Shoeless Joe: Alive and tweeting

Shoeless Joe: Alive and tweeting
May 8, 2013, 8:00 am
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Whatever his role was in the fix, [Jackson] was genuinely a decent person and he was not an idiot.
—Chicago History Museum archivist Peter Alter

Years after his playing days, the legendary "Shoeless" Joe Jackson opened a liquor store in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. The story goes that one day Ty Cobb and famed sportswriter Grantland Rice entered Jackson's store to buy some alcohol. When a stone-faced Jackson showed no signs of recognizing the Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer, an astonished Cobb asked Jackson, "Don't you know me, Joe?"

Jackson replied, "Sure, I know you, Ty, but I wasn't sure you wanted to know me. A lot of them don't."

That was Jackson's life after the 1919 Black Sox scandal which rocked the game of baseball. Jackson and seven other White Sox players were permanently banned from baseball for attempting to throw the World Series. Once considered one of the game's greatest hitters, Jackson’s career became synonymous with cheating America's pastime.

But now, almost 62 years after his death, Jackson has been brought back to life.

On Twitter.

"We’re trying to put a human face on him," said Peter Alter, archivist at the Chicago History Museum and the brains behind the idea of giving Shoeless Joe a voice after decades of silence. "He’s not just this ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe’ guy. He’s not the guy who comes out of the cornfield in Iowa [from the movie Field of Dreams]. He’s not the guy in the movie or the book Eight Men Out."

He was the father of a sharecropper. He almost died of measles when he was 10. He has the third-highest career batting average in major league history. And yes, he agreed to help throw the 1919 World Series.

Since Opening Day, the museum’s account has been tweeting for Jackson using the Twitter handle @TheShoelessJoe. There’s also a Tumblr account chronicling his life. Jackson’s first tweet on April 1 reads, "I know what everyone has said about me for years. This is the chance to tell my story."

The museum, which won a treasure trove of Black Sox documents at an auction in 2007, has boxes of fascinating material to share -- like the 1920 grand jury testimony in which Jackson admits to his involvement in throwing the World Series. The museum holds the log of that testimony once owned by the law firm representing original White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.

“This was really the smoking gun that Judge Landis used when he was Major League Baseball Commissioner to kick Shoeless Joe out of baseball for good,” Alter said. “It really sets the stage for the rest of what happens to Shoeless Joe in the criminal trial and the rest of his life.”

"How much did they pay?" Jackson was asked about the gamblers during his testimony at the Cook County Courthouse on September 28, 1920.

"They promised me $20,000, and paid me five," Jackson responded.

"Who paid you the $5,000?"

"[Former White Sox pitcher] Lefty Williams brought it to my room and threw it down," Jackson admitted.

“Whatever his role was in the fix, [Jackson] was genuinely a decent person and he was not an idiot,” Alter said of Jackson, a man of few words and no education. “He was aware of what was going on. He certainly regretted it later.”

Jackson is tweeting about his past, as well as the present. On May 7, reacting to news of an injured White Sox hurler, Jackson wrote, “After I got hurt in a car crash, I thought I might be out of baseball for awhile, like this pitcher.”

He then shared a link to a story about Gavin Floyd, who is out 14-to-19 months after having elbow surgery.

“He’ll react to any scandals or any significant developments during the season from Shoeless Joe’s perspective,” Alter said. “He might make mention of performance-enhancing drugs, the daily controversies in baseball. I think he would have lots of commentary about that.”

Alter, who teaches a public history course at DePaul University, assigned five of his students to sift through gripping court transcripts, plus compelling photos, telegrams, newspaper articles, etc. Many have been scanned and are being tweeted out by Jackson.

And how about this: you can even ask Shoeless Joe a question.

“Absolutely. He might not have the absolute answer that the person is asking for, but yes, definitely,” Alter said.

If Jackson was alive today and playing in the prime of his career, how many Twitter followers would he have?

“If not millions, at least several hundred thousand, absolutely,” Alter said. Although Jackson was illiterate, “his wife Katie would have to be typing for him.”

With the project in its infancy, and Jackson long out of the public spotlight, he only has 89 followers at this point.

The museum is working by the motto: build it and they will come.

"We’re trying to grow his followers. We’ve been going for a month," Alter said. "We’re not quite into the scandal yet. We’re going biographically. When the 2013 pennant race begins to heat up, when the NBA and NHL playoffs are over, we’ll really start to get into some of the meat of the story that people will really, really want to know about."

If you’re interested in following Jackson, his time back in the present day is limited. He’ll stop tweeting when he’s finished telling his story, soon after the World Series.

Then it’s back to the afterlife -- maybe to that cornfield in Iowa or the parking lot where old Comiskey Park used to stand, across the street from U.S. Cellular Field.

Say it ain’t so, Joe?

It turns out that Jackson has plenty to say while he’s here.