Greenville, South Carolina

Greenville, South Carolina, is already gussied up for Christmas. There is a bite in the air. The foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance make the town look downright Rockwellian.

This is a baseball city. Fluor Field sits on Main Street, home to the Greenville Drive, a minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The ballpark is a mini-replica of Boston’s Fenway Park—right down to its ginormous green outfield wall.

The gates are closed today, baseball is out of season, but you can almost imagine the sound of 6,700 ballpark fans roaring wildly as they stand in line to use the men’s room.

Outside the ballpark is a life-sized bronze statue of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Joe is depicted at the plate, bat over his shoulder, eyes glancing above centerfield.

I am at the statue now, talking to an old guy in a ratty Clemson hoodie who sips something from a Styrofoam cup. He wears fingerless gloves and asks passersby for money.

“Yo, man,” was the old fella’s opening introduction to me. “I need to eat. I’ll probably die tonight if I can’t eat.”

Then he lit a cigarette and answered a call on his Bluetooth headset.

I give him a few bucks. In exchange he tells me a story.

He jerks a thumb toward the statue. “That’s Shoeless Joe. Best ball player to ever live. Born and raised here in Greenville.”

“That so?”

“You dang right.”

An underweight Santa impersonator is posing for pictures across the street. A busker sings “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and sounds like a cat with its tail caught in a box fan.

And my tour guide is just getting warmed up.

“Joe Jackson used to own the liquor store on Pendleton Street. You ever heard’a Joe Jackson, man?”

I nod. Of course I’ve heard of Shoeless Joe. My granddaddy was a boy when the infamous “Black Sox” World Series scandal occurred. My grandfather never forgot the front page headline:

“WHITE SOX INDICTED FOR CHEATING IN 1919 WORLD SERIES.”

Cheating. The dirtiest word known to kid-dom. Eight suspected players from the Chicago White Sox were banned from baseball, and although their guilt was never proven, in a way, it was the end of my grandfather’s innocence.

Today, such a scandal would have been the childhood equivalent of discovering that the Lone Ranger and Adam West were communist spies.

The vagrant took a drag from his filtertip. “Joe Jackson first played the game right here, man. You gimme another five bucks and I’ll tell you the long version of the story.”

Why not.

Joe Jackson was born in Pickens County. And like all tough guys from his era, he learned to throw a ball as an infant, shortly after he started shaving.

He was raised in poverty. His first job was at age 6, sweeping floors in a cotton mill. By age 13, he was playing ball on teams with grown men, dazzling rural crowds by jogging through hayfields to make impossible catches.

His glove was known as “the place where triples go to die.”

He earned his nickname in Greenville during the summer of 1908. As the story goes, Jackson was wearing a new pair of cleats that gave him blisters, so kicked them off and finished the game in his stocking feet. In the bottom of the seventh, Joe hit a no-doubter into left and on his victory trot home a fan shouted, “Joe! You shoeless son of a gun!”

Although I sincerely doubt the guy said “gun.”

I’d tell you about all the impressive baseball records Jackson set, but I can already see you yawning.

Years after the humiliation of a World Series scandal had wrecked his career, Jackson returned to Greenville. He owned a few businesses in town. A barbecue joint. A dry cleaners. A package store.

And even though Jackson and his seven teammates were found innocent in 1921, he spent the rest of his life bearing the mark of Cain. Because you don’t endure national scandal then just go home and cut the grass.

“He was a good man,” said the old guy, tapping his ash onto my shoe. “He wasn’t never too busy to teach kids to hit and throw. He was a nice guy.”

“Wait, you knew him?” I said.

“Not me. But my dad remembered him. Lotta boys in Greenville learnt baseball outside Joe’s liquor store, man. My dad was one of them.”

Now the skeptic inside me is on full alert. I’m wondering if this guy is telling the truth or just stringing me along for five bucks a pop.

I finally decide that it’s probably the latter, but I don’t care since we are talking about baseball here. And this means that we are actually talking about our fathers. Because that’s all baseball is, really. Baseball is our dad.

I stare at the statue and wonder how long the tar and feathers of an unproven scandal will cling to Jackson’s jersey. The answer is: A long time.

