“Shoeless Joe Jackson of the white Chicago White Sox (.341) watched the Cubans’ José Junco get several hits against Dick Whitworth of the American Giants and bought Junco’s bat for $6.50.” --John Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, p. 111.
A Chicago Defender article, published on August 5, 1916, dates the game Jackson saw as “not long ago.” Here it is, in its entirety:
“SLUGGING JOE JACKSON BOUGHT JUNCO’S BAT
“Joe Jackson, the slugging outfielder of the Chicago Americans, who are now pushing hard for the pennant and are within an ace of the top, went to the American Giants park not long ago to see the Cuban Stars battle Rube Foster’s nine. Whithworth [sic] was on the mound for the Giants and the only man who could do anything with him was Junco. After the game, Jackson examined Junco’s bat and then bargained to purchase it. Junco refused to let it go, but when the White Sox star offered $6.50 for it, the Cuban let it go.
“Recently the bat was broken by Jackson and when in a kidding match with Bill Buckner the trainer, Jackson said he didn’t mind losing his six bucks, but the 50 cents was paid for luck.”
I have always tended to believe this story. For one thing, it’s not a hazy, 50-year-old memory; it’s a story about something that was supposed to have happened “recently.” It has elements of precision, notably the exact figure supposedly paid for the bat, and verisimilitude—Richard Whitworth really was a lights-out pitcher that season (12-3, 1.71 for the American Giants), and a batter who could “do something” against him might well have drawn attention. It has authority—William “Doc” Buckner, the brother of longtime Chicago blackball pitcher Harry Buckner and the source for Jackson’s quip, really was the trainer for the Chicago White Sox for a quarter of a century. To cap it off, there’s the counterintuitive oddity of the slugger Jackson bargaining for the bat of Junco, a weak-hitting pitcher. This last bit, in my view, is what makes it a good story. But maybe it’s a little too good.
One of the main points I’ve always tried to make in my research is that much more precise information about the Negro leagues is available than many people think. Is it possible to corroborate this anecdote by pinpointing the exact game that Joe Jackson supposedly saw—or at least identifying a good candidate or two? Or can we, on the other hand, definitively rule it out?
Let’s start with José Junco. His full name, as far as we can tell from Cuban newspapers, passenger lists, and his World War I draft card (yes, Cubans playing baseball in the United States had to register for the draft), was José Irene Junco y Casanova. Contrary to some modern-day sources that list Junco as a right-hander, he was in fact a southpaw who came to the United States with Tinti Molina’s Cuban Stars for a number of years in the 1910s and early 1920s. All evidence suggests that Junco was a soft tosser who pitched to contact and relied on his control and his fielders. He was in the middle of an excellent season in 1916, winning 14 games and losing only six against the best black opposition in the Midwest, with an ERA of 2.45 (the average for all western black clubs was 3.10). He walked 35 batters in 172 1/3 innings, or 1.8 per nine innings, a rate well below the Negro league western average of 3.4. And the Cuban Stars were of course a traveling team, so all his games were road games.
Junco really was not much of a hitter. In 39 games against top black opposition in 1916, he batted .149/.195/.165, managing two hits in a game only once. Interestingly for us, this was against the American Giants in late May—and the starter for the Giants was none other than Richard Whitworth. Could this be the game the Defender was talking about?
No, for two reasons. First, it doesn’t match the Defender’s description of a game in which Junco was the only Cuban who could touch an otherwise dominant pitcher. Whitworth was knocked out of the game in the early innings, and Junco and the Cubans beat him, 6 to 4.
Second, the game was on May 30. That day Joe Jackson was in Detroit playing a doubleheader against the Tigers, in which he hit 5-for-8 with two doubles and a triple.
Looking at Junco’s other games against the American Giants in Schorling Park (the former South Side Park) prior to August 5, the date of the story, he batted in five games in which Whitworth pitched (he started three, completing one, and relieved in two). Aside from the May 30 game, Junco hit 1 for 10 in these games. His one hit was during another Cuban victory on July 2, when Whitworth pitched only a third of an inning in relief, and actually came off the starter, Frank Wickware (the Defender printed a play-by-play account). In other words, there is no evidence at all of José Junco getting even one hit off Richard Whitworth in the American Giants’ park in 1916 when Joe Jackson could have been watching.
There is one more possibility. Junco faced Whitworth in one other game, played on July 1. Whitworth scattered six hits, struck out seven, and shut out the Cubans 3 to 0. Junco played left field and hit 1 for 3.
But this, our last chance, doesn’t quite fit the Defender story either. It’s unclear that Junco was the best hitter for the Cubans. Six batters got hits off Whitworth, and one, Manuel Villa, knocked out a double. Moreover, the game wasn’t actually played in the American Giants’ park, but rather in the suburb of Chicago Heights, about thirty miles south of Comiskey Park. July 1 was a Saturday. It was the first game in a three-cornered doubleheader (the winning American Giants faced off against the local Chicago Heights team in the second game). Joe Jackson did appear in the White Sox/Tigers game that day, so it’s (just barely) possible that he could have caught the game in Chicago Heights, then made his way back to Comiskey in time for his own game, but I don’t think it’s very likely.
So we haven’t been able to identify a clear candidate for the game that Joe Jackson reportedly witnessed, after which he supposedly purchased José Junco’s bat. It could be that the Defender was referring to a game played in 1915. Or perhaps the game in question managed to elude the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Examiner (the daily papers I was able to consult) as well as the weekly Chicago Defender. I do think it highly unlikely that an American Giants/Cuban Stars game played in Chicago could have escaped entirely undetected, but it is possible. There are a few open dates when Jackson might have been at large in Chicago and when both the American Giants and Cuban Stars might have been available—but that’s as good as we can do for now.
In the meantime, there is the only identified source for the story to be considered: Doc Buckner, the White Sox trainer. He was a well-known figure in Chicago baseball circles, having worked with the famous African-American cyclist Major Taylor before joining the White Sox in 1908. According to the Chicago Tribune, he invented a device to treat charley horses that “resembles an egg beater with a small disc that bobs up and down at the rate of a mile a minute instead of revolving” (May 28, 1908).
It turns out that Buckner was also a well-known spinner of unlikely tales, as evidenced by a brief item in the Defender from a couple of years later.
I can’t speak to the truth or falsity of this story. But it’s worth noting that a player for the Cuban Giants named William Bedford was struck and killed by lightning before a game at Inlet Park in Atlantic City on August 26, 1909. Did Buckner “improve” on the actual event? Was he the sole source for the story of Shoeless Joe and Junco’s bat, and did he improve on whatever actually happened there? We can pin down and verify many things in Negro league history, but so far this little story is not one of them.
This piece was originally published in the Outsider Baseball Bulletin, Vol. 1., No. 2, June 16, 2010.