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South Carolina museum's sole purpose is to clear the name of native son "Shoeless" Joe Jackson

Memorabilia from “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s playing days are displayed at the museum, a little red brick house with white aluminum awnings where Jackson died in 1951, in his hometown of Greenville, S.C. His statue stands in a prominent spot on Main Street.

Evelio Contreras I Washington Post

Memorabilia from “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s playing days are displayed at the museum, a little red brick house with white aluminum awnings where Jackson died in 1951, in his hometown of Greenville, S.C. His statue stands in a prominent spot on Main Street.

Greenville, S.C., is where everything you think you know about "Shoeless" Joe Jackson is wrong.

Here in his hometown, where his statue occupies a prominent spot on Main Street, where kids still play on Shoeless Joe field and the Shoeless Joe museum sits just outside the entrance to the lovely minor league baseball stadium, Jackson is no goat. He's a great baseball player and a good man who has been wronged by the keepers of history.

That's certainly not what I learned growing up. Sure, Jackson's statistics are stellar, but most fans have heard of him only because of his enduring place in popular culture as the most famous symbol of the Black Sox scandal: the Chicago White Sox players' decision, 93 years ago, to throw the 1919 World Series.

"Say it ain't so, Joe," a plaintive young fan is said to have pleaded as his hero walked by after news of the players' corruption broke.

But in the tidy little red brick house with white aluminum awnings where Jackson died in 1951, that confrontation never took place. Here, in a museum with a single purpose — to clear one man's name — that famous quotation is revealed as just one more fantasy, one more piece of anti-Jackson propaganda that got glommed onto a narrative in which fiction like the movie Field of Dreams has became hopelessly blended with reported accounts such as the book (and movie) Eight Men Out.

I arrived at the museum with only the vaguest notion of a growing movement to restore Jackson's reputation.

That's where I met Arlene Marcley. A decade ago, Marcley, the museum's founder and director, knew almost nothing about Jackson except that he came from Greenville.

In 2005, Marcley, who was chief of staff to Greenville's mayor for 13 years, was in her office when a crew from Flip This House, a home renovation TV show, arrived, led by a director who wanted to buy Jackson's then-vacant house, renovate it and give it to the city for use as a museum.

The city didn't have money to start a museum, Marcley says, "but even though I really didn't know Joe's story, I knew we had to save his house."

She knew that because Greenville had already become a mecca for legions of fans who believed that Jackson had been wronged.

Today, in the five cramped rooms where Jackson and his wife, Katie, lived out his exile, that story is told through news clippings, quotations from court documents and testimonials from fellow players.

There's very little in the house that belonged to Jackson — a piece of china, Katie's hand mirror and a chair from the textile mill where Joe worked as a boy. And the 1940s kitchen, a modest mashup of checkerboard linoleum, low counters and a petite pantry, has been restored to the homey look of Jackson's time.

Jackson's famous bat, Black Betsy, used to be owned by a Greenville man who would display it publicly, but it was sold at auction in 2000 for almost $600,000 and is now believed to be in a vault in Pennsylvania.

The paucity of original objects is little impediment to the dozens of people who visit the museum. They come because they want to know more, to see if indeed a great injustice has been committed, to hear the version that isn't told in Cooperstown.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has only this to say about Jackson: "On Jan. 19, 1934, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis turns down 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson's bid for reinstatement. Jackson was one of eight Chicago White Sox players banned for their part in throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds." Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig remains silent even as Jackson's latter-day supporters mount legal and moral arguments on his behalf.

Marcley started her research on Jackson by meeting his only surviving sibling, Gertrude, then in her 90s. The museum's approach was shaped by the stories that the sister and Jackson's friends told about his deathbed statement that "I'm innocent."

The legal record is clear: Juries acquitted Jackson of any involvement in the conspiracy in the criminal trial in 1921 and again in a 1924 civil suit that Jackson filed. In the latter, he won a $16,711.04 judgment against White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.

Jackson rarely spoke about the scandal after that, but when he did, he contended that he had tried to report his suspicions about a fix to Comiskey, who allegedly rebuffed him.

But Jackson, who hit a convincing .375 in the series, did take $5,000 from a teammate after Game 4 of the eight-game series. In the museum's version, Jackson refused to take the cash in his hand, so the teammate simply left it on a table. Jackson told a grand jury in 1920 that he'd accepted the money but hadn't participated in any effort to lose a game.

In the years after he was banned from baseball, Jackson started a barbecue restaurant in Greenville and later ran a liquor store. He never learned to read or write. He is believed to have signed his name all of five times in his life — on his draft card, his driver's license, his mortgage, a baseball and his will, which is in the museum.

In 2005, Congress unanimously passed a resolution seeking Jackson's reinstatement. Since the museum's opening, fans have just kept coming, young and old alike, making the house what Marcley calls "ground zero for clearing Joe's name."

Marcley has decided to devote the rest of her days to clearing Jackson's name. Six decades after his death, she thinks that the only reason baseball hasn't altered its stance is that no commissioner wants to overturn a predecessor's decision.

Greenville is a modern city with a beautifully rehabbed downtown, yet it is still — curiously and marvelously — a place that carves out a position of prominence for a hometown man who has been relegated to a dark space in the history books. Shoeless Joe's place in Greenville reflects a deeply American expression of optimism, a belief in the underdog, a shining confidence that wrongs are ultimately put right.

South Carolina museum's sole purpose is to clear the name of native son "Shoeless" Joe Jackson 02/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 25, 2012 3:30am]

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