Whatever the town, whatever the team and however incredulous the teammates or the fans, Joe Jackson inevitably must perform a baseball ritual that to him must now be as ingrained as oiling a glove.
He has to say it’s so.
Because he can’t say it isn’t so.
It is an impossibility to be in baseball with the name Joe Jackson and not have every other person instantaneously connect the dots, to brighten at what they assume must be an epic coincidence and their thrill at being in on it.
“Hey, Shoeless Joe,” they say.
It might be the only baseball nickname they know other than maybe “Yogi,” which isn’t a baseball nickname as much as it is part of the owner’s DNA. In fact, it is at once the game’s most romantic and heart-breaking nickname.
Just possibly it’s the most baseball nickname in baseball.
And Joe Jackson handles it depending on his mood. Maybe a smile and a bob of the head, eyebrows flicked to high beam. Or maybe he’ll engage and just let them run with it a little bit. But eventually, as he did with his Spokane Indians teammates, he has to come clean.
He has to tell them that he’s Shoeless Joe Jackson’s great-great-great nephew. Really.
Then the fun starts all over again.
The Indians return home to start the second half of the Northwest League season tonight against Vancouver, though it’s still Joe Jackson’s first half. The fifth-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers broke a finger before opening day and since returning less than two weeks ago has been trying to play his way into a groove, alternating between catcher and DH.
But he’s never out of practice answering questions about his namesake.
Joe Jackson. It is a famously common name, and commonly famous. But there is only one Shoeless Joe, whose ensnarement with eight other members of the Chicago White Sox in the fix of the 1919 World Series got him banned from baseball and, thus, the Hall of Fame. It also made him, over the decades, into a cultural transducer, inspiring filmmakers to turn cornfields into baseball diamonds and Broadway lyricists to cadge his name in song. Between “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” and “If you build it, he will come,” the fact and fiction of Shoeless Joe Jackson filled baseball’s essential Bartlett’s.
But he was first a hell of a baseball player, and then beloved figure in his hometown of Greenville, S.C., before and after his death in 1951. He ran a liquor store and coached a little and befriended kids, as he and his wife Katie had none of their own. His old home is a museum now, and there’s a statue of him in Greenville’s West End, an interesting flipside to his role in what may have been baseball’s lowest moment.
“He’s an icon there,” Jackson said.
Rather than be daunted by a legacy, Joe Jackson chased the game and embraced the name, which has been passed down with love (both his grandfather and father are Joes). He soaked up first-hand stories, read the second-hand accounts, even wrote a book report about the man and the scandal in grade school.
“I learned he was a very humble man,” he said. “He didn’t talk baseball at all, though everyone knew he had a passion for it. He got caught up in a bad thing and people remember you for that, but they also remember you for how you are, for the good you do, and I think that’s why he’s a hero there.”
But Shoeless Joe’s culpability in the Black Sox affair has never been definitively parsed, the pronouncements of judges and commissioners notwithstanding. Purported confessions went missing and his Series stats are as resplendent (a .375 average, and no errors), though seamheads have argued that his hits were not crucial, as if that can be turned on and off.
“He told the family he didn’t do it,” Jackson said. “That’s good enough for me. There’s a quote from him: ‘God knows I gave my best in baseball at all times and no man on earth can truthfully judge me otherwise.’ And I don’t think I’ve met anyone in Greenville who doesn’t believe him.”
And it’s why he wore Shoeless Joe’s ring, which belongs to his father, from the 1917 World Series when he signed his letter of intent to play college baseball at The Citadel. In time, it’s likely to be his.
For now, he’ll content himself with the name. And one other connection. It seems when Jackson flew into Spokane last month, his luggage didn’t arrive with him. So in his first workout with the Indians, he had to borrow some cleats.
Shoeless Joe. It’s so.