Greenville museum set to honor Shoeless Joe

GREENVILLE -- "Shoeless" Joe Jackson died 57 years ago in the tiny, red-brick house on the edge of Greenville that he shared with his wife, Kate. It was in the 950-square-foot home that he endured the final 10 years of his life and the last of three decades banished from baseball for his role in fixing the 1919 World Series.

The home was lifted in 2006 from its foundation on East Wilburn Street, sliced from top to bottom, hauled three miles, and reassembled in a parking lot facing the Single-A Greenville Drive's ballpark.

On Saturday, the house will reopen as the Shoeless Joe Jackson Baseball Museum and Library at 356 Field Street, the number an homage to his career batting average for the Philadelphia A's, the Cleveland Naps turned Indians and the Chicago White Sox.

He grew up in Greenville and played for the baseball team organized by the Brandon Mill, whose cotton lint he swept up as a child.

Although it is expected to attract tourists to the city's redeveloped downtown and west side, the miniature museum is really the passion of one woman who came to love his story.

"We want the museum to be ground zero for Joe's election to the Hall of Fame," said Arlene Marcley, the president of the museum's foundation, its curator, publicist and, she adds, its painter and housecleaner, too.

"We're not here to argue the case," she said, standing on the living room's original pine floors. "We're here to tell his story. And we don't know the full story."

Here, his is not a tale of shame but instead one of civic pride in a local sports hero who always said he had done nothing to rig the 1919 World Series for the $5,000 he admitted receiving from gamblers, and who some say has served enough time in purgatory.

"People here think if he's guilty of anything, it was of being naive," said Craig Brown, a co-owner and president of the Greenville team, which was told by minor league officials not to call the team the Joes in his honor. A bronze statue near the ballpark depicts Jackson swinging toward the nearby Brandon Mill field that bears his name. The statue stands on bricks from old Comiskey Park, where he played from 1915 to 1920.

Raised in Georgia, the 66-year-old Marcley had not heard of Jackson until a local petition began circulating in 1997 to make him eligible for election to the Hall of Fame.

She became more interested when Ted Williams lobbied for Jackson to be removed from the permanently ineligible list. She began assembling exhibits about him at City Hall, where she is executive assistant to Mayor Knox White, and started raising $60,000 for the statue, which was sculpted in the City Hall lobby.

"Whenever I heard the words, 'Regardless of the verdict of juries,"' she said, shuddering slightly as she recited from commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis' fiat in 1921 that barred Jackson and seven White Sox teammates even after a Chicago jury acquitted them of conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series won by Cincinnati.

"Landis was a stinker," she said.

The museum lacks Hall of Fame-quality artifacts, including his storied 48-ounce Black Betsy that a collector, Rob Mitchell of Pottstown, Pa., bought in 2001 for $577,610. But it features the house's original fireplace, awnings, bathroom tub and mirror. There are vintage photographs, a whistle from the Brandon Mill, a short film, items from the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston, Ga., and 2,000 baseball books shelved on the pine walls of the original screened-in porch.

There is some irony in the baseball library; Jackson could not read or write.

"It's important that education be central to the museum," Marcley said.

Admission is free but donations will be appreciated to augment the meager, privately financed budget. Marcley says there are enough Jackson fans to make this personal and passionate campaign succeed.

"I have five men in my life," she said. "My husband, my son, the mayor, Joel Poinsett," -- an 18th-century South Carolina statesman for whom the poinsettia is named -- "and Shoeless Joe Jackson."

In nearby Simpsonville, Shoeless Joe's 16-year-old great-great grand nephew, also named Joe Jackson, catches and bats left-handed for the Mauldin High School team.

"I think he was a great man," Joe Jackson said at his family's dining room table. "Humble. We don't think he was guilty."

In his living room, a photograph of Shoeless Joe, in his left-handed stance, hangs above one of young Joe Jackson, also a left-handed batter. Young Joe's mother, Linda, pointed to their similarities in the batter's box, in particular the wide distance between their feet. Her son hit .387 this season swinging a 32-inch, 29-ounce aluminum bat for the varsity squad. "Joe has no real holes in his swing," said his coach, Todd Robinson. "He adjusts."

Jackson said he did not brag about his family history.

"My parents tell me, 'Don't say anything unless someone asks,'" he said. But, he said, his friends "think it's cool."

During a recent class discussion of "The Great Gatsby," which contains a reference to the Black Sox scandal, Jackson said his English teacher asked him to elaborate on the pock mark on early baseball.

"I explained it to her, but she didn't know I was related," he said. His teacher, Ida Rainey, confirmed his story, saying: "It's a common name. I've taught a lot of Jacksons."

The Jackson relatives living in the area seem content to let others argue Shoeless Joe's case. His widow, Kate, told the family, "Just let it be," said Linda Jackson.

But local fans continue to believe in him.

"The main thing that keeps him alive is he hit .356 and people intuitively think that someone that great should be recognized by baseball," said Gene Carney, who wrote "Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball's Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded" (Potomac, 2006).

Last year, the Chicago History Museum acquired an archive of documents about the Black Sox case. Peter T. Alter, a curator who has examined the papers, few of which have been seen publicly, said, "There's no smoking gun that implicates someone new or exonerates anyone."

The uncertainty about Jackson's culpability in the conspiracy, beyond accepting a lot of cash for the era, motivates supporters like Marcley to advocate having the veterans committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame decide if he is worthy of election. "Baseball should just say it no longer has any authority over Joe," Marcley said in the bedroom he died in, "and let him be on the ballot."