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Shoeless Joe's legacy is in the hands of a young Chicago bartender

Shoeless Joe's legacy is in the hands of a young Chicago bartender

Dan Wallach is headed to South Carolina where he'll aim to keep Jackson's memory alive, 100 years after the Black Sox star was banned from baseball

Kevin Kaduk
Kevin Kaduk

Good morning, frents!

Leading off … Kris Bryant! (No, really, more on that below ⬇️ )

This is a bit of a different newsletter today. I did some reporting on an interesting Chicago sports fan who’s about to take on a fun challenge. It’s a tad on the longer side, but I think you’ll find it worth your while. Let me know what you think.

Is this your first time reading Midway Minute? If so, why not subscribe to get the best writing on Chicago sports in your inbox every morning?

This Shoeless Joe Jackson fan is literally going the distance

Dan Wallach outside the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, S.C. (Dan Wallach)

Dan Wallach currently sleeps on an air mattress in an empty house he’ll soon put up for sale. He tended his last shift at Yak-Zies in Wrigleyville last Saturday night and has been making the last rounds at favorite Chicago area restaurants like SuperDawg.

Some day in the next few weeks, Wallach will pack the few things he didn’t put in his moving pod and drive roughly 700 miles to South Carolina’s northwest corner.

It’s there where his new life awaits in a small red-brick house located across the street from a minor-league ballpark.

Wallach won’t be living in the 950-square foot house. Rather, he’ll be working in it as the new executive director of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum. The house in Greenville was where the banned-for-life Black Sox star spent the final 10 years of his life. He died in one of the bedrooms in 1951.

Since 2008, the house has been a museum that was only open on Saturdays from 10 to 2 and didn’t feature much more than pictures, information plaques and an impressive baseball book collection.

A huge Shoeless Joe fan — he even has a tattoo of Jackson’s autograph on his right foot — Wallach wants to change that. Not only should the museum’s hours expand in a dramatic way, but Wallach will be bringing his personal collection of Jackson memorabilia for display. It’s all part of the board’s plan to “be a 21st century museum” and keep Jackson’s memory alive as the 100th anniversary of his final game in baseball approaches this August.

What’s more, a new ruling on the ineligible list from Major League Baseball last month opened the door for Jackson’s eventual election into the Hall of Fame. No matter what happens in that area, Wallach is sure to find himself in the middle of the story.

The entire plan seems both romantic and completely crazy in a Ray Kinsella “go the distance” type of way. It’s a thought Wallach agrees with.

“Yeah, it’s insane,” Wallach said with a laugh earlier this week. “There’s no question about it. I’m from the Chicago suburbs, born and raised. I never thought I’d be leaving the area. I certainly never had any intentions of leaving … but here we are.”

So how did Wallach end up making plans to leave Chicago to run a museum for a ballplayer who’s been dead for 69 years and hasn’t played for 100?

The story begins with a baseball game.

As the tale goes, Wallach’s parents retired to South Carolina about 12 years ago. The family is made up of White Sox fans, so on Dan’s first visit south, they made the 45-minute drive to Greenville to check out the museum.

Dan was enjoying the visit when a woman approach him and asked if he played baseball. Wallach, who was 21 at the time, told her yes.

“Good! We’ve got a game on Saturday and it starts around 11,” the woman said.

Wallach immediately protested. He was on vacation. He was there to visit his family. Heck, he didn’t even have a glove with him.

“Oh, you don’t need a glove,” she countered. “We play 1860s rules. We’ll be playing against the Ty Cobb Museum from Royston, Georgia. Get here early, around 10.”

The woman was persuasive, so Wallach begrudgingly agreed.

The pickup game ended up changing his life. It was played on one of the fields where Jackson got his start playing for one of the local cotton mills at the age of 13.  Descendants of both Jackson and Cobb took part and Wallach even made a game-saving catch.

As a huge fan of baseball, baseball history and the relationships that can form when talking about both, Wallach was immediately hooked.

