SHOELESS JOE JACKSON:
An Interview with Joe Anders
Joe Jackson was born in Brandon Mills, South Carolina on July 16, 1887. His beginnings were no different from thousands of other children who grew up around the mill towns of the South in the late 19 th century. As the age of six, Joe swept floors in Brandon Mill, outside of Greenville, South Carolina. His schooling was sporadic at best. Like so many children from the area mill towns, he played a lot of baseball. By the time he was 13 years old, Joe was a regular on the men's team in Brandon. Even then his legend as an extraordinary ballplayer began to grow. He could throw harder, run faster, and hit longer home runs than anyone had ever seen. Eventually, his playing put food on the table. He earned about $2.50 a game by 1905. That was high living for a poor mill town boy.
About that time, a local lumberman – the shop foreman – made a special baseball bat for Joe at Brandon Mill. It weighed about 48 ounces and was lacquered with uncounted coats of either tobacco juice or varnish, most likely a bit of both. “Black Betsy” and one or two “sisters” (he called them “Blonde Betsys”) accompanied him for most of his baseball career. Legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, the greatest player never to make the Hall of Fame, played major league ball from 1908 until he was banned after the 1920 season. He batted over .400 in his first full season with Cleveland. His lifetime batting average was .356, third in baseball history behind Ty Cobb's .367 and Rogers Hornsby's .358.
Although banned for life from organized ball by Judge Landis after the infamous Black Sox scandal was revealed, perhaps the true measure of Joe's greatness is the high esteem that other great professional ballplayers felt about him. It is said that a young Babe Ruth modeled his swing after Joe's, stating simply, “I took the best swing I could find and copied it.” Ty Cobb, a man not known for his superlatives, called Jackson the finest natural hitter the game has ever known. The legendary Walter Johnson said that Shoeless Joe was the toughest and greatest natural ballplayer he ever competed against.
Even today, the incomparable Ted Williams called Joe perhaps the greatest hitter ever. In his book, Ted Williams' Hit List , Ted made a good argument that Joe's baseball exploits should win him a spot in the Hall of Fame. Absent that, Ted gave Joe an honored spot on his all-time “hit list.” He based his conclusion not only on the obvious statistical information but drew from what he learned as a young hitter from some of the all-time greats.
This is what Ted had to say about his experience with Eddie Collins, the Hall of Fame second baseman who played with Joe during his years with the Chicago White Sox:
Collins was an executive with the Red Sox, a man who spent over 40 years of his life in baseball, and Collins always compared me with Shoeless Joe, and that was such a great compliment. He said, “Ted, you're the closest thing, I'd say, to Joe Jackson.” Even today it remains one of the highest compliments I've ever received in the game of baseball – having my swing compared to Joe's.
During a cool windswept day in March of 1996, I had the privilege of traveling to Brandon Mills, South Carolina where the town folk were dedicating the Brandon Mills ball field in honor of their fallen hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson. My son, a wide-eyed 12-year-old, and I were fortunate enough to meet some of the folks who knew and loved Joe, not only as a ballplayer, but as a human being. We talked with Joe's younger sister who was nearly 95 years old. And we became friends with two of the nicest people I have ever met, Joe and Kate Anders.
In the following interview, Joe Anders, who was close friends with Joe Jackson from the late 1930's until his death in 1951, gave us a picture of what kind of person Joe Jackson really was.
Frank Ceresi (FC): Joe, you love baseball just like your friend, Joe Jackson. When did you start playing?
Joe Anders (JA): I began to play ball in 1936 in the Brandon Mills area. When I was 13 years old, I played with the American Legion. I played on what was known as the “B” team that year. I moved up to the “A” team and played there until 1940. In 1942, I played with the Greenville Spinners.
FC: Didn't Jackson play with the same Greenville Spinners 40 years earlier?
JA: Yes. He played with them in 1905 or 1906. I was called into the military service in July of 1942. I batted .338. (Note: Joe Anders and Joe Jackson are both in the Greenville Sports Hall of Fame.)
FC: When did you get to know Joe Jackson?
JA: I met him in the late 1930's. I would see him when my friends and I would hang around Bolt's Drug Store, which was next to Joe's liquor store.
FC: What is your earliest recollection of Joe Jackson ?
JA: Oh, I guess it was when I was 15 or 16 years old. I was a shy kid and wanted to meet him, but didn't have the nerve. He would be in front of his liquor store and would talk to all of us. He never allowed kids in his store, so one thing led to another, and I eventually went over to his store and began our friendship.
FC: Did he ever talk about baseball?
JA: Oh, yes, he often talked to us about the finer points of hitting and fielding. We were all baseball players.
FC: I understand he had quite an interest in your baseball skills in particular.
JA: Well, he certainly did! He helped me with my swing. We grew up at the same mill, played on the same field, went to the same church, lived on the same street, and even both married “Kates!” I knew his wife Katie Wynn Jackson for many years.
FC: Did Joe ever make mention of Black Betsy?
JA: Oh, he showed me Black Betsy many times. In fact, he kept it at his store along with his scrapbooks. I can still see it today – Black Betsy was an old bat, an old hickory bat with a warped handle and the barrel was pretty beaten up. A shop foreman by the name of Ferguson made it. It was heavy!
FC: Anything written on it?
JA: I just don't remember.
FC: What happened to it?
JA: Well, Joe had it in his possession when he died in 1951. I understand after Joe's death Katie gave it to one of her cousins. According to Gertrude, Joe's younger sister, it was probably thrown away. I'm not sure, though.
FC: Did you ever see Joe it a baseball?
JA: Oh, yes. It was quite a thrill. Joe had a swing like no other ballplayer I ever saw. One night in Greenville, the Textile League All-Star team invited Joe to hit. This was at the Greenville Spinners field. Mind you, Joe had already had a couple heart attacks by 1940 and he was in his 50's. I remember clearly the first time he got up, Joe hit the ball off the face of the center field fence, well over 400 feet away! Like I say, I've never seen anyone swing a bat like he did.
FC: I understand Joe introduced you to Ty Cobb. Tell me about that.
JA: Well, in 1946 or '47, I was at the drug store when I heard my name called. I looked over and Joe was talking with a fellow in front of the store. He asked me to come over, so I did. Joe turned to me and said, “I want you to meet the greatest hitter that ever played the game of baseball.” Then he said, “This is Ty Cobb.” I looked over at Mr. Cobb and he turned to me and said, referring to Joe, “No, here is the greatest hitter who ever played!” He went on to say that “Joe could hit the dead ball better than Babe Ruth could hit the live ball!” It was quite a thrill.
FC: How often did Cobb visit Joe?
JA: I'm not aware of how often they met in the later years, but I understand that one time he came with Grantland Rice to the liquor store.
FC: Did Joe ever talk about what it was like to play in the major leagues?
JA: He told me how rough it was to play in the major leagues, and how mean Ty was. He told me one time he walked up to bat, stooped over to get some dirt on his hands and was knocked down and out by the pitcher while he was still stooped over! He told me he woke up in the hospital (laughs).
FC: Any other stories?
JA: Well, he told me that he and Buck Weaver had a little spat one time. After the game, Joe went into the clubhouse and got on the training table, lying on his stomach. Joe said that Buck came in and bit him on the cheek of his tail! (laughs).
FC: What did Jackson do?
JA: Well, all the Jacksons had reputations as pretty good fighters. Joe told me about the retaliation. He told me that after he “got even,” Buck Weaver was walking around with part of his ear missing.
FC: Did Joe ever say anything about the scandal?
JA: The only thing he ever said to me was that he was innocent. I never really questioned him about it, but he brought it up to me once.
FC: Did he say anything about the money?
