Shoeless Joe Tumbles and Tweets
19 June 2013 – Peter Alter
Every fall I teach a course at the Chicago History Museum (CHM) for DePaul University students interested in museums and public history. Students become immersed in museum functions through behind the scenes tours and guest speakers from our staff. The students’ capstone experience includes group projects focused on CHM’s media, primarily researching, interviewing, and writing for posts to the Museum’s blog.
While working on the syllabus last fall, a story about a University of Nevada, Reno librarian using Facebook to tell two early-twentieth century students’ histories inspired me to use social media on a Chicago history story. With help from our multimedia team, we developed a Shoeless Joe Jackson social media project for one student group for the fall 2012 class. This project would cover his life and last only for the 2013 baseball season.
The 1919 World Series pitted the heavily favored American League Chicago White Sox against the underdog National League Cincinnati Reds. Eager to make some extra money, several Sox took bribes from gamblers to throw the World Series. The White Sox lost the series, five games to three. Prosecutors eventually discovered the bribery plot and a national scandal erupted.
White Sox star outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s name appeared prominently among those implicated as cheaters. By 1921, seven current and one former White Sox, including Shoeless Joe, faced a criminal trial. A Chicago jury found them not guilty, but the baseball commissioner banned them from the sport forever. Speculation still reigns regarding Shoeless Joe’s involvement in the 1919 scandal. He played well in those eight games, but in grand jury testimony in 1920 he said he took money.
In 2007, CHM purchased a major Black Sox scandal legal archive. The following year the Museum bought more Black Sox related material, papers belonging to Eliot Asinof, author of the famous book Eight Men Out (1963) about the scandal. These archives along with Chicago Daily News photographs, baseball publications, and other museum items became the materials contextualizing Shoeless Joe’s social media. A group of five students used this primary material along with secondary research to craft approximately 140 tweets that would be tweeted throughout the baseball season starting April 1.
Through Twitter, we hoped to engage users in a dialogue about Shoeless Joe, his guilt or innocence, baseball history, and the early twentieth century. As Suzanne Fischer in her blog “Historical Diaries Find a New Platform in Twitter” points out for tweeted diaries, through this project we also hope to make “connection[s] between us and historical characters real.” Ultimately, we wanted users to “consider the past in a different light” as Vanessa Macias states in the “Does the ‘Ken Burns Effect’ Work in an Age of Social Media?” post.
The students wrote the tweets using Shoeless Joe’s “voice.” Shoeless Joe didn’t have his own catch phrase, like the “Hey girl” meme that Annie Cullen and Rachel Boyle cleverly employ in their Public History Ryan Gosling blog. We could, however, strive to sound somewhat like Shoeless Joe. The students relied on the language and phrasing found in his court testimony. This student group worked through fall 2012. Two students, Matt D’Agostino and Josh Messer, from the group transitioned to internships working at CHM on this project from January through May.
Earlier this year, the project transformed, splitting into two parts under the direction of the Museum’s multimedia team. Tumblr, the popular photo blogging site, would host longer statements from Shoeless Joe about his life and career. These posts consisted of the original tweets edited into paragraphs with captioned images of the collection items, including photos, manuscripts, publications, and artifacts. Twitter, then, became the advertising vehicle for the Shoeless Joe Tumblr and the daily interaction mechanism with our audience.
April 1 came, and we launched the project slowly, knowing it would take some time to build an audience via Twitter and Tumblr. By early May, Shoeless Joe had about 100 followers on Twitter and about a dozen on Tumblr. Fortunately, we interested a reporter for a local all-sports cable television station in Shoeless Joe. He wrote his own blog post about the project. After his article appeared, we quintupled our followers to well over 500 in a less than a day.
The project exploded with questions to answer, tweets to retweet, and lots of other interaction. Many followers enjoy asking Shoeless Joe questions about the scandal, his era of baseball, and the modern era. The interns and I write at least ten new tweets each day, seven days a week, for the whole baseball season. Mixed with these ten will be tweets generated from the Tumblr posts. These longer Tumblr posts, that include images, come out about twice per week.
On a regular basis, we use #onthisday to discuss various baseball games and other events from Shoeless Joe’s life and career. We’ve explored his vaudeville days and tweeted about World War I. A White Sox no-hitter from his playing days became Twitter fodder while a White Sox pitcher flirted with a perfect game earlier this season. Shoeless Joe has also visited CHM and marveled at his story on display. We also plan for him to watch the movies Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams and attend a White Sox home game while tweeting his reactions to all of this.
Considering shared authority as this project’s foundation, we hope social media users will share their knowledge of baseball and Chicago history with us. While I’ve been writing this paragraph, one follower, for example, tweeted in reply to Shoeless Joe that his “great grandmother died of the Spanish Flu in 1918.” I hope, in turn, we can also apply the Museum’s mission statement to this project: “We share Chicago’s stories, serving as a hub of scholarship and learning, inspiration and civic engagement.” Indeed, I we must engage these social media users in conversations about Chicago history.
~Peter Alter, Chicago History Museum