“Once I became entrenched in that community, it was all downhill from there,”  he said.

Wallach has played in the game every summer since, 11 years running, likening it to a family reunion. Meanwhile, his father Michael became a tour guide at the museum and a member of its board. When the decision was made last year to hire a full-time executive director, they turned to the most logical choice.

Not Michael, who was a local, but his baseball-obsessed son who lived out-of-state.

“You do know I live in Chicago, right?” Dan said.

“Oh, we know,” said the board members, confident they wouldn’t have to make that hard of a sell.

Wallach near a Black Sox exhibit in Cooperstown at age 12

Wallach didn’t start the job right away. The hiring decision was made in May 2019 and Wallach was in the middle of the Cubs season, a profitable time to be a bartender in Wrigleyville. He couldn’t afford to give the job up until the slow winter months.

Besides, the museum was closed and in the process of being picked up and moved about 100 yards down the street in order to make room for a five-story luxury apartment complex. Both the museum and complex are located across the street* from Fluor Field, home of the Greenville Drive, a single-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.

*In a cool twist, the house retained its address of 356 Field Street, which pays homage to Jackson’s career batting average. The new complex, meanwhile, has been christened .408 Jackson in honor of his rookie batting average in 1911.

Though Wallach wouldn’t make the move for several more months, he immediately went to work making preparations for his new gig. He started social media accounts for the museum (Facebook, Twitter) and did plenty of print interviews and podcasts for outlets that were inquiring about the 100th anniversary of the 1919 World Series.

Wallach also started thinking about how he’d expand the offerings at the museum. Jackson played in a time before game-used equipment was seen as something worth saving — the Hall of Fame was still a couple of decades away— and the items that did survive were usually too expensive for the museum to purchase. Jackson’s famed “Black Betsy” bat sold for over half a million dollars to a private collector in 2016.

Even something as simple as an autograph is rare. Jackson was famously illiterate and didn’t sign his name often.

“If you ever see a Joe Jackson autograph out there being sold, there’s a 99.9 percent chance it’s fake,” Wallach said. “There are signatures of his that exist*, but they’re all on legal documents … Most everything else is either fake or his wife Katie signing his name on his behalf.”

*The autograph on Wallach’s foot is from Jackson’s last will and testament

Wallach owns a lot of traditional Jackson memorabilia. Things like baseball cards and replicas of the heavy flannel uniforms that ballplayers used to wear.

But he’s also been creative in his search for tangible items that have a connection to Jackson. Jars of dirt from out-of-the-way ballfields where Jackson used to play. Room keys and postcards from the Cincinnati hotel where the Black Sox met the night before Game 1 of the World Series. The exact model of a cash register that Jackson used in the Greenville liquor store used to own.

During our conversation, Wallach almost gets giddy when talking about an auction he won for the liquor store business card that was in Jackson’s wallet at the time of his death.

“It seems like a silly thing,” Wallach concedes. “But there are so few things that you can tie to Joe and say, ‘he touched this.’ We know for a fact that Joe touched this card.”

Wallach is 33 years old, the same age that Jackson was when he was banned from baseball for life by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He said his main aim was to educate people on the fact that Jackson’s story is far from the tragic one that we’ve been sold by Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out and the millions of words that sportswriters have spent on him for more than a century.

After all, Jackson had a successful post-career life, owning several profitable business and being a respected man around Greenville.

But you can’t be the executive director of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and not have the Hall of Fame question come up on a regular basis. You can’t hold the job and not be seen as someone who wants to be an advocate for Jackson’s case.

Arlene Marcley, the founder of the Shoeless Joe museum, made headlines in 2015 by petitioning MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to reconsider Jackson’s status on the sport’s ineligible list. Manfred eventually responded with a polite letter, saying he didn’t feel he had enough evidence to overturn Landis’ original ruling.

