Philly Ran Out Shoeless Joe? Say It Ain't So!

Today, we look at the career of one of the greatest hitters in MLB history, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and examine his contentious relationship with Philadelphia fans and media.

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Pregame Pepper

Did you know…

. . . Though he only played in 13 MLB seasons, Shoeless Joe Jackson has a place among many of the most prestigious records in MLB history.

  • His .356 career batting average is fourth-highest all-time, trailing only Ty Cobb (.366), Oscar Charleston (.364, played in the Negro Leagues), and Rogers Hornsby (.358).

  • Jackson even hit .408 one season, in 1911, which was by far his best single-season mark and still ranks as the highest rookie batting average in MLB history (Jackson had only played 30 career games before 1911, so he was still technically a rookie). However, perhaps because he played at the same time as Cobb, Jackson never won a single batting title in his career (the year he hit .408, Cobb hit .419, which was also his highest single-season batting average).

  • He also set a record for most hits in a single World Series with 12 (achieved in the infamous 1919 World Series) that stood until Bobby Richardson broke it with 13 hits in the 1964 Fall Classic.

  • Jackson’s career .423 on-base percentage ranks 18th all-time.

Leading Off

Shoeless Joe Jackson and Philadelphia

By Jason Love

The Philadelphia 76ers were eliminated from the NBA playoffs by the Atlanta Hawks earlier this summer. During the series, Ben Simmons of the Sixers had a less-than-stellar performance. He was reluctant to shoot in the fourth quarter and missed more than he made at the foul line. After the playoffs, Philadelphia fans essentially blamed Simmons for their team losing to the underdog Hawks. 

In a recent interview, Simmons’ teammate Danny Green mentioned how the negativity of Philadelphia fans has an impact on players. Green gave an honest assessment of how he felt this negativity adversely affects players. Were the Philly fans too harsh on Ben Simmons? 

Green was then roundly criticized by talk radio and the fans for his comments. But what does this have to do with baseball? 

Shoeless Joe Jackson made his first appearance in a Major League Baseball game on August 25, 1908 for the Philadelphia Athletics. Manager Connie Mack saw Jackson’s great talent and thought he could contribute to the A’s. The one thing “The Tall Tactician” did not foresee was how Jackson would respond to playing in a big city like Philadelphia. 

Jackson’s story has been told many times before, but he was born in Pickens County, South Carolina, in 1887. He started working in the textile factories at an early age and never received much of an education. He learned to play baseball in the textile mill leagues and turned a few heads. Jackson was a pure contact hitter and held his own with the older cotton mill players. It was through his play in the textile league that Mack took notice of him and signed him to a contract.

Once Jackson reached Philadelphia in 1908, he grew homesick and wanted to return to the South. His southern drawl, homesickness, and his inability to read made him an easy target with the fans, sportswriters, and his more polished teammates. Jackson played only a few games in both 1908 and 1909 for the Athletics. When no one was looking, he would hop on a train and head back South. Eventually, Mack traded him to the Cleveland Naps, figuring Jackson might do better in a smaller city. This turned out to be true, as Jackson batted .408 for Cleveland in 1911. After a few years, he moved on to the Chicago White Sox in 1915, where he eventually finished his career. 

The Sixers and Simmons coming up short to the Hawks in the playoffs made me think of Jackson and the Athletics over 100 years ago. Sometimes, sports talk radio, the media, and the fans can be tough on local athletes. Despite their million dollar salaries and athletic skill, some athletes are more sensitive than others. Simmons seemed to have trouble handling the pressure. How will he respond moving forward? Will he stay in Philadelphia or move on to a less sports-intense city? 

Similarly, how different would things have been if Jackson had some type of guidance early on in his Philadelphia playing days? If he remained with Mack throughout his career, would he have played well into the 1920s? 

Jackson batted .382 in his last year with the White Sox in 1920. The Athletics won three World Series during Jackson’s time playing in the Majors. Would he have been a critical part of those championship teams? If Jackson was not taunted and ridiculed by fans and sportswriters, could he have found success in Philadelphia? Instead of remembering him for his association with the Black Sox scandal, would fans today be talking about Jackson’s place in Cooperstown? Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure.

Jason Love is the author of the new book Slices of Americana: A Road Trip Through American Baseball History with Sunbury Press. You can follow him on Twitter @jason_love1.

Photos from Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum & Baseball Library
Photo credits: Lindsey Heatherly

Extra Innings

“Joe is a grand ball player, and one who will get better and better. There is no denying that he is a better ball player his first year in the big league than anyone ever was.”

- Ty Cobb in 1911, discussing Shoeless Joe Jackson’s breakout season

“All the big sportswriters seemed to enjoy writing about me as an ignorant cotton-mill boy with nothing but lint where my brains ought to be. That was all right with me. I was able to fool a lot of pitchers and managers and club owners I wouldn’t have been able to fool if they’d thought I was smarter.”

- Shoeless Joe Jackson in a 1949 interview