By Don Babwin
The Associated Press
CHICAGO — The kid pleading with Shoeless Joe Jackson to “say it ain’t so” is one of the most fabled stories in baseball, right up there with Lou Gehrig telling a packed Yankee Stadium he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Two Chicago attorneys have combed through the papers of the late Eliot Asinof, whose book “Eight Men Out” portrayed Jackson as a cheat who helped the White Sox throw the 1919 World Series.
It ain’t so.
Not the allegations that got Jackson banished from baseball and locked out of the Hall of Fame.
Not even the kid who reportedly tugged at Jackson’s sleeve and uttered the famous phrase that appeared in the Chicago Herald and Examiner.
The lawyers found no evidence he existed.
“I think once somebody looks hard at this, a Major League Baseball historian or someone else, at what Shoeless Joe did or was involved in, all you can pin on him is he took money after the series was over — after he played his heart out,” said Dan Voelker, who with Paul Duffy wrote in this month’s Chicago Lawyer magazine about what they found in Asinof’s papers.
Whether that happens remains to be seen.
National Baseball Hall of Fame Librarian Jim Gates, for example, said several researchers who have examined the papers have said nothing to suggest they will clear Jackson, who died in 1951. And at the Chicago History Museum, which purchased the documents from Asinof’s estate after his death in 2008, curator Peter Alter said there’s no “smoking gun” that exonerates Jackson.
Rich Levin, a spokesman for baseball commissioner Bud Selig, said he knows of no plans to examine the documents or revisit Jackson’s case.
Jackson would need to be reinstated by Major League Baseball to be considered for the Hall of Fame. Those who have argued for that step — and questioned Asinof’s research — say the work by Voelker and Duffy just might allow Jackson to take his place among the game’s legends.
“I think there will be a groundswell of American fans who want to see Joe Jackson reinstated … and (inducted) into the Hall of Fame,” said Arlene Marcley, curator of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Baseball Library in Greenville, S.C., Jackson’s hometown.
Voelker and Duffy, who are both involved with the new Chicago Baseball Museum, heard the history museum bought the papers from Asinof’s estate and decided to examine them to see whether they showed Jackson was involved in the “Black Sox Scandal.”
One thing they wanted to determine was whether the paperwork supports the allegations contained in the book, which doesn’t have footnotes citing sources of information. The lawyers found Asinof’s papers contained very little documentation and came away convinced that Jackson had been railroaded.
They believe that Asinof relied heavily on newspaper articles of the time, some of which contained information that was “patently false,” Duffy said.
Though it was reported at the time that Jackson testified to taking part in the scheme to a grand jury — something Asinof also wrote — the transcripts the attorneys reviewed contained no confession that he purposely played poorly.
According to Alter, Jackson did admit to the grand jury that he took $5,000 in the fix, but testified that he played his best. Jackson’s .375 batting average was tops for both teams in the series won by the Cincinnati Reds.
The attorneys also say there are no notes to back up what they say is Asinof’s claim that he talked to Charles “Swede” Risberg, one of the eight White Sox players implicated in the scandal, or Dickie Kerr, a player who was not involved. The files suggest Asinof did not speak with star pitcher Eddie Cicotte, a key player in the fix.
“Cicotte said (in a note to Asinof), ‘Thank you for thinking of me, but I don’t want to talk,'” Voelker said.
What they think happened is this: Those who took part in a plan to throw the series knew that the best way to pitch it to gamblers was to say that Jackson was in on it.
“The thinking was if the best player was not involved, how can you sell a fix,” Duffy said.
Though the lawyers are clearly bothered by the lack of footnotes, curator Alter is not.
“This wasn’t Asinof’s Ph.D. dissertation,” he said. “He wasn’t trying to get by some committee of guys wearing tweed jackets with patches over their elbows.”
In fact, footnotes were rarely included in sports books when “Eight Men Out” came out in 1963 and even today, though more common, are not always included. Alter also isn’t surprised that the notes were incomplete and did not provide details about all the interviews Asinof conducted or all his sources.
“This book was written more than 40 years ago and notes go hither and yon, they don’t always stay together,” he said.
The article by Voelker and Duffy will be part of a campaign being launched this month by a number of groups devoted to Jackson and will include a Web site, said Russ Haslage of The League Park Society in Cleveland, where Jackson spent part of his career.
“I think the work the attorneys have done will help quite a bit,” he said. “The more information that’s found, the easier it will be to show Joe didn’t have anything to do with it.”
On the Web: http://www.clearjoe.com
and the official Joe Jackson website (linked here)