In 2005, for example, Greenville was renaming its minor league team. They were going to call the team The Joes, in honor of Jackson. But Major League Baseball vetoed the name inasmuch as Shoeless Joe Jackson is still blacklisted from major- and minor-league baseball.

Today, Joe’s lonesome statue dutifully watches over his hometown. He stands tall and sturdy. His lean body is frozen post-swing. His eyes are raised slightly skyward, as though watching a bird take flight.

“You know what they called his line drives?” said the man. “Blue Darters.”

“Huh.”

“You know what they called his homers?”

“No.”

“Saturday Specials.”

“How about that.”

“You know what my dad called Joe Jackson?”

“What.”

“The Pride of Greenville, man.”

I gave him another five bucks for writing my closing line.

20 comments

  1. Steve McCaleb - November 22, 2021 11:45 am

    Joe Jackson hit over .300 with a couple of homers in the World Series he was accused of helping to lose. Don’t sound like much of a tank job to me. Thanks to Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta and the Vagrant, he’s immortal now. Maybe Bob Seeger said it best: Beautiful Loser.

    Reply
  2. Bill - November 22, 2021 12:08 pm

    Sean, I’m afraid you have finally written a column that not one of your horde of lady respondents will find worthy of a comment. Well, maybe, to tell you to get back on track! As a baseball fan whose father was a bigger baseball fan, I found this column very interesting. That MLB would still want to make Joe an outcast is pathetic. Not surprising, but pathetic.

    Reply
    • JANE - November 22, 2021 2:46 pm

      Ah, Bill………….there are many of us FEMALE baseball fans!! GO BRAVES! Loved the article, learning more about these men who were wrongfully accused! Now, I have to go to Greenville and check out the statute, not too long of a drive for me in NC.

      Reply
  3. Tammy S. - November 22, 2021 12:18 pm

    We love Greenville, SC! We live less than 2hrs from there and love the beauty and small town feel of it. But I had no idea Shoeless Joe Jackson was from Greenville! That is so cool. Those men were done wrong! Seems like many in our society still want to heap guilt rather than seeing innocence until proven otherwise. And even then hanging onto false facts! Thanks for sharing all the “facts” of SJJ and his life after the scandal. I sure wish he could know how many people feel about him today. Also, sounds like your eclectic tour guide earned enough for a steak dinner. Sure hope he enjoyed it! We enjoyed the story!! As always, greatly written!

    Reply
  4. Floyd Bingham - November 22, 2021 12:38 pm

    Keep ‘em coming Sean! Your daily articles take me back to my childhood and spring me forward to a better day! You da man 👍!

    Reply
  5. Kate - November 22, 2021 1:34 pm

    Interesting, 9 people accused and banned for life from baseball to be found innocent 2 years later, but still banned from baseball. Did I miss something here??? My first thought was who was behind the money that accused them, and second thought, why are they still banned from baseball. My father played baseball for a mill team in Columbus, Georgia and then played on the minors for the St. Louis Cardinals. I never realized how important the mill teams were to baseball until I was an adults and read about them.

    Reply
  6. Paul McCutchen - November 22, 2021 1:47 pm

    I was mad at baseball because they got into politics and pulled the all-star game out of Atlanta but my Braves won to spite them. Baseball is for the people and especially kids. Like in the era of the Joe Jackson, being blamed for something doesn’t make it true.

    Reply
  7. Cathy M - November 22, 2021 2:02 pm

    Beautiful loser. Priceless description and there are so many others. That s candle pales in comparison to what goes on in today’s world. How wonderful that there is a statue in his honor still standing. Great article.

    Reply
  8. GinaT in NC - November 22, 2021 2:02 pm

    Another Beauty Sean. Keep em coming.

    Also, if you were in Greenville, come on up to Asheville or more than that- go just West of Asheville to Haywood County, NC. Highest average elevation East of the Rockies. HERE IN THE SOUTH! 😉

    Reply
    • Lisa - November 23, 2021 10:46 pm

      Yes, what a great story! The greatest Braves fan to ever live was from Greenville, SC and she was my grandmother. She and my parents watched and cheered them on with great delight and enthusiasm more times than I could count. Women do love baseball!

