September 01, 2015

Should baseball commish make outfield legend eligible for Cooperstown? (updated)

Some of you, if you follow baseball, know who I'm talking about. Using a system that combines total career numbers, measured with modern sabermetrics for comparative performance, and a number of peak years, this outfielder is 13th best ever at his position, even though people don't talk a lot about his defense, and he wasn't considered a big power hitter.

Unfortunately, he has a known history related to gambling. Including gambling on his own baseball team.

So, he got barred from baseball, which then made him ineligible, by agreement, for being voted in the MLB Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

How long a period of penance should one serve? How much honesty should there be in remorse, for that matter? And, for the Hall of Fame, how closely should it tie its own morals clause, part of induction standards, to Major League Baseball's standards of punishment for something like gambling?

In other words, with a new commissioner, Rob Manfred, now running baseball, isn't it maybe time ...

Joe Jackson
To give Shoeless Joe Jackson a shot at Cooperstown?

(Update, Sept. 1, 2015: Rumors to the contrary, it ain't happening.)


And, you thought I was going to mention Pete Rose.

Let's look at Shoeless Joe, instead. Because, if nothing else, he has these two points:
1. He's first in line temporally, with the Black Sox some 65 years before Rose's player-manager gambling days.
2. On those remorse questions, he appears a lot more sincere than Rose, who is as likely to die at a casino as anyplace.

Now, the HOF case for Jackson.

He is, per Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, the 13th-best right fielder ever, despite playing just nine full seasons, and parts of a couple others at the start of his career while trying to break into the bigs. Larry Walker is the only one of the 12 ahead of him who isn't in the HOF.

As for the WAR7 part of Jaffe's system, based on his seven best non-consecutive years, he ranks seventh among right fielders, very close to Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, and Roberto Clemente, three no-doubt, slam-dunk HOFers, and ahead of the likes of Al Kaline and Reggie Jackson.

Back to the overall JAWS. In addition to Walker being the only non-HOFer ahead of him, Shoeless Joe ranks ahead of such HOF right fielders as Tony Gwynn and Dave Winfield.

Third, if we go by Wins Above Average, a comparison to other MLB players of the time, rather than Wins Above Replacement, a comparison to a theoretical average call-up player, Shoeless Joe comes out even better. More on that in a minute.

As for Rose, if you list him as a left-fielder, which B-Ref does, he's fifth on the JAWS list there.

Still his peak 7 years, with just 44.7 WAR, are well below Jackson's 52.5 WAR. Now, Rose's career of 79.1 WAR is well ahead of Jackson's 62.3, but Rose stuck around for years as a "compiler" and even without that, even if we whack off the last three years of his career, he played more than twice as many games as Jackson.

So, again, on to WAA. To me, 30 is, in general, minimum for a true HOFer. 35 is desirable. 40 WAA points is a slam dunk.

Jackson's in like Flynn with 40.3 WAA.

Pete Rose? The "compiler" has just 28.6 WAA. Beyond that, B-Ref treats him as an left fielder for JAWS purposes, when arguably it shouldn't. It does that because that's where he accumulated the most WAR, but he played the most games at 1B. (He played a lot more at all three OF positions combined.)

Now, the matter at hand.

Wikipedia has a good summary of the Black Sox Scandal, as it titles it. Between that, and its page on Jackson, there's a few things to keep in mind.

1. Jackson always denied the "Say it ain't so, Joe," story, in which a kid supposedly talked to him when he came out of grand jury testimony and he allegedly didn't reply. He gave one interview about the issue, years later.
2. While he is alleged to have confessed, along with Eddie Cicotte, there's no written record of his testimony. True, the grand jury testimony was retyped, per this piece, but, heavily redacted and of limited value. Of course, that may be due to doings by Arnold Rothstein. His involvement with all Sox players put on trial being acquitted is a whole nother issue. But, speaking of ...
3. The other players banned by first Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, shortly after he took office, all insist that Jackson was never at any meetings where the fix was discussed, but rather that his name was mentioned to gamblers to boost credibility.
4. His numbers at the plate were "off" in games the White Sox lost, but that could be short sample size, and he had — or attempted to have — one good defensive play.
5. Jackson allegedly accepted money from the gamblers, but this also is in that grand jury testimony for which no written record allegedly exists.
(Finally, anybody who calls me a "grand jury truther" over this on a baseball blog, over what is nuanced information, and does so twice, is lucky my second comment back, after nuance in my first, was nothing more than "mute button." When she told me to commit an anatomical act after that, I said I was a gentleman and would therefore let her go first.)

However, there are counterpoints. Rob Neyer says the grand jury testimony paperwork was stolen and resurfaced in 1924. On that part, he's right; here's Jackson's testimony. He also says the players weren't on trial for "throwing games," therefore their acquittals mean nothing. Meanwhile, the idea that Sox players were underpaid is largely a myth.

As for the issue of not reporting teammates conspiring to throw games? (If Jackson was not in on the fix himself, but heard about it?) Pre-commissioner days, and pre-Black Sox days, baseball had no such rule. Jackson, in that "one interview" link, says he asked owner Charles Comiskey to bench him, to try to avoid the whole situation, but wouldn't tell him why. And, he does indicate remorse and guilt over his actions in his grand jury testimony. And, he says that, although he took $5,000, he never did anything to throw a game.

Beyond that, Wikipedia's Jackson page says that Comiskey's attorney got him drunk the night before the grand jury testimony, with an offer of immunity from prosecution for the right testimony, and that Jackson didn't have money for his own attorney. So, Neyer should be taken with a grain of salt or two. Neyer also neglects to tell us that (where Jackson got the attorney, I don't know) that Jackson reportedly successfully sued Comiskey for 1920 and 1921 back pay. And, that grand jury testimony that reappeared in 1924? It appeared in the course of this lawsuit — from Comiskey's attorney.

So, while that testimony might have elements of truth, is it that truthful? Almost certainly not. And, Neyer sounds pretty wet on Jackson. (As a baseball columnist and commenter in general, for me, Neyer is a hot-and-cold guy.)

So, giving him the benefit of the doubt, and time, Commissioner Manfred needs to reinstate Jackson. And then, the Veterans Committee needs to take a vote.

Otherwise, I rest with Mike Nola, proprietor of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Virtual Hall of Fame website.

On a FAQ page, he notes:
Prior to starting my research in 1983 like many folks, I believed Joe Jackson was as guilty as sin. In early 1983, I got interested in the story of Joe Jackson again and decided it might not be fair to the man or his memory to "assume" him guilty without doing the research for myself. It did not take me long to come to the conclusion that Joe Jackson was more sinned on than he sinned.
That’s pretty much where I’m at. I can’t prove that he was innocent of anything, and there’s a decent chance he was guilty of some degree of stupidity.

But, I think that, in “amputating” the issue, Commissioner Landis, with the help of Charles Comiskey, had no problem “railroading” Jackson. And, to anybody who knows much about the character of either one of them, that shouldn’t be surprising.

And, I think certainty is otherwise impossible. This is history, not atomic physics, and it's history with ... railroading, as I already called it.

I'm comfortable with shades of gray; most people who want to still hang him high are not.

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