The alternate history of Shoeless Joe Jackson…
A long time ago, a fairly simple premise popped into my head: What would have happened if Joe Jackson had never been banned from baseball as part of the Black Sox scandal? There’s been a lot written about whether Shoeless Joe actually took part in the scheme to throw the 1919 World Series, and whether or not his eventual banishment was deserved. (Personally, I think he deserves to be reinstated and belongs in the Hall of Fame, but that is irrelevant to this story.)
The more I started to think about this hypothetical question and the timeline involved, a more interesting premise came about, one that had much wider implications for baseball as a whole and even American cultural history: What would have happened if Joe Jackson had been traded to the New York Yankees prior to the 1919 season? The story that follows gives one answer to that question, using the very real and controversial events surrounding Jackson’s decision to seek employment in the shipbuilding industry instead of accepting uniformed service during the later years of World War I. In real life, both sides relented and Jackson returned to the White Sox for a standard contract paying $6000. In my story, thanks to the assistance of fictional South Carolina attorney Archibald Chaplin, Jackson was traded to the Yankees in March 1919.
This is an idea that has morphed from a possible novel, to a short story, into the more straightforward alternate history presented here, which is how I think it works best. Think of it as the wikipedia entry that never was. Just for fun I’ve included some fake radio clips that I created of significant events from Jackson’s-career-with-the-Yankees-that-never-was, as well as projected statitics. I used Babe Ruth’s career stats from age 31 on (Jackson’s age at the time of the trade) as the basis for my projections, with some modifications made to account for Jackson’s remarkable ability to avoid striking out. Hardly scientific, but certainly not out of the realm of possibility I think based on his ability as a hitter, the left-handed hitter friendly dimensions of his new home parks, and the impact of the “live ball.”
James – November 10, 2015
Joseph Jefferson Jackson (Shoeless Joe)
1918-1920: World War I and “The Trade”
During the 1918 season, during the peak of the United States involvement in World War I, Joe Jackson, who had initially been granted a deferment by the draft board in his hometown of Greenville, SC, opted to work in a factory in Delaware making battleships for the duration of the conflict after the draft board reversed its decision. When some of his teammates followed Jackson’s example and signed up to work in armament factories to avoid serving in the army, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey became furious, and vowed to the press never to let the players return to his team.
After an awful showing by the White Sox during the 1918 season, though, Comiskey relented and offered Jackson a standard contract worth $6000, but the damage had been done. Jackson was hurt and upset that Comiskey had embarrassed him by publically questioning his patriotism and motivation for avoiding uniformed service, and he wanted nothing to do with anything Comiskey owned. After prolonged negotiations and threats by Jackson to sit out the season, he was eventually traded to the New York Yankees in exchange for second basemen Dell Pratt and outfielder Sammy Vick, along with $50,000 in cash. The Yankees subsequently signed Jackson to a contract that paid him $20,000, more than triple the White Sox offer.
Though the White Sox were talented enough to go on to win the pennant in 1919, the subsequent betting scandal and decades‐long championship drought caused many to refer to this trade as “The Curse of Shoeless Joe.” It had been difficult to justify the trade at time, and even more so in hindsight given Jackson’s prolific career, but recent revelations have revealed that South Carolina lawyer Archibald Chaplin engineered the trade with a threat to challenge the existing power structure in baseball, the reserve clause, in Federal Court if the White Sox refused. Faced with the possibility of losing Jackson for the season for nothing, and a potentially catastrophic lawsuit, Comiskey authorized the trade.
Jackson finished the 1919 season as the league leader in home runs with a career high 24, twelve more than anyone else in the league, as he quickly adapted his swing to the 257‐foot wall in right field at the Polo Grounds. Few of Jackson’s screaming line drives could be called cheap, however, as he was the only player ever to hit a ball completely out of that stadium, a feet he accomplished three times.
On May 13, 1919 he had his first two home run game with the Yankees, both hit off the excellent Red Sox left hander, George Ruth, who, coincidentally, injured his arm little over a week later while pitching 11 innings of relief against Jackson’s old team, the White Sox, and never played in another major league game, cutting short a promising career.
