shoeless joe

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson

“I am going to meet the greatest umpire of all–and He knows I’m innocent.”

–“Shoeless” Joe Jackson

“Those whom the splendor of their rank, or the extent of their capacity, have placed upon the summit of human life have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station.”

–Samuel Johnson

“Everyone on that staff had to have known…”

–Barry Switzer


Keep your wife under guard.  Yes, but who will guard the guardians?


Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”

–Bertrand de Jouvenal

I. When the Black Sox scandal was breaking in 1920 (it turned out that a consortium of gamblers convinced several Chicago White Sox players to “throw” the 1919 World Series), Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first czar of baseball, announced that no matter what juries may decide, “no player that throws a ball game will ever again play professional baseball.”  He eventually banned seven players for life, including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of the greatest players of the pre-Ruth era.  “Say it ain’t so, Joe” became the cry of hero-worshipping boys across the country.

Shoeless Joe, it turns out, was almost certainly not guilty of anything but knowing about the gamblers’ scheme and consorting with his conspirator teammates.   He hit .375 in the Series, made a record 12 hits, and even told White Sox owner Charles Comiskey that the fix was in.  But the dirt stuck to him, Judge Landis wouldn’t budge, so Shoeless Joe was deprived of his livelihood and good name.  He did say it wasn’t so, and maintained his innocence until his death.  Comiskey and other owners tried hard to cover up the scandal, and received nothing more than slaps on the wrist.  Judge Landis, although not an entirely admirable character in his own right, probably did what he had to do to “save baseball,” but the guys who took the fall were not the ones who controlled the game.

II. Like every other institution of significance, The Pennsylvania State University in its current predicament seeks to protect itself, whether this means sand-bagging or stonewalling or outright lying.  Backs to the wall, its Trustees are now engaged in “house-cleaning,” or finding scapegoats significant enough to deflect public attention away from the systemic and moral problems inherent in all large institutions.  That so many of its self-righteous critics point immediately to an analogy with the Catholic Church–a reaction both predictable and silly–tells us more about them than about Penn State.  As Dr. Johnson knew so well, neither those who are envied nor those who envy often distinguish themselves.  Remember Edward Arlington Robinson’s poem, “Richard Cory,” put to music by Simon and Garfunkel?  It’s a little twist on one of the oldest human problems, done up in a lighter fashion in the song from Camelot, “I Wonder What the King, is Doing Tonight?”

Does it surprise anyone who has read Sophocles or King Lear or Dr. Johnson (or, for that matter, the Watergate tapes) that power tends to be corrupting?  We didn’t need Lord Acton to tell us that.  The problem is, the left almost always gets it wrong, and the left, of course makes up the loudest voices in the anti-PSU and particularly ant-Paterno chorus.  Ever since about 1600, government, not churches, businesses, colleges, or football coaches, has been the primary source of power abused; in fact, there are several things going on in Washington right now that put the Penn State scandal into the category of small potatoes.  “The destructive capacity of the individual,” Paul Johnson reminds us, “however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless.”  If we don’t keep this in perspective as the media wolves howl louder and louder, many good people will be hurt than have already been hurt, and the crisis will again be used to increase power in the most dangerous locus of all.  That’s the way the left works.

Nevertheless, and conservative critics of Penn State officials have pointed this out, power tends to affect us as individuals being acted upon by other individuals. Actions, or lack of actions, matter.  And here we confront the case of Joe Paterno.

Paterno, son of Catholic Italian-American working class parents, raised in Brooklyn, honors graduate of Brown, has had one job in his life.  He went to work for Rip Engel at Penn State in  1950 and never left.  He was a dutiful assistant for 16 years, and head coach for 46.  For almost 62 years he set a standard of excellence that is unmatched in the history of American sports.  Until about a week ago his name was never associated with anything salacious, immoral, illegal, or even off-color. He was a model husband and father.  His impact on the game of football and on thousands of young men, and on his university, was altogether for the good.  In a matter of days he was fired, disgraced, threatened with legal consequences; the center of a moral firestorm unheard of in American athletics since the Black Sox scandal.  The proximate cause of the disgrace is the possibility that he, in his own interest and that of his university, took insufficient action to publicize and prosecute the alleged sexual sins of his longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky.  There may be deeper causes involved.

