Shoeless Joe Jackson by W.P. Kinsella

Until Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds swindled the heartbroken fans of the Steroid Era, the Chicago Black Sox scandal was the most shameful incident in the history of professional baseball. Eight men, including superstar Shoeless Joe Jackson, were convicted of throwing the 1919 World Series with the Cincinnati Reds and banned from the game for life. While players involved in the Steroid Era have tarnished themselves and the sport, Shoeless Joe remains an icon and a hero, almost regardless of his guilt or innocence. How does Shoeless Joe remain such a hero, while the members of the Steroid Era have become villains?

The main reason is the era in which Shoeless Joe played. There is no doubt that the passion for baseball was never stronger than it was during its Golden Age - loosely defined as the forty-six year period from 1918 to 1964. Baseball thrived as it never had before, and poor immigrants, rural farm boys, and common, everyday people rose from humble origins to achieve success on the baseball diamond – achieving what is now called the American Dream.

Even today, players of the era such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Shoeless Joe resound in our collective consciousness. Aside from the success of W.P. Kinsella’s book, and the film adaptation Field of Dreams, further proof of their relevance appeared in the last US election, when Sarah Palin demanded of Joe Biden to “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” a phrase supposedly coined when a heartbroken fan asked Shoeless Joe the same question after his trial.

Baseball in this time gave average people the ability to become successful, like Joe DiMaggio, who went from being crammed inside a tiny house on the San Francisco pier, to captivating millions with his fifty-six game hit streak and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

The teams traveled by train, stopping at saloons and hotels along the way and mingling with fans in a way that doesn’t happen today; imagine getting on a business class flight and sitting next to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. There weren’t highlight shows or sports channels – the rumours and stories traveled outwards from the towns the players had visited and broadcast over crackling radios, creating a mystique and folklore that no other sport can boast. 

Ray Kinsella, the narrator of Shoeless Joe, was brought up to worship these folk heroes. His father had caught the passion of baseball and joined the time-honoured tradition of passing that love onto his son: “Instead of Tom Thumb or Rumpelstiltskin, [Ray was] raised on the story of the Black Sox scandal.” Now a man, Ray lives in Iowa, a land he has come to love despite the nearest Major League team being a two-day drive away. Along with his supportive wife Annie and daughter Karin, Ray tries to keep his struggling farm afloat, but risks losing the land and being unable to support his family.

One spring afternoon, as he sits on his porch, staring out at the Iowan mix of azure sky and straight, green land, Ray hears the voice of a ballpark announcer, scratchy and Middle American, materializing inside his head like an old-time radio show: “If you build it, he will come.” An image of a fully completed baseball park for the long-dead Shoeless Joe to play at appears in his head, and for three years Kinsella toils on his field, following the voice of “the great god Baseball.”

Ray’s penance is rewarded one night when Annie looks up from the dishes to say, “There’s somebody on our lawn.” Outside, the fully realized spirit of Shoeless Joe stalks left field and Ray, Annie, and Karin chat with him as they watch his games; a field filled with the ethereal resurrections of old-time baseball players. When the 9th inning is over, they fade away into Ray’s cornfield.

While this seems crazy, it represents the wild dreams that could be achieved through baseball. Dreamers like Ray relate to us on a personal level, just as the rural farm boy turned superstar did in the golden age, when players fought for their dreams in the public eye and battled daily in the Coliseum of the baseball diamond. This understanding is why we can relate, defend, and idolize Shoeless Joe, while vilifying a man like Barry Bonds.

The greatest crime of the Steroid Era occurred in the summer of ’98: a fearsome home run battle between Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire, that would become modern baseball’s Black Sox Scandal. Their goal was to overtake Roger Maris’ single season home run record of 61, and the battle captivated the nation, causing the media to proclaim that the home run race had “saved baseball.” Eventually, Griffey would fall out of contention, but Sosa and McGwire remained neck and neck until the final days of the season, when McGwire finally got the upper hand, setting the record with 70 home runs. Several years later, in the 2001 season, Barry Bonds would once again shine a spotlight on baseball when he broke McGwire’s single season home run record by hitting 73.

At the time, these men were saviors of the sport. They recreated the magic of an old-time pennant race and they had brought baseball back to prominence. In 2007, however, with the release of the Mitchell Report, an investigation into steroid use in baseball, doubt was shed on the legitimacy of their heroics, as the three main players in the home run saga (Sosa, McGwire, and Bonds as well as hundreds of others) were accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.

So what differences made us hate these steroid users, but not Shoeless Joe? For one, we cannot relate to the freaks of modern baseball, men whose giant arms bulge to match their oversized paychecks, and who reveal their personalities only through tight-lipped and terse interviews on the sports channel. These athletes no longer represent the people. In fact, while old-time baseball players identified with fans as “us,” modern athletes are now clearly separated from the legions of fans that watch them play. While a man like Shoeless Joe gains sympathy because he lost the game he loved, we delight in seeing Barry Bonds suffer, just as we would any other arrogant millionaire.

When Mark McGwire recently admitted to using steroids, he maintained that he simply used them to recover from injury. Compare that to DiMaggio, who played out his final years with painful bone spurs in both heels. When asked why he always played so hard, even in a meaningless game, and despite his injuries, DiMaggio replied, “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.”

McGwire and the rest of the steroid athletes cheated us into believing they shared the same heart as DiMaggio, or Ted Williams, or Babe Ruth, but their deception proves that the heroes of the Golden Age of baseball are gone forever, replaced by cheap simulacra of real baseball heroes.

//Mac Fairbairn

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