1920-1922: The Live Ball era begins
It was the 1920 season, however, with the introduction of the “live ball” era in baseball, that Jackson’s home run totals really began to explode. He hit 47 that season, to go along with 153 RBI and a .402 average, marking the second time he hit over .400 in his career without winning the batting title. Despite Jackson’s first MVP award, the Yankees finished 2 games behind the eventual World Series champion Cleveland Indians in the American League pennant race, posting a 96-58 record.
As Jackson’s home run totals grew, so did his popularity and fame, as the public’s appetite for one of his smashed line drive homers grew insatiable. The grounds crew at the Polo Grounds extended the foul line from first base to the right field wall, so that it was easier to tell whether a long drive was fair or foul. Home run mania came to a head during the 1921 season, when Jackson mashed an astronomical 60 long balls, a total made all the more incredible by the fact that he struck only 7 times that year, while driving in a career high 165 runs and walking 137 times.
(Listen to an early radio broadcast of Jackson’s 60th home run below.)
Not only did he win a second consecutive MVP award, Jackson also broke Roger Connor’s record for the most home runs all time when he hit his 139th on July 18 against Bert Cole of the Detroit Tigers. Jackson’s Yankees won the AL pennant for the first time and led the league in wins with 98, but were edged in World Series by the New York Giants, who won the series in eight games.
The Yankees finally broke through for their first World Series title in 1922, taking revenge by beating the rival Giants in five games. Though Jackson’s batting average dipped to .323, he slugged a league-high 54 home runs and drove in 146 runs, finishing second in the MVP voting. On October 8, Jackson, who adjusted to the Giants tactics to try and pitch around him as they did in the 1921 Series, thrilled crowds in the 1922 Series, when he hit two balls completely out of the Polo Grounds, and drove in six runs to clinch the title for the Yankees with a 8-5 victory.
1923: Commercial riches, the “House That Jackson Built” and the captaincy
After the Series, Jackson’s popularity skyrocketed to even higher levels, as he led a ticker tape parade through the streets of New York, and was signed to endorse several products nationally. Additionally, the Yankees rewarded him with a contract paying him $52,000 a year, the largest sum ever paid a ballplayer to that point, representing 40% of the team’s player payroll. In addition, Jackson was named the Yankees’ new on-field captain prior to the 1923 season.
1923 also marked the year that the Yankees finally left he Polo Grounds for their own stadium, moving into a park the team tailored the to their left-handed power hitter’s strength, with the low wall in right field wall a short 310 feet away, and the power alley a mere 355 feet from home, all the better to keep one of his scalded line drives from becoming a double off the wall.
The Yankees were never challenged, leading the league for most of the 1923 season and winning the AL pennant by 17 games. Jackson finished the season with a .345 batting average, along with a major league leading 46 home runs and 154 RBIs, to take home his third MVP award in four years. For the third straight year, the Yankees faced the Giants in the World Series, which Jackson dominated. He batted .368, walked eight times, scored eight runs, hit three home runs and slugged 1.000 during the series, as the Yankees won their second World Series championship, four games to two.
1924-1925: Individual brilliance and team frustration
Though Jackson continued to put up staggering individual numbers over the next three seasons, a combination of age and untimely injuries limited his team’s success. Jackson hit .359, and led the league again with 49 home runs and 154 RBIs during the 1924 season, but the Yankees finished 2 games back of the Washington Senators and failed to become the first team ever to win four consecutive pennants. The lack of team success damaged Jackson’s MVP prospects, and he slumped to 4th in the voting for the season.
Jackson’s individual brilliance continued during the 1925 season, as he turned in another excellent statistical performance, hitting .373/46/128, but it was not enough to keep the Yankees from slumping to next to last in the AL with a 69–85 record, their last season with a losing record until 1965.