About Mr. Sandusky we should have no opinion.  He has been indicted and arrested, and the law will take its course.  As for Joe Paterno, whose supposed lack of action has been treated by the pundocracy as nearly equivalent to those things of which Sandusky has been charged, perhaps we should have an opinion.  In the case of Sandusky it is a matter of guilt or innocence of serious crimes.  In the case of Joe Paterno it is a matter of much deeper things.  The left cried “McCarthyism” at almost every suggestion of criticism of their actions or agenda.  Just what are they crying in this case?  One doesn’t take down an icon and throw it in the fire just to create space on the wall, one has to hate the icon or something it stands for.

Paterno said this to his co-author of Paterno: By the Book, in 1989:

The adventures of Aeneas seeped into far corners of my mind, into my feelings about what is true and honorable and important.  They helped shape everything I have since become.  I don’t think anybody can get a handle on what makes me tick as a person, and certainly can’t get at the roots of how I coach football, without understanding what I learned from the deep relationship I formed with Virgil….

He first read the Aeneid in Latin, challenged by a young Jesuit at Brooklyn Prep to get more out of himself.  At Brown he majored in literature.  Football, because he understood it so well, became for him the path to pietas, the Roman virtue that encompasses love of family, locality, and honor to the gods.  His family centered in Sue and the children, his locality Penn State, and his God the Christian God worshiped in the Catholic Church.

III.Joe was always a difficult man, intense, in-your-face.  But it was always because of what he believed, not because he needed power.  The opportunities he turned down over the years for money and control would have tempted even the most saintly of men.  But…is it possible, is it conceivable that all those years and the habits of success in Happy Valley created what the Romans called “clientage?”  Did the Virgilian virtues turn him into a paterfamilias who expected to be honored and even obeyed?  Between clients and the patron in ancient Rome there were reciprocal duties: The client gave obedience, the patron  gave protection.  Reciprocal duties are delicate things, hard to put in boxes, hard to define their perimeters.  The same was true in the middle ages in the concept of fidelio.

Barry Switzer says that, given the closeness of football staffs and athletic departments, it is impossible not to believe that “everyone” knew about Jerry Sandusky.  Having lived and worked most of my life in small associations, and having coached a fair amount of football, I would tend to agree, but with a caveat.  Dedicated coaches, especially those with a moral as well as mundane purpose, often have tunnel vision.  They may see the entire playing field and have an incredibly nuanced understanding of the battle placements and the ability of each of their troops to carry out the plan, but they may not know where their colleagues live or what their wives did on any given day, or whether the lawn needs mowing.  I would not be so cynical as to assume what Joe knew, or when he knew it.  Shoeless Joe’s guilt was more apparent than real.

IV.     And what does all this have to do with the conservative imagination?  I am well aware that almost as many conservatives as leftists dislike violent sports, and, indeed, all sports that are subsidized by “higher education.”  Russell Kirk was not fond of professionalized athletics in colleges–he approved of vigorous physical activity, but only if it were rather unorganized and fitted in with the Greek ideal of mens sana in corpore sano.  I have to admit that my happiest jock years were spent playing rugby on Sundays in Forest Park in St. Louis–no coaches, hit each other in good fun, drink beer after the games and lie to each other about our manliness, with our wives and children there to add to the fun and laugh at our lies.

Nevertheless, the feminization of our culture requires that there be outlets for manhood.  Does anyone really think that the incredible popularity of violent sports and NASCAR are accidental?  Joe Paterno understood this at a very young age, at some level where gut and brain come together.  He is thus one of the good guys that conservatives should honor.  I’ll take him over his detractors any time, any day, under any circumstances.  Somebody needs to guard the city, and to honor the God who gives him the strength.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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