My Favorite Shoeless Joe Story

Tales from Old Savannah 
 
The 1909 Savannah Indians baseball team was judged by regional writers of the day to be a fine bunch of ball players as the season began. The 13-man roster was managed by Bobby Gilks, who also played first base. Gilks knew in advance that pitching would be a problem but what he didn't expect was that hitting would fail them, too.
 
Savannah fans had no patience for ineptitude on the playing field and the local newspaper remarked that many of the 4,000-plus in attendance at each of the first five games of the season were loudly critical of the "town ball" style of the Indians, whatever the hell that meant. When the Injuns lost on opening day– a legal holiday in Savannah– the fans were already suggesting to Manager Gilks that he should waste no time in finding replacement players. So Gilks goes out and picks up a shorstop and pitcher from New Orleans, and a hitting fielder named Joe Jackson, who was a rookie wash-out from the Philadelphia Athletics in the Big Show. 
 
"Jackson is a natural batsman," the local paper promised. "Hitting left handed, and a big fellow with it, he can drive hard and often and Gilks was lucky to grab him when Connie Mack decided to season him a year in a 'leetle' bit slower company than the American League." 
 
And that's how Joe Jackson was introduced to Savannah on 22 April 1909– 105 years ago this week– when he took the field at the old Bolton ball park for the first time as an Indian in the sixth game of the season. He was the lone stand-out in a losing effort, getting three hits and a sac in his first four at-bats, and as an unnamed writer noted, "Gilks has already stamped a big o.k. on Jackson." 
 
In describing these early contests, local sports writers were pushed to great lengths attempting to capture the color of the action without the aide of photographs– simple line drawings appeared instead– employing a long list of words interchangeable with the verb "to hit": slugged, smacked, spanked, dinged, plunked, etc. They were pushed even further in coming up with new adjectives for the way in which the ball came off Joe Jackson's bat. He hit the ball so hard that his line drives were described as "blue darters trailing smoke in their wake". After just six games with Savannah, Jackson was collecting rave reviews and by Game 15 was already being referred to as "the great Joe Jackson". 
 
If fans had no other reason to turn out and watch a team mired in the cellar, Joe Jackson was reason enough. His tenth inning two-run homer to win a game on June 11 was pictured as "a terrific welt…we honestly believe that ball is traveling yet," (and gave rise to the epic scene in William Kinsella's book, Shoeless Joe, which was turned into the final scene of the movie, The Natural). 
 
Joe Jackson had a magic bat named "Black Betsy," a 36-inch, 48-oz. slab of hickory that was custom tailored to Joe's grip and blackened from daily baths of tobacco juice and sweet oil. Black Betsy literally knocked cork-centered baseballs out of round. In one game against Boston, Joe smashed a line drive down the first base line so hard that the first baseman could not get his glove up in time. The ball ricocheted off his wrist high in the air and halfway back to home plate, where the pitcher was able to field it and still beat a very fast Joe Jackson to the bag. I've tried to imagine such a scene and can't work it out in my head. 
 
Another account recorded a screaming line drive that hit the center fielder in the stomach and bounced away so far that Joe ended up with a double. Do you know how hard you have to hit a baseball to catch a center fielder totally off-guard? On a third occasion, a Jackson blue darter to future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker in dead center field hit him in the neck when he failed to get his glove up in time to protect himself and Joe was credited with an inside-the-park home run. I would've liked to have seen scenes like these in The Natural. 
 
In his heyday with the Chicago White Sox, Jackson was smashing home runs at record lengths, the longest estimated at 460 feet. Ring Lardner, who was a sports columnist before publishing his first short stories, remarked, "I don't know which is more dangerous– to ride in a St. Louis taxi cab or play the field against Mr. Jackson because you are bound to get killed sooner or later either way." 

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