1926-1928: Murderer’s Row and retirement
Though Yankee management rebuilt the team by surrounding the veteran core with good young players like Tony Lazzeri and Lou Gehrig, New York was not expected to challenge for the pennant heading into the 1926 season, and sportswriters began to question how much longer Jackson could continue to produce at such a high level.
Though Jackson did show the first signs of slowing down due to age in 1926, he still anchored the Yankee lineup along with Gehrig, batting .341 with 41 home runs and 137 RBIs. The Yankees built a ten-game lead by mid-June, and coasted to win the pennant by three games. The St. Louis Cardinals won the National League with the lowest winning percentage for a pennant winner to that point (.578) and the Yankees were expected to win the World Series easily. Although the Yankees won the opener in New York, St. Louis took Games Two and Three. In Game Four, Jackson hit three home runs, the first time this had been done in a World Series game, to lead the Yankees to victory. New York took Game Five as well, but Grover Cleveland Alexander won Game Six for St. Louis to tie the Series at three games each. Alexander was inserted into Game Seven in the seventh inning and shut down the Yankees to win the game, 3–2, and wining the Series for the Cardinals. Jackson hit his fourth home run of the Series earlier in the game, and was the only Yankee to reach base off Alexander, walking in the ninth inning before being caught stealing to end the game.
The 1927 New York Yankees team is considered one of the greatest collections of baseball talent ever assembled. Known as Murderer’s Row because of its powerful lineup, the team won a then-AL record 110 games, and took the pennant by 19 games, clinching first place on Labor Day. With little suspense as to the pennant race, the nation’s attention turned to Gehrig’s pursuit of Jackson’s single-season home run record of 60. Gehrig’s pace slowed in the later weeks of the season, and he would finish with 54. Jackson, now 39, batted .301 in addition to his 34 home runs and 104 RBIs. Though still remarkably productive, it was clear that Jackson was nearing the end of his career with the team.
In the 1927 World Series, the Yankees swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in four games; the National Leaguers were overwhelmed after watching the Yankees take batting practice before Game One, with ball after ball leaving Forbes Field. While the Series itself was one-sided, Jackson produced one of the most famous incidents in baseball history during game two, his legendary “called shot”.
When Jackson came to the plate in the top of the fifth, the frustrated Pittsburgh crowd screamed insults at him. With the count at two balls and one strike, Jackson gestured in the direction of center field with his bat, and after the next pitch (a strike), clearly pointed there again with one hand. Jackson then hit the fifth pitch over the center field fence, a monstrous blow that is estimated to have traveled 500 feet.
(Listen to a news broadcast describing the Yankees World Series win and Jackson’s “called shot.”)
Before the 1928 season, Jackson signed a new contract for an unprecedented $80,000 per year, and then announced that this would be his last season. Buoyed by a desire to see Jackson play in one more World Series, the season started off well for the Yankees, who led the league in the early weeks of the season. A combination of injuries, erratic pitching, inconsistent play, however, plagued the Yankees, and the Philadelphia Athletics, now rebuilt after several down seasons, erased the Yankees’ big lead and claimed first place briefly in early September. The Yankees, however, regained the top spot when they beat the Athletics three out of four games in a pivotal series at Yankee Stadium later that month, and clinched the pennant in the final weekend of the season. Jackson’s play in 1928 mirrored his team’s performance in many ways. He got off to a hot start, but slumped horribly for the much of the latter part of the season. Jackson’s batting average also fell to .288/22/88, well below his career averages. The Yankees swept the favored Cardinals in four games in the World Series, however, with Jackson going out in style batting .425 and hitting three home runs in the Series. Before his final at-bat, the crowd, including the opposing Cardinals, rose in a standing ovation in tribute to Jackson that delayed the game for nearly 15 minutes.
After his retirement, Jackson returned home to South Carolina, and mostly stayed out of the public eye, a move that only heightened his popularity and legend with the public. At the end of the 1938 season, he returned to New York to honor his old teammate Lou Gehrig, who surpassed his career homer run record of 463 during the season. Jackson returned again on July 4, 1939, speaking on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium. Members of the 1927 Yankees and a sellout crowd turned out to honor the first baseman, forced into premature retirement by ALS, the disease that would claim his life a mere two years later.
