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Shoeless Joe's home will open as museum

The red-brick, two-bedroom home of whom many believe may be the greatest Major League player ever will open as a museum and baseball library on June 21.

Across the street from the stadium where the Greenville Drive, a single-A minor league team, plays its games is the 950-square-foot house where “Shoeless” Joe Jackson lived for about 10 years and where he died in 1951. With him there – until she died in 1959 – was his longtime, adoring wife, Katie.

Also with him, to this day, is controversy. Many argue that Jackson – even though he may have done so unwittingly – hurt the game he loved and which made him famous.

In the 1989 Oscar-nominated “Field of Dreams,” you might recall Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) emerging spirit-like from a cornfield.

Jackson tells dejected Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) that “if you build it, he will come.”

Kinsella – against the pleas of his wife and his banker – takes Joe's advice and builds a baseball field smack in the middle of his crop of corn. The ghosts of baseball's Deadball Era, along with Kinsella's own dad (as a young man), appear and play ball.

The movie has an uplifting anything-is-possible ending: a line of motorists, as far as the eyes can see on the Iowa horizon, eagerly make their way to Kinsella's farm.

Back to reality at the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Baseball Library.

The home, purchased and moved about three years ago from its original location three miles away, is at 356 Field St. in the west end of town. Note the address: .356 was Shoeless Joe Jackson's lifetime batting average, third-highest career mark in the history of Major League Baseball.

The strapping 6-foot-1, big-eared Jackson, with brawny shoulders, big soft hands and perfect eyesight, also led the American League in triples in 1912; led the league in hits slugging percentage (.551) in 1913; batted .408 as a rookie, the highest ever for a first-season average; and may have thrown the ball harder (“like a shot out of a rifle” according to one baseball historian), than anyone else of his era.

Meager beginnings

Jackson rose from meager beginnings as the son of cotton mill workers. He was always a kid at heart, and an illiterate, who never forgot where he came from. He spent as much time as possible with the children of mill workers, encouraging them to work hard at whatever they did, spreading kindness and generosity throughout his community and trying not to disappoint his fans.

At least in his early pro career, Jackson let down no one on the ball diamond. He quickly rose to national fame as a power-hitting outfielder for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Cleveland Naps.

But as a player for the Chicago White Sox in the 1919 World Series against Cincinnati, he encountered big trouble.

Though he batted .375 and amassed 12 hits, along with swatting the sole homer of that series, Jackson and some other Sox players were accused of being bought off by gamblers.

He was indicted but found not guilty in a 1921 trial; Jackson steadfastly maintained his innocence.

But the not guilty verdict didn't satisfy baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He permanently banned Jackson and seven of Jackson's teammates from the majors.

It was all known as the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal.

For the rest of his life, it would torment a man who some – including Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb – believe was the game's purest natural hitter.

Jackson went to his grave professing his innocence. Fans said he got a raw deal and that even in death, barred from eligibility for Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Jackson continues to be unfairly treated.

‘I refuse to argue'

Regardless of all that guilty/not guilty debate, his home will soon be a shrine for those who love the game and want to learn more about the man who today continues to stir emotions.

“I refuse to argue the points,” Arlene Marcley, executive assistant to the mayor of Greenville, wrote in a recent e-mail. “And if the documents prove the case for Joe's innocence, then I'll have the last laugh.”

The documents? Letters, memos and legal papers about the Black Sox scandal found a few months ago by Chicago-area collectors.

Marcley, curator and foundation chairwoman of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Baseball Library, wants folks to remember the player legendary for his “Saturday Special” home runs, “blue darter” stinging line drives and missile-like 400-feet throws, nailing many a runner, from the outfield to home plate.

At 356 Field St., visitors will experience a plain, sturdy, functional dwelling – bought by the Jacksons in 1940 or 1941 for about $2,500.

The home features:

A large whistle from the Brandon Mill, where Joe worked as a 6-year-old sweeping cotton lint off the floors.

A life-sized portrait of Joe and Katie on their wedding day – she was 15, he was 19.

The original pinewood floors, and the small brick fireplace that kept the couple warm.

The original arched entrances to their living room and dining room.

The original pine panel walls that formerly lined one side of Jackson's trophy room (since converted to a baseball research library with more than 2,000 books).

The authentic wooden awnings for each window.

In the bathroom, you'll see the lavatory and mirror where Joe shaved (and even a slot behind the mirror cabinet where he may have discarded his used razor blades) and the tub where the Jacksons bathed.

The kitchen, tiny by today's standards, features 1940s retro decor. It's all to honor Katie Jackson, who curator Marcley says stuck by her man through thick and thin.

“This is something for the ladies,” Marcley said. “I've been getting donations of (1940s era) kitchen appliances, linens, a coffee pot. …”

You will also see lots of memorabilia – photos chronicling Joe's life and career, artifacts and books about the history of baseball – thanks in part to a successful Internet appeal for such items.

“People from all over the country sent in books,” Marcley said, “and I have very few duplicates, I might add.”

The Jacksons' home is a “standalone baseball library,” Marcley said, that could very well be the largest of its kind in the Southeast. (The largest in the country being at Cooperstown, N.Y.)

She said it's amazing how many people today research baseball, judging from what she's learned since working on restoring Shoeless Joe's home.

It's no accident that visitors will see so many books.

“Because of Joe's illiteracy, I wanted books in Joe Jackson's house,” Marcley said. “He could neither read nor write. His wife answered all fan mail … read all the letters to him. And I believe that's one of the reasons Joe got in trouble in Chicago. He couldn't read the legal documents … ”

Good business

Though Joe's Major League Baseball career was cut short, the Jacksons were “very comfortable” in Greenville, Marcley said, due in part to their successful dry cleaning business in Savannah, Ga., and their ownership of a Greenville liquor store and barbecue restaurant.

It was at that liquor store that Ty Cobb (three years older than Joe) dropped by for a visit. Joe Anders, a pallbearer at Jackson's funeral, has recalled that when Cobb, by then a Hall-of-Famer at Cooperstown, visited Joe Jackson at his liquor store, Jackson said something to Anders like, “I want you to meet the greatest baseball player ever.”

To which Cobb is said to have replied: “No. Joe Jackson was the greatest, not me.”

Larry Timbs is a journalism professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill.

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