When the Greenville Drive ball club of the South Atlantic League takes the field, they continue a baseball legacy kindled, in part, by Greenville’s most famous resident. Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Sitting in South Carolina’s northwestern region, Greenville cares not that Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned Jackson and seven other Chicago White Sox players from Major League Baseball for allegedly conspiring to purposely lose the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in return for a payoff from gamblers—this, despite an acquittal of the players in court. A legendary, though apocryphal, story about the World Series fix depicts a boy encountering Jackson with tears in his eyes as he pleads, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
Greenville honors its favorite baseball son with Shoeless Joe Jackson Memorial Park, described by Greenville County Parks, Recreation & Tourism as a parcel boasting a strong baseball lineage: “This historic park is located on Greenville’s Westside in the Brandon Mill Community. Once part of a thriving textile mill complex, the original park/ball field was home to mill workers who played baseball and competed against other mill leagues across Greenville County.”
Located at 356 Field Street, the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Baseball Library faces the Greenville Drive’s ballpark, Fluor Field. With an address number representing Jackson’s lifetime batting average, the museum—formerly Jackson’s home—educates visitors about the career of a baseball legend, misunderstood, perhaps, through portrayals in baseball scholarship. Originally located on East Wilburn Street, the house was removed in 2006 for its new life on Field Street. The museum débuted in 2008.
Jackson’s banishment from Major League Baseball is a sure-fire debate started for baseball history enthusiasts. In the 1919 World Series, Jackson batted .375. It’s hardly a number indicative of a player throwing a game. Disputes abound regarding Jackson’s involvement, knowledge, and alleged payoff in the “Black Sox” controversy. A former federal judge who broke the oil trust governed by John D. Rockefeller, Landis banned the eight White Sox players because he set a standard higher than the law. After the scandal broke, the team owners selected Landis to remove the tarnish created by the gambling scandal. Certainly, the owners thought, Landis could revive baseball’s image.
Landis declared, “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
W.P. Kinsella introduced Shoeless Joe Jackson to a new generation of baseball fans in the 1982 novel Shoeless Joe—the inspiration for the 1989 movie Field of Dreams. In Kinsella’s story, Shoeless Joe emerges from the hereafter along with other Black Sox players on an Iowa farm transformed into a baseball field by the farm’s owner. Kinsella incorporated J.D. Salinger into the storyline, portraying the reclusive author as a baseball fan captivated by the sight of dead ballplayers resurrected to play baseball for sheer joy. Field of Dreams, because of legal action threatened, or at least suggested by Salinger’s attorneys, showcased the character with a name change—Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones.
Kinsella named the farm’s owner Ray Kinsella in Shoeless Joe, though he denied a parallel to his name as the source of inspiration. In ESPN.com’s 2014 article “Where it began: ‘Shoeless Joe,'” Kinsella explained, “Why Ray Kinsella? The choice of name for my protagonist had little to do with me personally, and everything to do with Salinger. While researching the novel, I found that Salinger had used two characters named Kinsella in his fiction: Richard Kinsella, an annoying classmate in The Catcher in the Rye, and Ray Kinsella, in the short story A Young Girl in 1941 With No Waist at All, originally published in Mademoiselle magazine. I decided to name my character Ray Kinsella so he could turn up on Salinger’s doorstep and say, ‘I’m one of your fictional creations come to life, here to take you to a baseball game.”
In a review for the New York Times, Daniel Okrent praised Shoeless Joe: “Mr. Kinsella is drunk on complementary elixirs, literature and baseball, and the cocktail he mixes of the two is a lyrical, seductive and altogether winning concoction. It’s a love story, really the love his characters have for the game becoming manifest in the trips they make through time and space and ether.”
Jackson died in 1951, but his imprint on baseball carries on.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 27, 2014.