The next week, Jackson went to Cooperstown, New York for the formal opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame as one of the five original inductees. During World War II, perhaps wary of the public outcry over his World War I service, he made many personal appearances to advance the war effort, including his last appearance as a player at Yankee Stadium in a 1943 exhibition for the Army–Navy Relief Fund. During the game Jackson hit a long fly ball off Walter Johnson that curved foul just before leaving the field. At the urging of the crowd and the players on the field, Jackson reluctantly circled the bases anyway.
Impact and Legacy
Jackson was the first baseball player whose fame extended beyond baseball fans to the public at large. Baseball had developed star players before, such as Ty Cobb, but Jackson was the first to transcend the sports pages. The timing of Jackson’s rise to the “Home Run King” and his quiet, homespun demeanor played a major role in his massive popularity. America had been hit hard by both the war and the 1918 flu pandemic and was longing for something to help put these traumas behind it. He quickly became a larger-than-life figure capable of unprecedented athletic feats in the nation’s largest city, and soon became an icon of the significant social changes which marked the early 1920s as well. Jackson became such a symbol of the United States during his lifetime that during World War II, Japanese soldiers yelled in English, “To hell with Joe Jackson,” to anger American soldiers.
Jackson’s penchant for hitting home runs actually altered how baseball was played. Prior to 1920, home runs were unusual, and managers tried to win games by getting a runner on base and bringing him around to score through such means as the stolen base, the bunt, and the hit and run. Advocates of what was dubbed “inside baseball”, such as Giants manager McGraw, disliked the home run, considering it a blot on the purity of the game. Sportswriter W. A. Phelon declared that Jackson’s breakout performance during the 1920 season created such an excitement and spike in attendance, that it was clear “that the American public is nuttier over the Home Run than the Clever Fielding or the Hitless Pitching.” Baseball historian Bill James noted, “When the owners discovered that the fans liked to see home runs, and when the foundations of the games were simultaneously imperiled by disgrace [in the Black Sox Scandal], then there was no turning back.” While a few, such as McGraw and Cobb, decried the passing of the old-style play, teams quickly began to seek and develop sluggers.
The fact that Jackson played when a relatively small portion of his fans had the opportunity to see him in person, in the era before television coverage of baseball, allowed his legend to grow through word of mouth and the hyperbole of sports reporters. Jackson dominated a relatively small sports world, while Americans of the present era have many sports available to watch. According to contemporary sportswriter Grantland Rice, only two sports figures of the 1920s approached Jackson in popularity—boxer Jack Dempsey and racehorse Man o’ War. One of the factors that contributed to Jackson’s broad appeal was his humble upbringing and early life. Jackson appeared to exemplify the American success story, that even an uneducated, unsophisticated youth, without any family wealth or connections, can do something better than anyone else in the world.
Jackson has been named the greatest baseball player of all time in various surveys and rankings. In 1998, The Sporting News ranked him number one on the list of “Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players”. He was named baseball’s Greatest Player Ever in a ballot commemorating the 100th anniversary of professional baseball in 1969, and baseball fans named Jackson to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999. His numbers from 1920 until his retirement in 1928 still astound to this day, with his single season home run record of 60 standing until 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61. (Jackson’s total was reinstated to second all time recently after Commissioner Bob Costas had the totals of all suspected steroid users struck from the record books.)
Jackson eventually retired with 463 career home runs, a mark that stood for a decade until his teammate Gehrig eclipsed him early in 1938. Unlike Jackson though, Gehrig played his entire career in the live ball era, so it is certain that his already mammoth home run totals would have been much higher if his career had started a few years later. Numerous baseball historians have estimated that if had Jackson been 25 in 1920 at the start of the live ball era and not 31, he would have hit more than 700 home runs by the time that he retired, and would, after the Costas steroid record purge, be the all time home run leader to this day.