Jackson could neither read nor write, spoke with a distinctive Southern accent, and was noticeably naive about many aspects of urban life.
Jackson, however, knew how to crush enemy pitchers. He starred with Cleveland until traded to the Chicago White Sox before the 1915 season. His lifetime batting average, .356, remains the third best in baseball history. Such was Jackson’s ability, and the beauty of his swing, that Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth both considered him to be the best natural hitter