Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 16, 2000
BASEBALL: Shoeless Joe and Charlie Hustle
This is a slightly edited version of a column on Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose that first ran on the BSG site in June 2000.
You might remember that a number of prominent members of Congress shepherded through “commemorative” legislation in the fall of 1999 urging Major League Baseball to honor Shoeless Joe Jackson with induction into the Hall of Fame. (Warning: the link is to a PDF file. There was also a companion bill that passed the South Carolina Legislature in 1998, but I've mislaid the link since this article first ran.) It seems like a big contrast to the events of the last few years, as baseball continues to refuse Pete Rose permission to be honored for his accomplishments -- they barred him from the 25th anniversary festivities of the '75 Big Red Machine and continue to insist on keeping him out of Cooperstown.
Putting Shoeless Joe in the Hall of Fame would be outrageous; the people involved with this legislation should be ashamed of themselves. While Rose is also deserving of sanction, his case is a much different story; I will explain below why he should be allowed into Cooperstown.
The argument in favor of Shoeless Joe, as set forth by our Congress (feel the tax dollars at work!) in bills passing both houses with unanimous consent, runs like this:
--1. Shoeless Joe was acquitted in a court of law of fixing the 1919 World Series.
--2. Baseball never gave Jackson a hearing.
--3. Jackson’s outstanding play in the series, hitting .375 with the series’ only homer and no errors in the field, suggests that he was giving his all.
--4. Shoeless Joe got cold feet after taking $5,000 to participate in the fix; he considered sitting out the series, tried to give the money back, and tried to tell owner Charlie Comiskey about the fix.
--5. 80 years is too long to hold a grudge.
Let's pollute this little back-scratching exercise with a few facts, shall we?
--1. The acquittal of Jackson and his cronies in a Chicago court was a bigger fix than the 1960 Presidential election; the signed confessions of several of the players were not admitted into evidence because they had "mysteriously" disappeared from the DA’s office. That’s obstruction of justice in a big way; even if it was never pinned on anyone, it’s nothing Congress should point to with pride.
--2. There was no need for a hearing. Given the confessions and the evidence that actually was presented and contested in court, there could really be no question that the series was fixed, that the “8 men out” had known it was fixed, that several had received money from the gamblers and that at least five of the players had been active participants in throwing games. As a legal matter, Judge Landis (the commissioner and a former federal judge himself) could draw his own conclusions from this evidence; he wasn’t bound to reach the same conclusion as the jury, particularly since a ban from baseball does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
--3. Jackson played well in the Series, but when you examine the stats closely, he didn’t play SO well that you could rule out participation in the fix on that ground alone. The Black Sox weren’t trying to get swept, after all, just lose the series; Jackson batted .545 in their three victories but .286 in the five losses, .267 in the first four defeats. The decisive Game 8, in which Jackson did most of his damage (a solo homer and a 2-RBI double) was a blowout, courtesy of Lefty Williams; Jackson fouled out with 2 on in the first inning, so the White Sox were still down 5-0 when Jackson homered, and 10-1 when he doubled. He still made the last out of the game, though.
(If you want the actual play-by-play, courtesy of a pro-Joe website, click here.)
--4. Jackson said that he went to Comiskey, which proves only that they should tear down Comiskey’s plaque in Cooperstown. But he didn’t go to the police. He didn’t go to the press, not even when Christy Mathewson and writer Ring Lardner were questioning the White Sox’ effort. He didn’t tell his other teammates, or the manager. He kept his mouth shut for a year afterwards. And he spent the $5,000 he got for participating in the fix. Once you get involved in a conspiracy, it takes more than that to back out.
-5. Eighty years is a long time, but hey, the guy’s been dead for 49 years. Why the rush to honor him? If punishing Jackson doesn’t matter anymore, why does honoring him? Heck, Hitler’s been dead 55 years now; let’s let bygones be bygones and put up a statue to him! (Note that I'm not comparing Joe Jackson to Hitler; the point here is just that right is right and wrong is wrong, and the passage of time changes neither).
