Greenville, S.C., is where everything you think you know about “Shoeless” Joe Jackson is wrong.
Here in his hometown, where a statue of Shoeless Joe occupies a prominent spot on Main Street, where kids still play on Shoeless Joe field and the Shoeless Joe museum sits just outside the entrance to the lovely minor league baseball stadium, Jackson is no goat. He’s a great baseball player and a good man who has been wronged by the keepers of history.
That’s certainly not what I learned growing up. Sure, Jackson’s statistics are stellar, but most fans have heard of him only because of his enduring place in popular culture as the most famous symbol of the Black Sox scandal: the Chicago White Sox players’ decision, 93 years ago, to throw the 1919 World Series.
“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” a plaintive young fan is said to have pleaded as his hero walked by after news broke of the players’ corruption.
But in the tidy little red brick house with white aluminum awnings where Jackson died in 1951, that confrontation never took place. Here, in a museum with a single purpose — to clear one man’s name — that famous quotation is revealed as just one more fantasy, one more piece of anti-Jackson propaganda that got glommed onto a narrative in which fiction like the movie Field of Dreams has became hopelessly blended with reported accounts such as the book (and movie) Eight Men Out.
I arrived at the museum with only the vaguest notion of a growing movement to restore Jackson’s reputation. Then I met Arlene Marcley. A decade ago, Marcley, the museum’s founder and director, knew almost nothing about Jackson except that he came from Greenville. She’d mainly heard the accepted version of history in which Jackson was complicit in the White Sox’s misdeeds.
In 2005, Marcley, who was chief of staff to Greenville’s mayor for 13 years, was in her office when a crew from Flip This House, a home-renovation TV reality show, arrived, led by a director who wanted to buy Jackson’s then-vacant house, renovate it and give it to the city for use as a museum.
The city didn’t have money to start a museum, Marcley says, “but even though I really didn’t know Joe’s story, I knew we had to save his house.”
She knew that in part because Greenville had already become a mecca for legions of fans who believed that Jackson had been wronged. His gravesite, an ordinary bronze marker at Woodlawn Memorial Park near the Bob Jones University campus, has long drawn visitors from across the country.
Today, in the five cramped rooms where Jackson and his wife, Katie, lived out his exile from baseball, that story is told through news clippings, quotations from court documents and testimonials from fellow players.
There’s very little in the house that belonged to Jackson — a piece of china, Katie’s hand mirror and a chair from the textile mill where Joe worked as a boy. But there’s a sweet little library — formerly a narrow screened porch — with a couple of thousand baseball books, donated by a researcher who’d devoted a good chunk of his life to Jackson’s vindication. And the 1940s kitchen, a modest mash-up of checkerboard linoleum, low counters and a petite pantry, has been restored to the homey look of Jackson’s time.