Manfred’s response seemed to close the book on the cause, but Wallach enters his tenure with the door having recently been cracked. Just last month, ESPN’s Don Van Natta reported that Major League Baseball now believes that banned players drop off the ineligible list once they die — a change that would theoretically clear the way for Jackson to be considered by the Hall’s early baseball committee.

Yet Cooperstown responded to ESPN the next day saying that, in their eyes, a player’s ineligible designation remains in place after death.

Shoeless Joe Jackson remains in Hall of Fame purgatory.

“This is the first time that MLB and the Hall of Fame have been at odds with its statements,” Wallach noted. “Normally they’ve been in lockstep with each other. But for the first time MLB has said there is no ineligible list after the death and the Hall of Fame is saying it doesn’t matter.”

Wallach said Jackson’s case for induction is an easy one. He has the third-highest career batting average of all time and was idolized by three of the greatest hitters of all time — Cobb, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.

But Wallach remains remarkably pragmatic about the situation. There is speculation that Cooperstown is maintaining its contrarian position because if it lets Jackson in, then it has to do something about Pete Rose.

Which, of course, it doesn’t want to do.

Wallach also acknowledges that the museum has had to ask its own tough question.

Namely, can it keep the lights on if Jackson is inducted?

“One of the things we don’t overlook as a museum is that Joe is still famous because he’s not in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “The public views him as this tragic figure and as someone who was done wrong by baseball. If that wrong is righted, are people still going to care? That’s been something we’ve struggled with.”

Joe and Katie Jackson never had children and the nieces and nephews they left behind never fought hard to get him into Cooperstown. Coupled with the fact that Jackson wouldn’t be around to enjoy his induction and Wallach doesn’t feel any rush to get the plaque hung in Cooperstown’s gallery.

The early baseball committee only meets every 10 years so if Jackson doesn’t get in this year — and he probably won’t — his name won’t be considered again until 2030.

“It’s a delicate situation and we’re trying to handle it the best we can,” Wallach said. “But I’m only 33 years old. I have plenty of time.”

Wallach has come a long way already. But as he points his car and life toward South Carolina, it’s clear that his journey with Shoeless Joe Jackson is really only beginning.

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The Cubs plan is to start the season with Kris Bryant as the leadoff hitter. Anthony Rizzo could hit second. David Ross would only hint at Rizzo’s placement, but it sounds like he’s already in it for the long haul with Bryant up top.

“It’s really easy to change the lineup in my seat but I think that screams panic when you start to change,” Ross told reporters.  “(Bryant) is one of the best players in baseball. Putting him at the top of the order and how he goes about his business, I want representing our team every night.”

Bulls injury news! Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter won’t be ready for tonight’s game against the Hornets, but could return to the lineup soon. Kris Dunn’s right knee timeline has been extended. He’ll be re-evaluated in 4-6 weeks.

The Bears made a tight end move on Wednesday, signing Demetrius Harris to a one-year deal after he was cut by the Browns. Harris is 29 and played in 15 games last season, catching 15 passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns. He knows Matt Nagy well, having played for the Chiefs from 2013 to 2018.

After that third period, I needed a pick-me-up.

Yeah, this did the trick:

WGN will broadcast 24 of the 34 Chicago Fire games this season. Great starting step in making the team the big deal it should be in town. (Hot Time In Old Town)

• The White Sox did great in Eno Sarris’ rankings of the best MLB ballparks for craft beer. The Cubs not so much. (The Athletic)

Wakey, wakey: David Backes a Blackhawk? (Blackhawk Up)

• My pal Brad Evans, also an ex-Yahoo, is out here hustling with his Bracket Big Board. Where does he have your team projected? (Brad Evans)

Cubs! woo! World! woo! Series! woo! Blago, woo! Free, woo!

• Related Woo-Woo content: The responses to this tweet are incredible. My answer is “On the concourse at a random Royals-Indians game in Kansas City, early 2004” (Twitter)

That’s it for today. Thank you for making it this far. Thank you for being a #frentofthenewsletter. See you again tomorrow …

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