MLB.com Columnist

Paul Hagen

New book helps paint portrait of Shoeless Joe

Author Hornbaker adds context to former great's role in Black Sox Scandal

New book helps paint portrait of Shoeless Joe

Time has only added to the mystique of Shoeless Joe Jackson. There have been movies, a Broadway play, books and documentaries featuring his role in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. There is a museum dedicated to his life in his hometown of Greenville, S.C.

Despite that, Jackson exists in most memories as a one-dimensional, almost cartoonish caricature. The unschooled farm boy who may or may not have been hoodwinked by crooked teammates and big-city gamblers to help throw the World Series.

"Fall from Grace: The Truth and Tragedy of Shoeless Joe Jackson" helps flesh out that portrait and add context to the actions of a player who was banned from baseball for life for his part in the scheme. Nearly a century later, there are periodic grassroots movements to reinstate the .356 lifetime hitter and make him eligible for the Hall of Fame.

In this undertaking, author Tim Hornbaker is working familiar territory. Three years ago, in "Turning the Black Sox White," he challenged the orthodoxy that the disgraced players were motivated by their disdain for the miserly ways of owner Charles Comiskey. Last year, he came out with a biography of Ty Cobb; Jackson's relationship with Cobb and their almost annual battles for the batting title are a recurring theme in his latest work.

Hornbaker's conclusion about Comiskey was clear: That the owner had gotten a bum rap. His bottom line on Jackson is far murkier. He concedes at one point that there are so many conflicting accounts of what happened that the full truth may never be known.

So Hornbaker patiently presents the evidence and invites the reader to become the jury.

Yes, Jackson couldn't read or write. Yes, he was naïve and easily led. Yes, there were times, such as when he turned down overtures from the outlaw Federal League, when he seemed impervious to the allure of big money.

But Jackson also had very human flaws. Early in his career, after signing with the Philadelphia Athletics, he was briefly suspended and blacklisted for behavior that was probably related to homesickness. While it was universally acknowledged that Jackson was one of the best hitters ever, the rest of his game was frequently criticized.

After being drafted for World War I, Jackson dodged going to battle by taking a job with a shipbuilding company. For this, he was openly criticized by both Comiskey and American League president Ban Johnson -- rebukes he didn't easily forget.

Hornbaker writes that Jackson twice rebuffed invitations to join the conspiracy and speculates that he may not have fully understood the gravity of what he was doing. But he did eventually agree. Jackson did repeatedly ask when he would get his money. He did accept $5,000 (a quarter of what he had been promised). And he did admit all of this under oath.

Later, after hiring a lawyer, Jackson recanted everything. The contradictions to what he said early and what he said later are breathtaking. Jackson signed with an entrepreneur who launched a public relations campaign on his behalf.

Jackson insisted that his .375 batting average in the World Series was proof that he did all he could to try to win. Noting that Jackson failed to produce eight times with men on base, seven with runners in scoring position, Hornbaker adds: "In truth, no one to this day can say for sure whether Jackson played honest and true baseball during the 1919 World Series. All we have are the stats and they only tell part of the story."

As it turns out, this long-ago tale has a modern-day parallel. After Commissioner Bud Selig retired, banned all-time hit king Pete Rose applied for reinstatement last year with new Commissioner Rob Manfred. After a hearing, Rose was turned down.

In 1933, Jackson applied for reinstatement with Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the Commissioner who had banned him in the first place. He was denied. But after Landis passed away in 1944, Jackson's supporters were ready to try again with successor Happy Chandler. For some reason, their petition never made it to the new Commissioner.

In 1988, long since retired, Chandler was quoted saying he thought Shoeless Joe Jackson belonged in the Hall of Fame.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.