Shoeless Joe Jackson & Baseball’s “Black Sox” in McDonough County

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the man Babe Ruth said he modeled his hitting style after, played at the Macomb fairgrounds in 1921.

Considered one of the best players to ever play the game, Joe Jackson was known for his ability to catch impossible fly balls, throw the ball from the outfield on the fly around 400 feet, and for setting the rookie record for batting average at .408, which still stands today. Jackson not only was known as a fantastic hitter, he was a fast base runner. In his career he stole 202 bases.

So, how did “Shoeless Joe” end up playing a game in Macomb?

Since their inception in the early 19th century, the towns of Colchester and Macomb were engaged in a spirited battle on political, economic and cultural levels. The county seat, Macomb and Colchester the mining town on the outskirts. And like thousands of other American small towns, nowhere was their rivalry more intense than on the baseball field.

By the end of World War I, both the Colchester and Macomb teams were very competitive around western Illinois, regularly beating the likes of surrounding communities. Macomb and Colchester were scheduled to play a five-game series in mid-1921. The series was tied 2-2 after four games with the deciding 5th game scheduled for September 11. The game was to played at the Macomb fairgrounds in front of more than 1,600 people.

In Chicago, on September 28, 1920, White Sox pitcher Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte walked into team counsel Alfred Austrian’s office and confessed that he had plotted with eight of his teammates including Jackson and Charles “Swede” Risberg, to “throw” the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, an admission that sent shock waves around the country. In March 1921, indictments were handed down against the eight ballplayers and a handful of gamblers; a criminal conspiracy trial began in June.

As the “Black Sox” trial dragged on throughout July 1921, Shoeless Joe bided his time with friends at his successful South Side poolroom and cigar store on 55th Street in Chicago’s Hyde Park, which he had owned and operated for about a year. Students from the nearby University of Chicago popularized the hangout, which also might have been frequented by Henry “Kelly” Wagle on his trips to the big city. Wagle was a 35-year-old Colchester supporter who placed more than a rooting interest in the team’s games against Macomb, and usually a few dollars or more.

In Colchester, Wagle cultivated his image as a philanthropic businessman, generous to one and all, raised by an upstanding family, respected around town — and he was all of those things — but everyone knew what he really was a bootlegger associated with Al Capone. Wagle took it upon himself discuss with Jackson and his other teammates involvement in game five of the 1921 Macomb versus Colchester series. There would be money in it for the players, of course, and no hassles. All Wagle asked was that the players not tell anyone but him if they chose to accept.

In the meantime, Black Sox pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams was receiving a similar offer from backers of the Macomb team. Wagle had known about this ahead of time, having made it his habit as a bettor to be prepared for situations before they occurred, but he figured that Williams would not want to leave his so soon after the trial. Wagle’s assessment was accurate: the left-hander would not be pitching for Macomb or Colchester.

Jackson seemed willing to listen to Wagle’s offer, as did Charles “Swede” Risberg and Charlie “Chick” Gandil, the two purported ringleaders of the 1919 World Series fix. Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte was also interested; after declining most of his non-Chicago offers from various promoters during the summer, “Knuckle” said he wouldn’t mind suiting up, too.

Organized baseball quickly made it clear that the “Eight Men Out” would not be welcomed back. The National Association, the game’s ruling body, announced that it would not allow any of the “Black Sox” to play in the minor leagues. Suddenly, their careers were over. None of them would ever set foot in a major league park again. So the “Eight Men Out” did the only thing they knew how: they went looking for a game.

On Sept. 11, 1921, the Colchester vs. Macomb championship contest was about to begin at the Macomb fairgrounds, when a mysterious car pulled up and three of the infamous Chicago “Black Sox,” “Shoeless” Joe,  “Knuckles” Cicotte and “Swede” Risberg stepped out and joined the Colchester team.

Just five weeks removed from the “Trial of the Century,” a trial in which they were acquitted by a cheering jury and then promptly banished from the game by baseball’s new commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis – the three disgraced baseball players were back in uniform and together again.

For the residents of McDonough County, it was a scene straight out of the movie Field of Dreams. Despite protests from the Macomb side, the three players, who were acquitted of fixing the 1919 World Series but still banned by the commissioner of baseball, were allowed to play. To no surprise, Colchester ended up winning the game by a score of 5-0.

That’s just one of the many stories that makes Forgottonia so darn Unforgettable.