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Law Lessons from Shoeless Joe’s Last Ballgame

by Jay Reeves |

On this date 100 years ago, one of the greatest baseball players of all time – still in his prime – was not playing left field and batting cleanup for the Chicago White Sox as usual.

Nor was he on the bench, the injured list, or another team’s roster.

Just the opposite.

In July of 1921, Shoeless Joe Jackson – a mere nine months after hitting .382 with a league-leading 20 triples – was out of baseball and running a dry-cleaning business in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal.

The phenomenal rise and tragic fall of Joseph Jefferson Jackson, born dirt-poor in rural South Carolina, has been mythologized in the movie Field of Dreams and the books Shoeless Joe and Eight Men Out.

The scandal is a cautionary tale about hanging out with the wrong people. It also reveals the fragility of our cherished institutions, as the actions of eight players came perilously close to destroying America’s Game for everyone else.

Those are valuable lessons for every lawyer, legal professional, and the bar as a whole in these fraught and uncertain days.

And so, as we return to our beloved MLB ballparks after a COVID delay to marvel at young Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. (who can do it all) and ancient skipper Tony LaRussa (still winning at age 76) and the aptly-named Patrick Wisdom (slugged a record-setting eight homers in his first 10 games as a Cubbie), let’s take a moment to reflect on the sad legacy of Shoeless Joe and what it means for Your Law Life.

Say It Ain’t So

On Monday, September 27, 1920, the Chicago White Sox – in the thick of the American League pennant race – defeated the visiting Detroit Tigers 2-0 on a sweltering, 90-degree afternoon at Comiskey Park.

The hero that day was Shoeless Joe Jackson – enjoying one of the best seasons of a remarkable career – who drove in the winning run with a two-out single in the sixth. Little did he know as he unlaced his cleats after the game that he would never again suit up as a major leaguer.

Two days later, Jackson and seven teammates – all under investigation for throwing the 1919 World Series in the so-called Black Sox Scandal – were suspended for the remainder of the season by team owner Charles Comiskey.

None had been formally charged or convicted of any wrongdoing (two “confessed” to a grand jury). All were later indicted for conspiracy to defraud and other crimes. They were acquitted in 1921 after a month-long jury trial.

No matter. It was all over for the Eight Men Out. Newly installed baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis – a federal judge brought in to clean up Major League Baseball – banned the Black Sox for life.

If You Build It, They Will Come

For some of us, a baseball park is more than grass and dirt and Cracker Jack. It’s a sanctuary, as Annie Savoy says in Bull Durham, a wellspring that nourishes the soul.

It’s also an excellent classroom for learning about legal ethics: from conflicts of interest and the duty of loyalty, to the importance of self-care and maintaining healthy, positive relationships.

Consider the similarities. Both baseball and the law have professional codes of conduct, written and unwritten. Both require teamwork and trust for success. Errors are costly. Sacrifices win games.

And in both endeavors, one bad decision can erase a lifetime of worthy accomplishments, as shown by the sorrowful saga of Shoeless Joe.

Back when I was representing lawyers in disciplinary and licensing cases, I saw it happen too often: good, capable lawyers in the process of compiling Hall of Fame resumes take a wrong turn or make a rash choice, and BOOM. Their career implodes. The good times end. The field of dreams becomes a nightmare.

Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa.

But take heart. There is always another choice to make, another path to take.

Look at Chicago White Sox pitcher Dickey Kerr. He was one of the good guys who didn’t cheat in the 1919 World Series. A year later, he was on the mound that muggy day when Shoeless Joe took his last swing.

And when the game ended – clocking in at a brisk one hour and seven minutes – Mr. Kerr walked away with a six-hit shutout, his 20th win of the season, and a long, happy future brimming with accolades for his integrity and strong character.

As for Shoeless Joe – the man Babe Ruth once called the greatest natural hitter ever – the future was rather less bright. He went back home. He ran a dry cleaners and a liquor store. He died in 1951 not far from the hardscrabble spot where he grew up, a tragic footnote in baseball’s long history, his name forever synonymous with scandal and disgrace.

Here’s a fact: at some point in the future, we’ll all step up to the plate for our final at-bat.

How do you want to be remembered? As Shoeless Joe or Dickey Kerr? The answer might well lie in the next choice you make.

Come to Jay’s Shoeless Joe CLE Course!

Do you like baseball, apple pie, and the name Kenesaw Mountain Landis? Then grab your glove (please leave your Spider Tack at home) and plan to attend the upcoming CLE seminar, “Shoeless Joe’s Last Ballgame: Lessons in Legal Ethics on the 100th Anniversary of the Black Sox Ban.” The live, two-hour program will be presented by Jay Reeves at various locations in North Carolina this fall during the MLB playoffs and World Series. Course materials include: Black Sox grand jury transcript excerpts; videos from Joe Jackson’s birthplace and museum, a copy of Jackson’s Last Will and Testament, and relevant Rules of Professional Conduct. Click here to pre-register or get more information. Play ball!

Jay Reeves is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. Now he runs Your Law Life LLC, a coaching and consulting company that helps lawyers add purpose, profits and peace of mind to their practices. Contact jay@yourlawlife.com or 919-619-2441.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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