Shoeless Joe knew that his teammates were throwing the World Series, actively corrupting the game. He took money ($5,000 was nothing to sneeze at in 1919) to participate. He did nothing to stop the fix, and nothing to expose it. Thirty years later, he was still denying that it had ever happened.
Jackson’s story is somewhat sad because so much talent was wasted, but should we forgive him just because he could hit? Where’s the movement to clear Fred McMullen and Happy Felsch? Yeah, he was illiterate, but he wasn’t an imbecile; he became a successful businessman after the ban.
The Shoeless Joe bill was sponsored in the Senate by Strom Thurmond, Fritz Hollings, Tom Harkin, and John McCain, and in the House by the South Carolina delegation and Steve Largent. The movement has been spearheaded by Ted Williams (who took the cause to his grave), Bob Feller and Tommy Lasorda. And all these people should know better.
I suppose I can understand Thurmond, since Jackson was once a constituent (he was running a liquor store in South Carolina when Thurmond ran against Harry Truman for President) and Thurmond is old enough to remember Jackson’s playing days, having been 48 years old when Shoeless Joe hit .408 as a rookie in 1911 (that's a joke -- he really WAS eight, though). The other South Carolina folks seem wrapped up in the whole native-son bit. Still, Harkin (whose only connection is that “Field of Dreams” was shot in Iowa) and McCain (who signed on before the South Carolina primary) seem like unlikely crusaders for corruption. And Largent, Feller, Lasorda, Teddy Ballgame; those guys wouldn’t have tolerated this on their own teams.
I have a lot of respect for a number of those people, but on this one, shame on all of them. Maybe they should research the facts before they blindly support someone who sold out America's pastime.
Turning to Rose . . .
You probably know that Jackson sits on baseball’s "permanently ineligible" list, as does current all-time hits leader Pete Rose. Under baseball rules, individuals on the ineligible list may not participate in the game in any capacity – player, manager, coach. They also may not appear at any baseball event. In response to the Rose ban, baseball also passed a rule barring the Hall of Fame from honoring anyone on the ineligible list. Rose was granted a waiver to appear in the All-Century Team festivities, but he's otherwise been banned from any other baseball event.
In my opinion, unlike Jackson, Rose should be allowed to participate in this sort of thing and he should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He should not, however, ever be allowed to manage or coach again.
To recap, Rose was basically accused of three things:
--1. Gambling heavily on sports, including baseball games in which he wasn’t involved. This meant that Rose associated with, and accumulated gambling debts to, shady characters who bet on baseball and had ties to organized crime.
--2. Refusing to admit he has a gambling problem.
--3. Betting on the Reds, in some, but not all, the games he was managing.
The evidence on the first two points is fairly ironclad, and Rose has never offered anything to seriously dispute them. These two facts, alone, justify baseball’s continuing ban on Rose’s involvement in the game as a manager or in any other capacity. This isn’t Michael Jordan betting with his golf buddies, Charles Barkley hanging out in a casino, or even Rogers Hornsby or John McGraw betting on horse races (which is closer but still different); this is gambling on the outcome of the very kind of thing Rose did for a living. Professional sports have enough perverse institutional incentives as is; they can’t afford to employ people who are in debt to people who have a powerful incentive to fix games. So, Rose is a threat to the FUTURE integrity of the game. And, he’s a liar who can’t be trusted. For its own protection, the game should keep Pete Rose on the ineligible list.
But there's one catch here: Neither of these facts suggest that Rose has actually done anything to impair the integrity of a major league baseball game. It's not remotely in the same league as throwing a baseball game or taking bribes to throw a game or even remaining silent with the knowledge that your teammates are throwing a game.
Even the rules of the game specify only a one-year suspension for betting on a baseball game that you are not involved in. There are those, Jim Gray apparently included, who seem to think that the issue is when Rose will apologize and own up to his failings. It’s the modern way, you know; say you're sorry and all is forgiven.
