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.”
“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.”
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.”
“You know what they called his homers?”
“How about that.”
“You know what my dad called Joe Jackson?”
“The Pride of Greenville, man.”
I gave him another five bucks for writing my closing line.