A century ago, the Chicago White Sox pulled off a trade that defined the franchise for centuries ... just not in the way they originally imagined. Charles Comiskey told his secretary to go to Cleveland come back with Shoeless Joe Jackson, and on Aug. 20, 1915, Harry Grabiner sealed the deal.
Jackson was a star with the Cleveland Naps from his first full season, hitting .408/.468/.590 with 45 doubles, 19 triples, seven homers and 41 stolen bases. The gaudy average was only good for second in the batting title chase, as Ty Cobb hit .420 that year. That became a pattern for Jackson, who was runner-up in 1912 (.395, to Cobb's .409) and 1913 (.373 to .390) as well.
Yet while Jackson was just a shade shy of the game's greatest player in terms of production, the team started showing signs of wear. The 1914 season was bad for both of them -- Jackson suffered a broken leg that cost him more than a month, and the Naps as a whole bottomed out with a record of 51-102 after winning 86 games the year before. That put Cleveland owner Charles Somers in a bind, and the White Sox smelled an opportunity.
As we know, Charles Comiskey wasn't stingy when it came to acquiring talent. Before the 1915 season, he bought Eddie Collins from the foundering Philadelphia Athletics for $50,000 (plus a $10,000 bonus for Collins, and a five-year contract at $12,000 per year). Collins had become available due a combination of Connie Mack's financial strife and some discord between Collins and the rest of the team.
With Jackson, his Cleveland days were numbered simply because owner Charles Somers was flirting with bankruptcy, and Jackson's salary threatened the books. He was one of many players to earn a boost thanks to overtures from the Federal League, and another recruitment effort in 1915 put rumors of five-figure salaries in the newspapers. Somers, already struggling with the payroll on hand, decided that trading Jackson was his best option.
Even after the Collins deal, Comiskey had cash to spare, and so he sent Grabiner to Cleveland with a check and the instructions to top every other offer until Jackson came back with Grabiner to Chicago.
This one cost the Old Roman less in pure cash, but it added up to even more. From Jackson's SABR bio:
Grabiner and Somers reached an agreement. Somers signed Joe to a three-year contract extension at his previous salary, then sent him to Chicago for $31,500 in cash and three players (outfielders Bobby Roth and Larry Chappell and pitcher Ed Klepfer) who collectively had cost the White Sox $34,000 to acquire. In terms of the total value of cash and players, this $65,500 transaction was the most expensive deal ever made in baseball up to that time.
Jackson's salary was $6,000, or half of Collins', which would pose a problem years later. He made his debut the next day in a doubleheader against the New York Yankees, going 1-for-7 with a walk across the two games. From the Chicago Tribune:
$15,000 Star Doesn't Shine
Joe Jackson, the former Cleveland star, made his first appearance in a White Sox uniform and was given a hearty welcome. He had not time to get sufficiently well acquainted with his new environment to shine brightly. He made one doubtful hit and drew one pass in eight trips to the plate.
That set the tone for a disappointing start to Jackson's career on the South Side, as he hit just .272/.378/.399 over the last 45 games of the 1915 season. All of those marks would've been career lows if extended over a full season, and it raised concern that the Sox picked up the 28-year-old Jackson just in time for his decline, which sounds all too familiar these days.
Aside: The Indians' other big star was shortstop Ray Chapman, and with his considerable salary, he was rumored to be on the block as well. According to Chapman's SABR bio, the White Sox made a run at him until Somers decided he'd rather move Jackson and only Jackson.
The White Sox might have never appeared in two World Series in three years had they acquired Chapman instead of Jackson, but it probably would have been better for baseball history. As it happened, both players' careers ended in 1920. Chapman became the only player to die from injuries sustained during a game, as a Carl Mays spitball hit him flush on the side of the head on Aug. 16, causing brain lacerations and fatal clotting. Jackson's MLB days were over a month later, as Comiskey suspended him and six other active White Sox after allegations of throwing the 1919 World Series were published.