We have seen this same scenario in the Latrell Sprewell and John Rocker cases. Spree refused to take his punishment like a man and even sued his agent for letting him get punished; that’s what really got people mad. Rocker’s failure to learn anything from his troubles jeopardized his entire career over words alone – very bad words, but nothing nearly as bad as, say, wife-beating. Yes, contrition is a hugely important part of our criminal justice system as well as our religious traditions, but it’s important to keep perspective, too. What Rose did was inexcusable and indefensible, just like what Sprewell did and what Rocker said. But the punishment should still fit the crime; a single bad act can be indefensible without being a capital offense.
Badgering the man to apologize also misses the point; the continuing ban on managing isn’t so much a punishment as a preventative measure, like impeaching a public official or disbarring a crooked lawyer (to give two obvious parallels). Nor would I accept his apology. Rose’s decade-long denial of his problems, as well as his numerous false denials at the time, even under oath, of various easily provable facts suggests that he is not to be trusted even when and if he ever makes a public display of contrition. A man like Rose cannot be trusted to enter a professional clubhouse, for the good of the game.
Of course, that leaves us with the other charge: betting on the Reds. The rules of the game clearly specify a permanent ban on anyone betting on a game they are involved in. Nobody ever claimed that Rose bet AGAINST his own team, but even betting on his own team is not as harmless as it sounds, which is why the rules make no such distinction. A manager who bets on his own team, for example, is apt to exacerbate the harmful tendency managers already have to sacrifice the long-term good of the team to win particular games.
To be specific, a manager with money on particular games is likely to burn out his bullpen, even in games that are not really that close, because he needs to win today more than tomorrow. And look at the record: in 1987, for example, Rose’s top three relievers were John Franco, Rob Murphy and Frank Williams. Murphy and Williams both cleared 85 appearances and 100 innings; the notoriously glass-armed Franco appeared in 68 games throwing 82 innings, and had thrown 74 games and 101 innings the previous year. As a result, Franco was ineffective in September both seasons (to be fair, he always is) and Murphy and Williams were never the same again. A manager who doesn’t bet on every game may hurt his team in other ways, subtly favoring one game in the way he uses his players.
It is worth remembering, though, that there are at least questions about the case against Rose on this point. Now, I’ve read the Dowd Report but I haven’t had time myself to plow through the entire thing in the kind of detail needed to evaluate the full strength of the case against Rose. But there are legitimate concerns as to the character of the witnesses against Rose on this point and the quality of the physical evidence, questions that might have been probed if there had been a hearing at the time.
I know I tend to quote Bill James too much, but he did an excellent (if much-critized) appraisal of the Dowd Report in The Baseball Book 1990, focusing on a few key points:
* Dowd’s obvious loss of perspective (baseball has tried to get the bar to order him not to continue talking about his representation of baseball in this case without the game's permission, which is not really the most professional conduct by an attorney);
* The fact that much of the case against Rose rested on the testimony of Paul Janzen, who claimed that bets he (not Rose) placed on baseball games were for Rose, and not his own, when he would have obvious incentives to say so; and
* Reasons (relating to Rose’s pending criminal case and to the types of people he was involved with) why Rose wasn’t really free, at least at the time, to give a truthful account of his side of the story.
James also questioned the authenticity of the handwritten betting records, although on some of his critiques of the evidence, James got the facts wrong. The betting records do appear to be strong evidence, and in Rose’s handwriting, although it's still not entirely clear what they demonstrate.
And yes, Rose agreed to his ban from the game. But baseball cut a deal with Rose: his suspension was expressly conditioned on there not being a finding that he had bet on baseball. Rose accepted that deal in large part for two reasons: (1) he thought the commissioner meant it when he said there would be no such finding and (2) he had to settle with baseball because he had more serious legal troubles, specifically a prosecution for tax evasion for which he ultimately served time. Any lawyer worth his salt would have told him to take that deal to focus on the criminal case.
I’m not so much concerned here with whether the charges are true. I suspect that they probably are. I’m not even sure if Bill James holds to the same view now; he’s had harsher words for Rose since then. Even if they are true, however, baseball’s ban on allowing Rose to participate even in commemorations and the ban on honoring him in the Hall of Fame is unreasonable and goes further than needed to send a message about his conduct. The rule was made for Rose; it can and should be changed to allow fans and writers to honor him.
