When I "poemed" Shoeless Joe Jackson, many years ago, the most striking facts seemed to be that he was a superb hitter, one of the best ever, and that he named his bats. Only one of them became famous, Black Betsy, and "she" became the heroine of my poem:
How he loved her
How he used her
She was never heavy to him
But the perfect fit
What a pair they were
Summer after summer:
Joe and Betsy
He called her black and beautiful
She responded to his touch
By springing to life
Charm for no one but Joe
Traveled with him from Philly
To Cleveland to Chicago
Betsy brought him luck
Until that terrible day
They were split up
By the Mountain Man
Cut down in his prime
Accusations hurled by gamblers
Jackson said it wasn't so
Betsy protested loudly
But the hanging judge had spoken
The fatal word
Torn from his trademark and trade
Banished to roam the countryside
Aching with all his soul
For a reunion that would never happen
How he loved her
How he used her
She was everything to him
Betsy was never just
When I started digging into the events of 1919, it became apparent that the role of Shoeless Joe Jackson in whatever happened that Fall, was unique. I quickly obtained and read Frommer's 1992 Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball (see Notes #269), which contained his grand jury statement; Donald Gropman's Say It Ain't So, Joe! (get the revised 1992 2nd edition, for the appendices) and David Fleitz' 2001 biography Shoeless: The Life & Times of Joe Jackson (both reviewed in #272); Jack Kavanagh's 1995 Shoeless Joe Jackson (for juveniles, but Jack was a meticulous researcher; see #282); and finally Kelly Boyer Sagert's 2004 Joe Jackson (see #345; by then I was contributing to the Jackson literature). This is a short list; what I want to say here is that in all of my research for Burying, I skimmed the early biography, and focused on 1919 and the years after.
The only time I really spent time on Katie Wynn Jackson, Joe's wife, was when I read her deposition for the 1924 Milwaukee Trial.
But now there is a new book out from Pocol Press, Thomas K. Perry's Just Joe: Baseball's Natural, as told by his wife. It is fiction, make no mistake about that. But it seems to be worthwhile fiction, like Blue Ruin or Hoopla or perhaps, dare I say, Eight Men Out -- the kind where you will learn a lot, it's just that you won't know precisely whether what you learned is based on anything solid, or made up in the author's imagination.
Out of force of habit, when I first picked up Just Joe, I opened it to 1919. That was probably a mistake, and I'm glad that I started all over again, at the beginning. Because this book is not about the Fix and the Cover-Up, it is a love story. And the charm of Just Joe is in its language, the simple telling of the story from Katie Jackson's perspective. The language is believable, like Ring Lardner's in You Know Me, Al or Mark Harris' in his Henry Wiggins trilogy. Perry has pulled the story together from Jackson's relatives and friends, as well as from all the documentation (from newspapers) that he could find. The result is a story that is refreshing for its simplicity. Do not pick up the book looking for clues to unravel the B-Sox mystery. Read it for its imaginative description of a baseball star of yesteryear, and those days when times were harder, especially in the rural south mill towns.
Katie and Joe Jackson were married when they were 15 and 19 (or 20) years old, respectively. In their day, the category "teenager" had not been invented, not really. Kids worked, and grew up working, then worked some more. "Teen marriages" were common, and (I think) usually worked out fine. Katie's and Joe's sure did.
The author states in his Foreword that the timeline of the events of their relationship (where they were) "is precisely followed." That is not quite the case, although I doubt that many readers will notice. Perry confuses the 1920 grand jury and the trial a year later -- many writers do -- so that GJ foreman Harry Brigham announces the "not guilty" verdict in 1921.
The other errors are minor, too. For example, "Landis would contradict himself before you could turn around, ignoring nose-on-your-face affronts with the likes of Hal Chase, even Cobb and Speaker, then pound away on my man and Buck Weaver." In fact, Chase was black-balled (but not officially banned) from MLB before Landis took office; the Cobb-Speaker case surfaced at the end of 1926, and was not a slam-dunk, easy call. Perry is correct about Landis being closed to appeals from Jackson and Weaver, of course, and about his being inconsistent in his calls as Commish.
Just Joe will not likely sway anyone -- nor should it, it's fiction, and that is all it claims to be. It is to be read gently, more to get to know Kate, than Joe. Or to better know their times, and how two simple lives got very complicated.
A final note -- I hope the 1924 Milwaukee Trial material becomes widely available someday, and that Thomas Perry reads it and works it into a revised edition of Just Joe. He will have some more color and detail for the fateful day in October 1919 when Lefty Williams tossed Joe that dirty envelope, with the $5,000 that more than anything else convicted him in the public mind of complicity in the crookedness. Katie Jackson gave an important statement for the 1924 trial -- as far as I know, it was her only under-oath testimony of any length. Most of that statement is in Burying the Black Sox. What struck me when I first read it, was that Katie denied crying when Joe told her about the $5,000 -- contradicting Joe's version -- not what you'd expect from a stand-by-your-man wife. According to Katie, Lefty gave Joe the cash, saying it was "part of what he (Lefty) had gotten," but without further explanation.
In October 1919, a national and everlasting scandal could not have been imagined by anyone, not even a writer of fiction. So it almost hurts to see Katie Jackson take the tainted cash from her loving husband, as she always did, and put it dutifully in the bank, where it soon comes in handy to pay hospital bills for Joe's sister -- but not before (in Joe's account) the cash is shown to Harry Grabiner right after the Series, and not before Grabiner directs the Jacksons to keep it, when he visits Savannah that off-season to sign Joe to a new contract.
Just Joe portrays a couple of uncomplicated people, who fall in love and stay in love, and together face more adversity than they seem to deserve. If Shoeless Joe is a Natural, Katie Wynn Jackson is, too. Not supernatural, not unnatural. Simple and free, devoted to each other and to baseball, no matter what.