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To be a fly in that liquor store

Freelance
SIMPSON COLUMN

A lot of customers knew the old guy behind the counter but out of misplaced courtesy – or embarrassment – never spoke to him.

He was an outcast, an untouchable.

But into his little liquor store in Greenville, S.C., one April day in 1946, came two friends from the old days.

They were passing through on their way home from the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga.

Joseph Jefferson Jackson, the proprietor, looked up and for a fleeting instant . . . forgot that he was a nonperson.

As quickly as he looked up, he looked down again. He busied himself with a make-believe spot on the counter, wiping away nothing with an old cloth.

He was careful not to make eye contact.

Joe Jackson was a paunchy old man by now. He moved slowly. The years and the pain had taken away the twinkle in his eyes, extinguished the fire that made him the best player in baseball. Maybe the best ever.

At the top of his game he was a comet racing across the baseball sky. He’d grip his war club, the famous “Black Betsy,” his homemade bat which he stained with tobacco juice, and whack the ball all over the field. Against any pitcher.

When Shoeless Joe Jackson dug in, it didn’t matter who was on the mound.

He was the toughest hitter in the game, a man whose slugging style was copied by a youngster named George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

Jackson could run like the wind, chase down any fly ball that didn’t leave the park, stop on a penny and throw the ball back to the infield with a cannon of an arm.

He would have been in the very first class inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., without a doubt.

He would have, except that his team, the Chicago White Sox, dumped the 1919 World Series to Cincinnati.

Seven players who were involved, and one who wasn’t but knew about the fix and kept silent, were banned for life.

One of the banished was Shoeless Joe Jackson, even though he was the batting star of the series. He had 19 hits, eight RBIs, nine runs scored and the only home run hit by either team.

But Joe kept the money somebody left under a pillow in his hotel room. First he said yeah, he was in on the fix. Then he changed his mind.

Joe was acquitted – they all were – by a Cook County jury of fans who applauded when the verdict was read, then asked for autographs of the accused.

The players were more than a bit smug until a newly chosen czar of baseball, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a seedy old tobacco-chewing politician, dispensed his own law.

Landis had once sentenced an old man convicted of robbery to prison for 16 years. “Judge,” the geezer said, “I ain’t got that much time left.”

Said Landis, “Well, do the best you can.”

Baseball’s first commissioner banned for life all eight White Sox players, including third-baseman Buck Weaver. He had refused to take part in the fix but knew about it and kept silent.

A quarter-century later, Joe Jackson was tending his liquor store in Greenville when these two old friends came in, writes Harvey Frommer in his book “Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball.”

At first, the two pretended to be buying booze. From time to time they’d take a glimpse of Shoeless Joe.

Eventually, the taller of the two walked up and said, “I know you. You’re Joe Jackson. Don’t you remember me, Joe? I just came by to say hello.”

It was Ty Cobb. Many considered him the greatest ballplayer in history. Just as many believed he wouldn’t have been had Shoeless Joe not been exiled.

Cobb came into the American League in 1905 and left as the game’s No. 1 hitter in lifetime batting average, hits and runs scored. In 1928, at the age of 42, he hit .328.

Joe Jackson came into the league in 1908 and set baseball afire. But the year Cobb hit .328 at age 42, Shoeless Joe was playing sandlot ball under an assumed name. Picking up pocket money, blasting 75 mph fastballs over – and a couple of times through – rickety wooden fences ringing bush league ballparks.

Here they were, after all these years, face to face. One was a Hall of Famer, the other an outcast, a Judas.

Cobb’s bat, glove and spikes went to Cooperstown. He became a millionaire with shrewd investments, including Coca-Cola, which earned him a fortune. Shoeless Joe went the other way, downhill, back to the mill town where he came from, scratching out a living in obscurity.

“Don’t you know me, Joe?”

“I know you,” Joe Jackson said, straightening some bottles that didn’t need straightening, on a shelf behind the counter. “But I wasn’t sure you wanted to speak to me. A lot of them don’t.”

“Joe,” said Cobb, “you had the most natural ability and the greatest swing I ever saw.”

Jackson looked at Cobb, then looked away, wishing, maybe that he could be for just a second what he once had been.

Then Joe smiled at Cobb’s companion, the famous sportswriter Grantland Rice. He knew Rice like family.

All three men went back to the early years of the 20th century, when every crossroads, every whistle-stop town in America had a baseball “nine,” and the boys who went on to the big leagues were celebrities as big as rock stars are today.

“Joe, could I get an autographed ball from you?” asked Cobb. “You know, I always wanted one.”

Shoeless Joe rubbed the stubble on his chin, looked at Cobb with one eye closed and said, “I’ll get you one, Ty. But you’ll have to come back tomorrow. I’m purty busy.”

“Well,” said Cobb slowly, “we’re just passing through, Joe. Tell you what, we’ll do it another time.”

There wouldn’t be another time. This was a duty stop.

Their visit to the liquor store was out of a feeling of responsibility. Somebody really needed to drop in and say hello to Joe.

Rice knew, but Cobb may not have, that Jackson couldn’t give an autograph to anybody. He was an illiterate mill hand before he became a baseball star. Cast out of baseball, he was an illiterate liquor-store owner.

Shoeless Joe died five years later, on Dec. 5, 1951, at age 62. He maintained to the end his innocence in the Black Sox scandal.

Cobb died July 17, 1961, at 74.

Grantland Rice died July 13, 1954, at 73.

Corky Simpson retired from the Tucson Citizen in December. He writes a column every Saturday.

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