There are two other CRUCIAL facts that no sane baseball fan could ever dispute:
Fact #1. Pete Rose played in more major league baseball games than anyone else, ever.
Fact #2. No one who watched even one of those games doubts that Rose did everything within his power, and sometimes things beyond what we would think of as his physical limitations, to win every single one of those games.
Added together, they have to count for something. Rose was once a certifiable icon, someone who symbolized complete devotion to winning baseball games -- the antithesis of the disengaged loafers who were too common then just as they are now. This is a man who got married in the morning and played that same afternoon. He was Cal Ripken Jr. when Ripken was still wearing diapers. Did that change? Granted, the Cobb chase meant that he played in a lot of games where he wasn’t actually helping the team, but so did Ripken; was the rest of baseball innocent of indulging them in that conceit? Rose never stopped hustling, never sat out games until he was past 40 and desperately needed the rest.
There’s a difference between being a hero and being a role model. A role model is someone you would want to imitate, even when you know everything he or she has done and said and stood for; it’s a high standard, and I can count my personal role models on one hand, if that. Nobody argues today that Pete Rose is a role model. But a hero is someone who does something heroic; if you risk your life to save someone else, you are a hero no matter what else you’ve done before or since.
The Hall of Fame is for baseball’s heroes, not its role models. There are people who are probably legitimate role models there – Wagner, Musial, Mathewson, Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Clemente, just to name a few. But there are plenty of others who were honored, deservingly, for their accomplishments even though they embarrassed or dishonored the game in other ways. Ruth hung his manager out the window of a moving train by his neck. Hornsby was constantly in hot water for his gambling. Cepeda and Jenkins were busted for drugs. Anson did huge damage to the game on the field as the ringleader of those who instituted the color line.
There are other guys in there who didn’t always hustle, maybe didn’t get as much from their talent as they could have. There are even guys like Steve Carlton who stuck around a few years as awful players just to get a paycheck, hurting their teams. They’re not all role models, and I wouldn’t put some of them in a position of trust. But they are baseball heroes, guys who helped win a lot of baseball games, and Cooperstown is right to include them.
Shoeless Joe Jackson participated in the greatest affront to the game, ever, on the field of play. He was, at minimum, in league with people who deliberately threw the World Series. No amount of heroism can overcome that because it goes to the heart of what makes Jackson a hero: his ability to help his team win ballgames. He willfully threw away the ultimate goal that Chicago baseball fans have never tasted in the 81 years since: a World Championship. He participated in a conspiracy that TRIED TO LOSE some of the most important games he ever played.
Rose is different. What Pete Rose is accused of doing was giving in to behavior that can subtly, corrosively corrupt the game. It can lead to bad things. It can sap the will to win. For that, for the good of the game, he belongs on the outside looking in. So the bad things stay outside. So everyone in the game knows that this conduct merits a permanent ban. Do it, you’re gone, you’re never coming back.
But he was still trying to win. There’s never been anything to dispute that. Maybe it clouded his judgment and screwed with his incentives, but there are a lot of managers with cloudy judgment and screwy incentives out there. In the end, maybe it’s more a difference of degree than a difference in kind between Rose and Joe Jackson, but then it’s a difference of degree between Pedro Martinez and Todd Van Poppel, too. It’s still a big degree. Rose tried to win and took part in an awful lot of wins.
For that reason, much as we may deny Rose the ability to win future glories, we should not deny him his past ones. He helped his teams win well over a thousand baseball games, seven division titles, five pennants, three championships. He was a great player for five or six years, and a very good one for many, many years. The Hall of Fame is poorer without the hit king.
Leo Durocher always said, if nothing else, don't put me in the Hall of Fame after I die -- do it while I'm here to enjoy it or not at all. Leo was elected the year after his death. You know and I know that Pete Rose will be too, once there's no hope of dragging an apology or a confession out of him. That's a cheap shot, and if baseball takes its honors seriously it will find room to honor Rose for what he did, on the field and in the dugout, to win all those baseball games.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK:
- Peter Gammons, circa 1991.
(Well, it wasn’t that accurate, but it was still a great line.)
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION: