In the Footsteps of Shoeless Joe

You’ve been talkin’, workin’ out your deal; let’s sit down, make this thing real. I said I wanted to be your friend, and you find ways to make it end. I feel – I feel like Shoeless Joe; I feel, yeah, Lord I feel like Joe. – Bruce Hampton

Those lyrics are from the song “Shoeless Joe,” by Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, from their great album Mirrors of Embarrassment. That was just the first time Bruce sang about Joe Jackson, baseball’s tragic fallen hero, and one of its most misunderstood figures.

Last weekend I gained a better understanding of poor old Joe, thanks to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum & Baseball Library in Greenville, South Carolina. I was in town ostensibly for a book signing at M. Judson Booksellers, but as I’ve grown accustomed where all things Bruce Hampton are concerned, the universe had other synergistic reasons for me to be there. Worlds, interests, meanings, and people collide when Hampton magic is at work.

Anyway, the book signing was a lot of fun. Didn’t sell many books, but drank some great coffee, enjoyed meeting the friendly and brilliant bookstore staff, and visited with some friends, including Sam Church, who once conspired to bring Bruce and the Hampton Grease Band to rural Habersham County for a high school dance, then enjoyed a great career in rock and roll radio; and Darryl Rhoades, a bona fide Atlanta music legend who probably hates being called that – founder and leader of memorable bands the Hahavishnu Orchestra and the Mighty Men from Glad, comedian, writer, and a baseball memorabilia expert.

Shoeless Joe Jackson is immortalized as a statue gazing out at a tape measure shot, just outside of Greenville’s Fluor Field, where he never played a game. Don’t let that stop you from visiting. Home of the Greenville Drive, this is a gorgeous ball park in a gorgeous city.

Both of these gentlemen mentioned the Shoeless Joe Jackson connection to Greenville – his hometown, where he still is a legend 70 years after his death – and the fact that there was a museum, nearby, dedicated to his memory. Of course I knew that this was Shoeless Joe’s town. I’d even taken a selfie in front of the Shoeless Joe statue at Fluor Field at a ballgame earlier this year. But, a museum? This was news to me.

I’m always on the hunt for the next “Aha!” baseball moment. Well, the Shoeless Joe museum and its executive director, Dan Wallach, afforded me enough “aha” moments to satisfy my appetite for this kind of stuff, at least for a little while – after leaving the museum, I was compelled to download a biography of Shoeless Joe for the drive home.

Anyway, forget what you think you know about Joe and his career and the Black Sox Scandal if “Eight Men Out” is your main source of information. Having read the book, and seen the movie about a dozen times (I have a copy and yes, in case you were wondering, director/actor John Sayles does look remarkably like Ring Lardner).

The book and movie are presented as historical accounts of the infamous Black Sox Scandal, the 1919 World Series that was thrown to the underdog Cincinnati Reds by a number of dirty players on the heavily favored White Sox. Both the book and movie (one of my favorites) are highly entertaining and dramatic, and also highly inaccurate.

Dan did a great job of summarizing the actual story of the Black Sox Scandal, using a revelatory report produced by the Society for American Baseball Research in 2019, called “Eight Myths Out.” It’s totally worth your time. Let’s just say that Charlie Comiskey wasn’t the cheapskate he’s always been made out to be. Eddie Cicotte wasn’t promised a bonus for 30 wins. Players – not gamblers – initiated the fix. Read the report.

The museum is located at 356 Field Street, .356 being Shoeless Joe Jackson’s lifetime batting average. Baseball nerds like myself pick up on this kind of significant minutiae immediately.

Anyway, Joe was banned from baseball for life, along with seven others, for being in on the plot to throw the Series. He wasn’t in on it, though he did receive $5,000. He tried to give it back, tried to tell his bosses (including Comiskey) about the fix. He played to win, set a record for most hits in a World Series. But once Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis tossed Joe and the others, they were gone for good.

All of this and so much more is brought to life at the Shoeless Joe Museum, which is located in the last house Jackson actually lived in – moved from its original location to its current spot, across the street from Fluor Field, home of the Greenville Drive, a Boston Red Sox minor league team (the park even has its own version of the Green Monster).

The museum tells almost as much about mill-town history as it does about baseball, with priceless photos of the corporate villages that cropped up in the Carolina Upstate.

I felt kind of high as I slipped my hand into a tiny glove like the one Joe wore, and held a replica of Joe’s bat, ‘Black Betsy’ – at 36 inches and 48 ounces with a thick handle, it was more like a shillelagh than a bat. I imagined what it must have felt like to hit .408 swinging a hefty club like that, which is exactly what Shoeless Joe did in his first full season, 1911.

They even let guys who can’t ascend the Mendoza Line hold Shoeless Joe’s mighty war club.

Speaking of which, Col. Bruce Hampton sang about Joe in a second song, called “1911.” It’s part of an unfinished, probably never-to-be-released studio album Bruce was working on with his collaborators Jez Graham and Darren Stanley, among others. He performed the song live a few times with the Aquarium Rescue Unit during their 2015 reunion tour, but the live version actually pales in comparison to the cool groove cut that Jez shared with me. I think it was recorded at Darren’s place.

Anyway, it’s got a great pace and rhythm and Jez’s piano brushes up against atonal jazz as Bruce sings, “All they had to say was 1911,” before monologuing over the music, “ Ty Cobb had a 40 game hitting streak. Batted .420. Honus Wagner had retired. Shoeless Joe hit .408 that year. How would you feel if you hit .408 and came in second place?”

But his original paean to Joe, “Shoeless Joe,” captures the tragic feeling of Jackson best as Bruce’s vocals scream cosmic empathy for the great ballplayer. That song features some of mandolinist Matt Mundy’s most freakish playing with ARU, amazingly fast lighting runs, faster than running water, with Oteil’s scat singing and made-up words mingling with his bass like sonic DNA strands. A wonderful song, the entire band at its best in a studio performance overseen by the great Johnny Sandlin.

“You got things done, you hit your home run,” Bruce sings. “You scored from first, talked to the ump. He controlled the game, got me in the dumps. I feel …”

Get your own feel going, and take a trip to Greenville, and check out the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum & Baseball Library. Say hello to Dan and the gang. Linger awhile. Then tell me that Joe Jackson doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame.

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