Friday, January 30, 2015

The Strange Case of Wikipedia and Shoeless Joe

Back in 1919, a group of players for the American League champion Chicago White Sox decided that they could make some extra money by offering to throw the upcoming World Series against Cincinnati.  They got in touch with gamblers and recruited enough other players -- eight in total, including the incomparable left fielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson -- to ensure they could carry off the scheme.

We've all heard the story about the 1919 Black Sox; they lost to the underdog Redlegs five games to three.  They were ultimately paid something around $80,000 in total by different sets of gamblers (the whole gambler side of this is really bizarre) and a year later were hauled before a grand jury, where they testified to their guilt -- including Jackson, producing the memorable, if apocryphal, story of him leaving the courtroom and being asked by a little boy to "Say it ain't so, Joe", whereupon the shamed Jackson replied "I'm afraid it is, boys."

The eight were acquitted in trial, but that was greatly affected by the theft of copies of their confessions to the grand jury, presumably as part of a conspiracy among the American League, seeking to protect itself, and others in Baseball, all of whom were better off with an acquittal.  The players, though, were banned for life by the new Commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.The lifetime bans naturally have generated almost a century of pleas of the innocence of some -- particularly Jackson and the third baseman, Buck Weaver, despite the evidence. (For the record, Weaver, who was never paid a cent and was seen to play hard the whole Series, was banned for having attended early meetings and not tipped off his manager or owner).

There is so much to know you'd need a book -- here, of course, is the best -- but I'll summarize for this tale.  Of the eight players, some were a lot more complicit than others, which has led many to defend Jackson as having been lily-white despite his confession.  They point to his 12 hits in the Series and claim he "really tried."

Of course, he sat in on meetings where the eight conspired to throw the Series and did not immediately expose the plot.  He was also paid thousands for his complicity in the scandal.  And his performance was, ah, a bit erratic in the Series -- despite the numbers.

Two of the eight conspiring players were starting pitchers, two of the three to be used in the Series (Dickie Kerr, the third, was not in on it, pitched games three and six and won both).  In game seven, conspirator Eddie Cicotte really pitched, the players (who were then fed up with the gamblers' late payments) really played, and the White Sox won easily.  They lost the next day, though, after starting pitcher Lefty Williams was threatened outside his home.

In those three "clean" games, innocent old Joe Jackson got six of those twelve hits.  That .375 average of his that looks so good breaks down to .286 in the thrown games and .545 in the clean ones.  A little digging goes a long way.  In the field, observers (including Christy Mathewson) who were tipped off to the possibility of a plot, noted some plays where Jackson was late getting to the ball as well.  (A lot of America was suspicious, since the gambling odds had tipped to favor the much weaker Redlegs before Game 1.)
Joe Jackson was properly banned for life and it should end there.  But there are many defenders of his, who generally ignore the recorded facts of the case.  One was my boyhood hero, Ted Williams, who is allowed to be wrong this once.  And one of them, it seems, is not only the keeper and guardian of Joe Jackson's Wikipedia page, but is extremely fanatic about it, facts notwithstanding.

In doing some research a while back, I noticed the discrepancy in Jackson's performance between the thrown and the clean Series games, and looked up his Wikipedia page to see if it was properly noted.  It wasn't.  I made a reasonable edit to add that fact, and a day later noted that it had been removed.  I repeated it, and once again it was removed within a day.  So I let it go; it wasn't all that big a deal.

This morning I thought about it and decided to see how anal-retentive the individual was.

I made an edit to the article.  Where a sentence noted that Jackson's 12 hits was a Series record, and that his .375 average for the 1919 Series led all other hitters, I inserted a factual, nonprejudicial clause noting that half of those hits came in the three "clean" games and that he only hit .286 in the games the corrupt players threw.

Within six minutes it had been changed back.   I looked in the page history and discovered that someone called "Onel5969" who, according to Wikipedia, lives in Scottsdale, AZ and, according to me, has a real problem with the facts creeping into the entry about old Shoeless Joe, was the person making the change.  It would have been around 6:00am Scottsdale, AZ time, interestingly.

I also read through the whole page with a more jaundiced eye, and discovered that every effort was taken to ensure that Jackson's supposed innocence was presented, and the evidence of his guilt marginalized with vague references -- unlinked, of course -- to new evidence suggesting he hadn't been part of it, or hadn't taken the money, or hadn't confessed to the grand jury at all.

OK, I get it.  The guy really likes Joe Jackson.  I like him, too.  But it is, unfortunately, guys like Onel5969 that compromise the expectation of factuality, such as it may be, in Wikipedia.  This "people's encyclopedia" can easily suffer from the prejudices of its adherents, if the Joe Jackson armed guard is an example.

So for those who need the facts as presented in 1919 and 1920, well-documented since, and compelling to anyone without prejudice, here they are:  Joe Jackson participated in a conspiracy to defraud Major League Baseball, his team and its owner and fans; he did not immediately report it; he took money to throw games; his play suggests he participated on the field in a way to help lose certain games, and he confessed to a grand jury of his complicity.

He was kicked out of baseball after 13 years in which he compiled a .356 average, third best career mark in the history of the game.

It will never get him into the Hall of Fame, nor should it.  But you won't get that from Wikipedia.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton


  1. In Waiting to Get In Jan 7 you wrote about a couple of drug-enhanced players, "I think that their performance on the field will be remembered as being immensely worthy of the Hall and, given that, I say 'Put them in.'" I know far less about baseball than you, but I don't see much difference between them and "Shoeless" Joe, who also demonstrated Hall-worthy performance. I don't have a strong opinion either way, but I don't understand the inconsistency of modern drug users and an old time fixer being treated differently.

    Any opinions I have about baseball might easily be challenged by the many who know more about the game than I do. On the other hand, I want Wikipedia and other sources of information to contain truth.

    1. Let me address one of the issues, that of the old-time fixer and the modern drug users being treated differently.

      We start with the rules in place at the time. Jackson was (and is) suspended from the game for life for participating in a conspiracy to throw games. In accordance with the power granted by the 1920 rules to the Commissioner, Jackson was suspended. There are rules in place now for handling PED use; under those rules neither Bonds nor Clemens -- and yes, the rules changed during their careers -- was punished and neither is suspended from baseball. So from a jurisprudence standpoint, there is no reason for them to be compared to Jackson, who testified under oath that he conspired to throw games.

      The second is the corruption aspect. Others do, but I don't happen to view legal PED use as corrupting the game in the same way that fixing is. Now, illegal PED use, i.e., under today's rules, IS corrupting because baseball has decided it is and made new rules to cover it.

      You make a wonderful case to make me distinguish between the two incidents that I appear to have written about with conflicting logic. I'm going to have to make a better case myself, in a subsequent piece.