NEW YORK – The grand title of ‘the greatest natural hitter’ was in sole possession of the young Joe Jackson in 1913. The former owner of that moniker, Cleveland teammate Napoleon Lajoie, had left the claim up for grabs as his age began to rear its head in the early 1910s. Spraying the ball to all parts of the field, Ty Cobb used his speed, grit, and spread grip to take his bases. Detroit’s outfielder, though still in his prime and at that point the winner of five batting crowns, attributed his offensive success to scientifically breaking down the weaknesses of his opponents, always looking for the mental edge that he could use to exploit his physical abilities. Boston’s Tris Speaker was very much cut from Cobb’s own cloth, as he looked up to the hard-nosed Georgian as an offensive role-model. Though his stance in the box may have differed from the mighty Tyrus’, his penchant for exploiting chinks in the enemy’s armor was virtually unmatched. It seemed that the sheer will and determination alone of these two men placed them atop the league in most batting statistics.
On the other end of the spectrum, Philadelphia’s Frank ‘Home Run’ Baker liked to swing more freely. His nickname came from his performance in the 1911 World Series, in which he tagged both Rube Marquard and Christy Mathewson for home runs. That same year, he led the American League with 11 round-trippers, and then 10 the year after. Though, Baker’s control was not a paramount element of his swing, as he struck out more than most players with similar batting averages. Phillie Gaavy Cravath had similar methods and statistics to his cross-town rival, though his hefty home run totals were partially due to the tiny dimensions of his home ballpark, the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. Though only 22 years old at the start of the baseball season in ’13, it was abundantly clear that Joe Jackson was a different kind of hitter all together.
Jackson did not study opposing pitchers or keep mental notebooks of their patterns on the mound. Rarely did he alter his swing or approach to suit an opposing pitcher’s style. He relied on his impeccable hand-eye coordination and physical strength to power through the ball with the sweet spot of his dark 48-ounce bat. Jackson’s teammates always said that he never even knew whether the opposing pitcher was right or left handed, nor what kind of ball they had thrown, be it a curve, fastball or spitter. All he would say if he was asked was that the ball was ‘over’. ‘Over’ meant anything that he could reach. And when he could reach, he rarely failed to connect.
Ty Cobb himself wondered why Jackson did not strike out at least twice a game taking full cuts against doctored balls that precipitously sank. In that era, most players poked their bats in the direction of the ball to merely make contact. Joe used his bat to punish the ball. Pitchers claimed that his hits could break bones. Boston hurler Ernie Shore claimed that he could be blindfolded and could still tell when Jackson hit the ball. “It had a special crack,” he said.
Much like other players in baseball, Jackson was incredibly superstitious about his weapons, feeling that each one only had so many hits in it. Whenever he went into a slump, he discarded his current collection of bats and started a new one. His most prized bat, ‘Black Betsy’, was an exception to this rule. It was only used in dire situations, as he felt it had special powers that could not be wasted in the day-to-day game action it would see in the American League. Perhaps his most prized possession, the mighty bat was made for Joe by a local woodworker while he was still with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association. Its name was culled from the rich cherry-black hue it sported, after being darkened with coat after coat of tobacco juice. This special bat was used to model most of the professional models throughout his career, and like their predecessor, were creatively named, ‘Blonde Betsy’, ‘Big Jim’, ‘Ol’ Genril’, ‘Caroliny’ and ‘Dixie’. So well-known was his love for his lumber, that fans would shout, “Give ‘em Dixie, Joe!” Perhaps baseball enthusiasts took more to Jackson’s superstitions than other players because of his supposed eccentric Southern up-bringing and lack of education. Though these factors might have made him an easier target than most, they did nothing to hurt his popularity.
He had already become a celebrity in Cleveland, as he was frequently being stopped during his afternoon car rides by fans who wanted to shake his hand and take snapshots. His fame even extended outside of Cleveland and his home in the southern states. In one instance, he received a letter from a fan in Kansas City that had a yet-unnamed newborn who in his opinion would be a fine ballplayer. He asked Jackson what his full name was, as he wanted his 12-pound son named after the great man.
His biggest fans were undoubtedly the children of Cleveland. Many if them would follow Jackson from his home on Lexington Avenue to the ballpark, some of whom were lucky enough to carry his glove, bats and shoes to the clubhouse. A score of adoring young Cleveland fans – many of whom could not even afford the bleacher seat prices – would often wait outside of League Park to meet their hero after the game, where he would give them batting tips. It was no surprise that thousands of dirty-faced kids had began to emulate Joe on the diamond.
Off the field Joe began to see his popularity grow as well. He started to supplement his baseball salary with endorsements, ranging from tobacco, liniment and rifles to bats, garters and gloves. In marketing a brand of shoes, a slogan read, “When Shoeless Joe wears ‘em, he wears Selz shoes.”
With his star rising, he invested his money into a pool room in downtown Greenville, bought a larger house for his parents, and purchased himself a farm that he had hoped would be up, running and paying in short order. He would also earn extra money in the winter by holding exhibition games in the south. The newfound wealth would provide him with the means to purchase fancy clothes and many new cars. Baseball writers even dubbed him the team’s “Beau Brummell”, who was an arbiter of English Regency fashion credited with establishing the modern men’s suit, as well as being perhaps the first dandy.
Above all else however, were the man’s abilities. In his first two full seasons with the Naps, his batting average was an incredible .401, with his rookie mark of .408 being the highest ever. That same first year, he was in the league’s top ten leaders of home runs, runs batted in, runs scored and stolen bases – all of which lead to his fourth place finish in the Chalmers MVP award voting. In 1912 he continued his offensive tear, hitting just under .400 and leading the league in hits and triples, remaining on the leader board for those same statistics.
The youngster’s future with the Naps – and baseball in general – looked as bright as could be.