ELYRIA — Lorain native Kelly Boyer Sagert was doing research for an encyclopedia on obscure baseball players when she came across an ad from Greenwood Publishing seeking an author to do a research book on “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
Boyer Sagert was given the job and the resulting book, “Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Hitters: Joe Jackson,” has become one of the leading biographies about the former baseball great, whose career came to an abrupt end in 1920 thanks to the Black Sox scandal.
Boyer Sagert, who gave a talk about the book Wednesday at Wesleyan Village, said she believes Jackson should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame based on the evidence she uncovered.
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“The first question I’m always asked is, ‘Did he do it?’ ” Boyer Sagert said in reference to his part in the scandal in which eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of joining with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. “There’s just all these little pieces there, and there really isn’t a yes or no. The only thing he was guilty of was accepting a $5,000 payout from the gamblers’ money.
“He went to court. He was found innocent. He was banned under reasons that would never fly today. The things that they charged him with weren’t illegal back then. Back then, it was legal to bet on games. It wasn’t illegal to bet on your own games or even throw games, so he didn’t break the law, even if he was a part of it. He had no errors in the entire World Series. He had the only home run. He had the best batting average on either side. How the heck is that throwing a game? It’s not.”
Boyer Sagert’s book wasn’t necessarily about trying to prove or disprove Jackson’s innocence.
“Everything I had read about Joe Jackson prior to writing this book (published in 2004) was about the big scandal,” she said. “That’s all I knew about it. What I wanted to do was get the person behind that, because that’s not all who he was. How did he get there? What kind of person was he? That’s what I hoped to uncover with this book.”
Jackson did not keep a memoir and never got a chance to tell his side of the story. He was actually slated to go on a TV show in 1951 to talk about it, according to her research, but he died of a heart attack at the age of 64, just days before his scheduled appearance.
She discussed Jackson’s rough childhood, being born in the South shortly after the Civil War ended, and how he went to work at age 6 at the Brandon cotton mill in South Carolina with his father, George, making 25 cents a day sweeping floors.
When he was 13, all the local mills formed a baseball league to beef up employee morale and paid them additional benefits if they made the team. Jackson, the only nonadult to play in that league, quickly became too good for the competition, even as a teenager.
“His childhood was the most fascinating to me,” she said. “The odds that he would ever make it to major league play, much less be at the top of the game, were unbelievable. From birth on, it’s an amazing story, and all we ever hear about it is, ‘Did he throw the game?’ ”
Boyer Sagert discovered that Jackson really didn’t come into his own as a professional ballplayer until he was sold by the Philadelphia Athletics to the Cleveland Indians (then known as the Naps) midway through the 1910 season.
“When he went to Cleveland, it was finally the years when he blossomed,” she said. “He was very much a Southern boy and he never wanted to be in the major leagues. He just wanted to play good ol’ Southern boy ball, but he was too good. They sent him to Philadelphia and it was a disaster.
“They ended up trading him to Cleveland, and in Cleveland, he felt at home. Everything that people thought he could do, he did in Cleveland.”
All the steel mills along the Cuyahoga River reminded Jackson of where he grew up in the South, and he convinced his wife, Katie, to move to Cleveland with him. Also, Naps star Napoleon Lajoie took the young Jackson under his wing and served as his mentor, helping his comfort level immensely.
In August of 1915, Jackson was sold to the Chicago White Sox because Indians owner Charlie Somers was losing money. He helped the White Sox win the World Series in 1917, but it was what happened in 1919 that forever defined his career.
Boyer Sagert, who said she usually does four Joe Jackson talks a year, has written 11 other books. But she said the Jackson book has brought her the most notoriety.
“This has, without a doubt, been my most popular book,” she said. “For whatever reason, this is the one that’s stuck, and everywhere I go, people want to know about Joe Jackson.
“I’ve gotten to be on ESPN because of the book. I got to speak at the Baseball Hall of Fame when the White Sox were going to be in the World Series for the first time since 1919. I’ve gotten to do a lot of really cool stuff because of this book.”
Jackson finished with a lifetime batting average of .356, the third-highest mark in history. His .408 average in 1911 is still the Indians’ all-time highest batting average and was Jackson’s all-time best as well. He also holds the Indians’ record for highest career average (.374).
The book is still in circulation and can be purchased at any online store.
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.