For Shoeless Joe is gone, long gone

A long yellow grass-blade between his teeth

And the bleacher shadows behind him.

–Nelson Algren

In 1919, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was considered the best natural hitter of all time. In 1920, he resigned from major league baseball after he and seven Chicago White Sox teammates were charged with purposely losing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The players who had plotted to throw the series–for a promised $80,000–were nicknamed the Black Sox during the trial, and the incident became the worst scandal the baseball world has ever seen.

Conditions were ripe for it to happen. For starters, fixing games was already commonplace on a lesser level. And while the Sox were pretty much the best players around (they had won the 1917 World Series), they were also some of the worst paid. Tightfisted owner Charles Comiskey paid Jackson $6,000 in 1919; he was offered $10,000 to throw the series.

So it was understandable when first baseman Chick Gandil went to a couple of gambler friends and offered to go in the tank. It was also understandable when suspicions started growing a year later, and conscience-stricken pitcher Eddie Cicotte and left fielder Jackson confessed. It was even understandable when the baseball-loving jury acquitted all eight players, leaving them, however, with badly tarnished reputations.

For playwright Alan Thurston, the Black Sox story is a part of the baseball lore passed down to him by his father. Thurston likes to tell about how his father, as a boy, listened to games on the radio with his friends and made bets on them. “When he lost $5 on the 1919 Series, he later got mad and thought the friend should pay him,” recalls Thurston.

Out of such stories–and a lot of research–he has written a play about Jackson’s life called Shoeless Joe; it’s currently being produced by the Chicago Actors Ensemble.

Thurston lives in New York City, but he’s been a White Sox fan for almost 30 years. One of his favorite players when he was a kid was Ted Kluszewski, he explains, who got traded to the Sox in ’59. Ever since then he’s followed the Sox avidly, although he’d never even been to Chicago until Shoeless Joe was accepted for production here.

Jackson made a better subject for Thurston than any of the other Black Sox players for a couple of reasons. For one, his role in the scandal was pretty ambiguous. Most accounts seem to agree that Jackson didn’t want to be in on the deal, but that the hustlers who set it up insisted he be a part of it. When Gandil approached him about it, he said no twice; later he tried (unsuccessfully) to get benched. In the series, he certainly didn’t play like someone trying to throw a game: he batted .375, with 16 putouts and no errors. After the series, though, he accepted $5,000 from Gandil. Soon after, he tried to tell Comiskey about the scheme but was refused an audience.

He was also appealingly simple. Jackson was a good-natured, illiterate hayseed from a mill town in Georgia. He couldn’t even sign his own name, and resisted his wife’s attempts to teach him to read. He had a natural strength and grace that didn’t need refinement. Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton once explained his nickname this way: “A major league club was forced to hog tie him to get shoes on him and he had wailed that he couldn’t hit unless he could get toe holds.”

He always swore up and down he had played the series to win, despite Fullerton’s famous–but fictional–article about a disillusioned kid who approaches Jackson as he comes out of the courthouse. “It ain’t so, Joe, is it?” asks the kid. “Yes kid, I’m afraid it is,” replies Joe.

Thurston tells a story about how, years after the scandal, Ty Cobb went into the liquor store Jackson then owned to buy a fifth of bourbon, and the two treated each other like they didn’t recognize each other. “On his way out, Ty says, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ and Joe says, ‘Yeah, but I didn’t think anyone cared who I was anymore.'”

“I told my brother that story,” Thurston says, “and he said, ‘Gee, that’d make a good play.'” (Filmmaker John Sayles apparently feels the same way; he’s currently making a movie about the Black Sox.)

Thurston started researching his play about six years ago, reading “any number of books, so many it would be hard to estimate,” and plowing through old New York Times accounts. The play has gone through six drafts.

It also has won more than its fair share of awards. Thurston has been a finalist in the (Eugene) O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and a semifinalist both in the Dramatists Guild/CBS New Plays Program and for the Court Theatre’s Sergel Drama Prize; his play also received an honorable mention from the International Society of Dramatists. Several regional theaters in New York expressed some interest in the play, but the Chicago Actors Ensemble agreed to actually produce it.

Doug Hartzell, who directs Shoeless Joe, was attracted to the play by the accuracy and sheer volume of its history. “There was a lot of good stuff in it,” he says. “I could tell he knew what he was writing about.”

Thurston has been an actor since 1974, but this is the first play he’s written; Hartzell worked with him to rewrite about three-quarters of it. Together they “took it from a monologue play to an action play,” says Hartzell. The play had been mostly made up of various characters telling about Jackson’s life. Hartzell and Thurston added scenes in which the characters interacted, while maintaining the story-telling feel of the play. Often, changes came out of suggestions from the actors. “It needed more of a chance taken with it,” says Hartzell. “Alan was very open to changing and rewriting.”

Hartzell also added more vaudeville to the show. Thurston had included some references to vaudeville, because, he says, baseball players back then often performed on the vaudeville circuit during the off-season to make extra cash: “What they’d do is get up and talk about their careers” accompanied by a chorus girl or two.

Hartzell has studied the minstrel-vaudeville-burlesque progression, and spent six years restoring an old vaudeville house. He saw a chance to make a parallel between the financial exploitation of the ball players and that of the vaudevillians, whose genre–which in its original form of minstrel shows helped the country deal with race relations after the Civil War–was deteriorating into sleazy entertainment. Among other things, Hartzell added to the play a blackface minstrel group that comes onstage between scenes to give a little rhyming commentary.

Now Hartzell is trying to move Shoeless Joe to a bigger theater for a longer run. If need be, he says, he and Thurston will revise the script again.

After four weeks in Chicago working on the production, Thurston is back in New York, but before he left he got to six White Sox games. The Sox won three and lost three, he says, and he’s pretty sure none of them was fixed.

Shoeless Joe runs through September 20 at the Peoples Church, 941 W. Lawrence. Curtain is 8 PM Thursday through Saturday and 7 PM Sunday. Admission is free, but reservations are recommended; make them at 275-4463.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.