      Reply
  9. Suellen - November 22, 2021 6:28 pm

    Come on Bill. Plenty of women love baseball. I’m the daughter of a die hard Cubs fan and when my kids were little and a thing called cable came about I watched every game and had notebooks where I recorded every ball and strike. I married a die hard Mets fan. During the season baseball is on every day at our house.

    Reply
  10. Bill - November 22, 2021 7:18 pm

    “Yo, man,” was the old fella’s opening introduction to me. “I need to eat. I’ll probably die tonight if I can’t eat.”

    Then he lit a cigarette and answered a call on his Bluetooth headset.

    “What’s wrong with this?

    I see people along the side of the road with signs asking for handouts and smoking a cigarette. For the cost of a pack of smokes, he could get a meal or two, considering their cost..

    Just my opinion….

    Reply
  11. Linda Moon - November 22, 2021 8:35 pm

    Rockwellian. What a word you chose for the town, Writer. I can visualize illustrations and paintings of the town and its stories. The man’s closing line wasn’t too shabby, either, and you got a bargain for your cash. I get a bargain every day when I read your posts. I love South Carolina and the story from this one. Oh, and I love Norman Rockwell’s works, too.

    Reply
  12. Mary McNeil - November 22, 2021 9:26 pm

    “I wonder how long the tar and feathers of unproevn scandal will cling to Joe Jackson’s jersey.” Yeh, the tar and feathers of PROVEN scandal don’t seem to be sticking to those guys from the ’17 Astros.

    Reply
  13. Danny - November 22, 2021 10:24 pm

    Welcome to my hometown. Hope you enjoyed your visit, but please do let our secret get out. We are full. No vacancy.

    Reply
  14. Robert L Chiles - November 23, 2021 2:55 am

    You should have gone to Shoeless Joe’s grave in Woodlawn Cemetery on Wade Hampton Blvd. A simple flat stone with about 25 baseballs placed around the edge of it. Greenville is a great town. I grew up there, worked there, retired there. Mayor Max Heller really made the town great.

    Reply
  15. Mary Coley - November 23, 2021 9:01 pm

    Great story and I loved it. I sure do thank you for writing these great stories and I look forward to them each day.

    Reply
  16. Lynn L - November 24, 2021 12:11 am

    Great story! And yes, Bill, a lot of women actually enjoy the finer things in life such as baseball.

    Reply
  17. j stuart mcdaniel - November 24, 2021 3:11 am

    Sean- thank you for your writings.Most moving and heartfelt.

    I operated on 86 year old Merle Eaton some years ago.All went well,but in the recovery room she had a respiratory arrest Several moments passed ; it was reconized by the recovery room nurses and treated by simply telling her to breathe which she did ,but did waving her hand.

    Merle grew up in a working neighborhood in east Atlanta. She had a brother -10 years older than she whom she idolized.He took her to movies,included her in all the games he and his peers engaged despite their age difference.WWII broke out ; her brother joined the army and was killed on Omaha beach. Her grief was overwhelming. But she married,had children and on her 50th wedding anniversery ,her children gave her husband and her a trip to Normandy.. They stayed in a B&B on Omaha beach. They had a memorable time; visited the American cemetery where her brother was buried and brought a moving closure to her brother’s death.

    At her 4 weeks post op visit, Merle told me that during her arrest-She found herself lying in a bed in Normandy. Her brother walked in through the window in full uniform,helmet ,rifle. He sat on the other bed and they talked about the wonderful times and,memories they had growing up. He then got up went back out the window and she -as she started breathing in the recovery room again-was waving good bye to him.

    Reply
  18. Michael J Rubner - November 26, 2021 6:03 pm

    I’m a Wisconsin native, but I’ve been living in Greenville for over 20 years now, and I live very near the cemetery where Shoeless Joe is buried. I’ve visited his memorial a couple times now, it’s adorned with baseballs, cleats, bats and mits. It’s an amazing testament to Joe’s enduring legacy of baseball greatness.

    Reply

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