Jackson played for three different Major League teams during his twelve-year career. He spent -09 as a member of the Philadelphia Athletics; through the first part of the with the Cleveland Naps/Indians; and the remainder of the season through with the Chicago White Sox.
Jackson, who played left field for most of his career, currently has the third highest career batting average. With his career having been cut short, the usual decline of a batter's hitting skills toward the end of a career did not have a chance to occur. In , Jackson hit for a .408 average. That average is still the sixth highest single-season total since , which marked the beginning of the modern era for the sport. His average that year set the record for highest batting average in a single season by a rookie. Babe Ruth claimed that he modeled his hitting technique after Jackson's.
Jackson still holds the White Sox franchise records for triples in a season and career batting average. In 1999, he ranked Number 35 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
The Athletics finally gave up on Jackson in 1910 and traded him to the Cleveland Naps. After spending time with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, he was called up to play on the big league team. He appeared in 20 games for the Naps that year and hit .387. In 1911, Jackson's first full-season, he set a number of rookie records. His .408 batting average that season is a record that still stands. The following season, Jackson batted .395 and led the American League in triples. The next year Jackson led the league with 197 hits and .551 slugging average.
In August of Jackson was traded to the Chicago White Sox. Two years later, Jackson and the White Sox won the World Series. During the series, Jackson batted .307 as the White Sox defeated the New York Giants.
In 1919, Jackson batted .351 during the regular season and .375 with perfect fielding in the World Series. The heavily favored White Sox lost the series to the Cincinnati Reds though. During the next year, Jackson batted .385 and was leading the American league in triples when he was suspended, along with seven other members of the White Sox, after allegations surfaced that the team had thrown the previous World Series.
During the Series, Jackson had 12 hits and a .375 batting average—in both cases leading both teams. He committed no errors, and even threw out a runner at the plate. Jackson did bat far worse in the five games that the White Sox lost, hitting .286, with no RBI until the final contest, Game 8, when he hit a home run in the 3rd inning and added two more RBI on a double in the 8th, when the White Sox were way behind.
The Cincinnati Reds also hit an unusually high number of triples to left field during the series, far exceeding the amount that Jackson—generally considered a strong defensive player—normally allowed.
In testimony before the grand jury, Jackson admitted under oath that he agreed to participate in the fix. He also admitted to complaining to other conspirators that he had not received his full $20,000 share. Legend has it that as Jackson was leaving the courthouse during the trial, a young boy begged of him, "Say it ain't so, Joe," and that Joe did not respond. In his 1949 interview in Sport Magazine, Jackson debunked this story as a myth.
In 1921, a Chicago jury acquitted him and his seven White Sox teammates of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the newly appointed Commissioner of Baseball, banned all eight accused players, claiming baseball's need to clean up its image took precedence over legal judgments. As a result, Jackson never played major league baseball after the 1920 season.
In 1933, the Jacksons moved back to Greenville, South Carolina. After first opening a barbecue restaurant, Jackson and his wife opened "Joe Jackson's Liquor Store," which they operated until his death. One of the better known stories of Jackson's post-major league life took place at his liquor store. Ty Cobb and sportswriter Grantland Rice entered the store, with Jackson showing no sign of recognition towards Cobb. After making his purchase, the incredulous Cobb finally asked Jackson, "Don't you know me, Joe?" Jackson replied, "Sure, I know you, Ty, but I wasn't sure you wanted to know me. A lot of them don't."
As he aged, Joe Jackson began to suffer from heart trouble. In 1951, at the age of 63, Jackson died of a heart attack. He is buried at nearby Woodlawn Memorial Park.
In recent years, evidence has come to light that casts doubt on Jackson's role in the fix. For instance, Jackson initially refused to take a payment of $5,000, only to have Lefty Williams toss it on the floor of his hotel room. Jackson then tried to tell White Sox owner Charles Comiskey about the fix, but Comiskey refused to meet with him. Also, before Jackson's grand jury testimony, team attorney Alfred Austrian coached Jackson's testimony in a manner that would be considered highly unethical even by the standards of the time, and would probably be considered criminal by today's standards. For instance, Austrian got Jackson to admit a role in the fix by pouring a large amount of whiskey down Jackson's throat. He also got the nearly illiterate Jackson to sign a waiver of immunity. Years later, the other seven players implicated in the scandal confirmed that Jackson was never at any of the meetings. Williams, for example, said that they only mentioned Jackson's name to give their plot more credibility.
Jackson's nickname was also worked into the musical play Damn Yankees. The lead character, baseball phenomenon Joe Hardy, alleged to be from a small town in Missouri, is dubbed by the media as "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO". The play also contains a plot element alleging that Joe had thrown baseball games in his earlier days.
Jackson was also an inspiration, in part, for the character Roy Hobbs in The Natural. Hobbs has a special name for his bat, and is offered a bribe to throw a game. In the book (but not the film) a youngster pleads with Hobbs, "Say it ain't so, Roy!"