Music History #24: "Say It Ain't So, Joe"

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“Say It Ain't So, Joe”
Written by Murray Head (1975)
Performed by Murray Head

The Music

In 1973, British singer-songwriter-actor Murray Head saw a documentary about Richard Nixon, who was then months away from his post-Watergate resignation. Head was struck by a moment in the film when an editor of a small town newspaper was talking about his readers who still supported the president despite so much condemning evidence. The editor compared Nixon's situation to that of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the famous baseball player who was banned from the Majors after being accused of taking a bribe to throw the 1919 World Series.

Legend goes that after Jackson was banned, a young fan approached him and said, “Say it ain't so, Joe.” Head borrowed that  phrase for the title of a beautifully yearning ballad that was later covered by Roger Daltrey of The Who. In 2013, Head hit the charts a second time with a re-recorded version of the song.

Here's his original 1975 recording:

The History

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Born in 1888 to a poor South Carolina family, Joseph Jefferson Jackson fell in love with baseball at a young age. His natural gifts for the game were such that by the time he was thirteen, he was playing on a local team alongside men twice his age. Joe could throw a ball over 300 feet. He could make spectacular diving catches in the field. And he could hit anything that was thrown at him, and hit it far.

In 1908, Joe started playing semi-pro ball with the Greenville Spinners. During a double-header, he was wearing a new pair of spiked shoes that wore painful blisters on his heels. In the second game, he took them off. The story goes that after he hit a triple and pulled into third base in his bare feet, someone in the stands yelled, “You shoeless son-of-a-gun!” Though that was the only time Jackson ever played a game without shoes, the nickname stuck.

Dirty Socks

Later that year, Jackson started playing in the majors, first with the Philadelphia Athletics, then with the Cleveland Naps. In 1910, he batted .408, the highest average ever for a rookie. In 1915, he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox.

As depicted in the acclaimed film Eight Men Out, the White Sox were one of the best teams in baseball. But they were also saddled with a tyrannical and miserly general manager named Charles Comiskey. A former ball player himself, Comiskey was credited with being the first person to train players to change their field positions according to a batter's hitting habits. But as a manager, he underpaid his players and cut corners in every aspect of running the franchise. When Comiskey decided to save money by reducing the number of times uniforms were laundered each week, his team got the nickname “Black Sox.”

Of course, baseball in 1919 was nothing like it is today, with free agents and million dollar contracts. Players had what was called a “reserve clause” in their contracts that prevented them from changing teams without the permission of the owners. Further, there was no union to protect players' interests. For all that, Comiskey wasn't much worse than any other general manager. But his abrasive personality rubbed his players the wrong way. And their bitterness towards him set the stage for what happened in the World Series.

So too did the dissension in the ranks of the White Sox. The team was divided into two opposing factions—one led by second baseman Eddie Collins, the other by first baseman Chick Gandil. Collins' guys were more educated and sophisticated and had negotiated higher salaries for themselves. Gandil's were less polished, and underpaid.

It was Gandil who reportedly approached a gambler named Joe Sullivan about the idea of fixing the Series. Sullivan was connected with several gangsters in Chicago. The set-up was that each player would receive $10,000 for giving less than their best over the first three games. It guaranteed that the White Sox would lose to the Reds. Gandil, who was 33 years old and ready to retire, saw this as a way to get out of the game with some big money.

Dirty Stakes

Gambling had been part of major league baseball since its beginnings in the 1860s. And Chicago being a hotbed of organized crime, there were certainly plenty of hustlers skirting around the White Sox organization. Comiskey had even posted signs in his stadium that said, “No Betting In This Ball Park.”

Gandil recruited at least seven teammates to join him in the fix. And this brings us back to Shoeless Joe Jackson. When he was approached by Gandil—and according to later testimony—Jackson was promised $20,000 to participate. He agreed to take the money, once he was convinced that all his teammates were on board. After the fourth game, Jackson received an envelope with $5000. He felt that the players were being double-crossed by the gamblers, and refused to take the envelope. He told Gandil, “Somebody is getting a little jazz, everybody is crossed.” Despite the fact that Jackson had initially agreed to be part of the fix, he did not personally throw any of the games. In fact, he batted .375 with twelve hits in the series, and committed no errors in the field. But his association with the other players who did throw their games would permanently taint his reputation in baseball.

Three Strikes, You're Out

In 1921, eight members of the White Sox stood trial and were acquitted of wrongdoing. But soon after, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned the same players from the Majors for life.

For the next 20 years, Joe Jackson played semi-pro ball, sometimes under an assumed name. Eventually, he and his wife settled back in his hometown of Greenville, where Jackson ran a barbecue restaurant and a liquor store. On the side, he coached kids' baseball teams.

Jackson died of a heart attack in 1951, at age 64.

Over the years, there have been countless fans who've lobbied for Jackson's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1999, MLB commissioner Bud Selig said that Jackson's case was under review. But there has been no further action or comment.

Towards the end of his life, Jackson said, “Regardless of what anybody says, I was innocent of any wrong-doing. I gave baseball all I had. The Supreme Being is the only one to whom I’ve got to answer. If I had been out there booting balls and looking foolish at bat against the Reds, there might have been some grounds for suspicion. I think my record in the 1919 World Series will stand up against that of any other man in that Series or any other World Series in all history.”

See all installments of our Music History series here.

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May 15, 2013 - 6:00pm
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