JA: Well, he told me he tried to give it back to Comiskey, but they wouldn't talk to him at all. I have been asked that question so many times by so many people. People would ask me, “What did he do with the money?” I was never really able to give an answer until a couple of years ago.
FC: What happened?
JA: Well, I met Mr. Truett Wakefield. Mr. Wakefield was instrumental in getting Joe to come to Greenville from Savannah, Georgia after Joe was banned from baseball. Truett was the general manager of the Greenville Spinners semi-pro barnstorming team, and he paid Joe $100 a game to play in the 1930's.
FC: And what did Mr. Wakefield tell you?
JA: Well, I went to Mr. Wakefield and asked him point blank, “What did Joe do with the money?” Mr. Wakefield told me that one day while Joe and he were driving to North Carolina to play ball, they began talking about what happened. Joe told Mr. Wakefield that he got money, but was not involved in the scandal. He said they put money on his bed and the refused to take it back. Eventually, Joe said, he donated the money to a hospital. I believe this was around 1921 when he donated the money to the hospital.
FC: When you think of Joe Jackson, what do you remember?
JA: You know, Frank, Joe did not act like a bitter person. Joe didn't show his bitterness, although I could tell by looking at him that he was really dejected. Joe was not the person that everyone portrayed him as. He was a very generous, loving, caring person. He was always willing to help someone in need. I saw Joe many times pull out $5 or $10 to give to some of the fellows who were coming along. He always had a hand out to help people. Joe was just that kind of a person. He loved children. He loved buying kids ice cream, and the kids loved Joe.
FC: When you knew Joe, could be sign his name?
JA: Well, yes. Maybe not that much back in the ‘20's, but when I knew him, he could draw his signature. You could read it. In fact, I have seen his signature; as you know, it's on his will which is right down here at the courthouse.
FC: I understand that Katie would often sign Joe's name to folks who sought autographs.
JA: Oh, yes, but you could sure tell the difference! In fact, I've seen many pictures where Katie signed Joe's name, but I can tell difference.
FC: Last question, Joe – should Shoeless Joe Jackson be in the Hall of Fame?
JA: Absolutely! Very definitely. There has never been anyone in baseball like Joe Jackson!
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Getting to know Joe Anders only sparked my interest in Shoeless Joe, and I had the privilege of talking to several other individuals who were quite significant to the Jackson saga including Jackson's sister, Gertrude, who was in her mid-90's, and Mr. Eugene Estes.
Gertrude was spry and delightful. She told me with great pride how her brother beat Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Duffy Lewis – the premier outfielders of the day – in a throwing contest with an effort of 396 feet! She grinned as she told me that even though Joe won the competition and brought home a trophy to show for it, he was disappointed he didn't throw the ball farther!
Mr. Eugene Estes is the last surviving individual who witnessed Joe signing his will. For those who doubt Joe's ability to sign his name, for the historical record, I will close by mentioning that Mr. Estes told me that he watched Joe sign the will at Bolt's Drug Store. He remembered Joe as a “friendly old gentleman,” and will always remember it because he was bent over the paper for “a few minutes” while he signed or “drew” his name.
So what is Shoeless Joe's place in our national pastime? Is it one of scandal or honor? To answer that question, I quote from a baseball sage who is rightfully being recognized for his baseball genius and his ability to understand the big picture: Branch Rickey.
Rickey forced Major League Baseball to tear down the walls of racism that permeated the game until he signed Jackie Robinson. Rickey well understood Jackson's place in baseball history. When asked why he placed Jackson along side Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth as the three greatest outfielders who ever played the game, he responded:
It will be said here and there that to include Jackson makes me indifferent to the integrity of the game. I wish to say a word about that anticipated criticism. Joe Jackson was blacklisted for cooperative knowledge as a fix. If there is a ‘wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea,' then there must be a ‘kindness in His justice' that permits redemption to Joe Jackson. He suffered a lifetime of penance for his ignorant acquiescence. I know about it and I make no apologies to anyone by including Joe Jackson on the All-Time Team.