Historical Context

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Shoeless Joe Jackson
Shoeless Joe Jackson was born in rural poverty in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1888. When he was only six, he worked seventy-hour weeks at the local cotton mill with his father. There was no opportunity for formal education, and Jackson grew up illiterate. He joined the mill's baseball team at the age of fifteen and within five years was playing in the local minor league team, where he earned his nickname by playing in stocking feet.

In 1908, Jackson joined the major league Philadelphia Athletics, and, in 1910, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians. Five years later, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox.

The White Sox were owned by the miserly Charles Comiskey, who refused even to pay for the team's laundry, which earned them the nickname, Black Sox. The players were inadequately paid. The highest annual salary Jackson ever earned with the Black Sox was $6,000. Comiskey also favored contracts that placed all power in the hands of the owner rather than the player. In the novel, Ray laments the Ten Day Clause, "which voided contracts, could end any player's career without compensation, pension, or even a ticket home."

Although all the details are still not known, the conspiracy was initiated by first baseman Chick Gandil, who recruited the other players. Gamblers offered each of the eight players $20,000 to lose the 1919 World Series. At the time, the White Sox were a formidable team and were expected to beat the Cincinnati Reds—but they lost the series. Jackson received $5,000 but later tried to give it back. It is by no means certain that he helped to throw the series. He did, however, bat .375 to lead all players; he collected twelve hits and made no errors in the field. These statistics have led many fans to argue (including Ray's father in the novel) that he did not participate in the conspiracy.

A year later, after an investigation initiated by sportswriters, Jackson and two of the other players confessed to a grand jury. A famous story is told of a young boy pleading with his idol as he left a Chicago courthouse, "Say it ain't so, Joe." Jackson reportedly replied, "I'm afraid it is, kid."

Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned all eight players from baseball for life. In 1921, a jury acquitted all eight players, but this was because evidence, including the players' signed confessions, had been stolen and was unavailable.

Jackson returned to Greenville, where he and his wife ran a successful dry-cleaning business. Jackson played semi-pro baseball in the South Georgia League until the age of forty-five. There are legends, disputed by some baseball historians, that he sometimes played elsewhere under a false name. The novel begins with Ray recalling how his father had claimed to have seen Shoeless Joe, "playing in a tenth-rate commercial league in a textile town in Carolina, wearing shoes and an assumed name."

Jackson remains to this day one of the great baseball players of all time. His lifetime batting average (.356) is the third best in major league history. Ty Cobb called him the "best natural hitter he ever saw."

Jackson died of a heart attack in 1951 at the age of sixty-three.

Literary Style

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Similes and Metaphors
Kinsella's use of simile and metaphor, in which something is compared to something else generally unlike it in a way that brings out the resemblance between the two, is the most noticeable aspect of his style. The similes and metaphors come thick and fast. The first seven pages alone include the following examples: the wind "is as soft as a day-old chick"; speakers at baseball stadiums are "like...

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ancient sailors' hats"; small items accumulate at one end of the sloping verandah "like a herd of cattle clustered with their backs to a storm"; Annie falls into Ray's arms "like a cat that you suddenly find sound asleep in your lap"; black clouds lumber off "like ghosts of buffalo." Later examples include extended metaphors, such as this one describing the rumors that circulate about J. D. Salinger. They are "like mosquitoes from a swamp and buzz angrily and irritatingly in the air." Kinsella cannot resist immediately following this with yet another simile, in which Ray, whose favorite author is Salinger, says he collected those rumors "as a child might collect matchbooks and stash them in an unruly clamor in a dresser drawer already full of pens, tape, marbles, paper clips, and old playing cards."

Kinsella writes in a lyrical, poetic style. This is particularly noticeable when he evokes the landscape of Iowa when the magic of the baseball field is in the air. Just before Shoeless Joe appears for the first time, for example, Ray senses that the magic is approaching, "hovering somewhere out in the night like a zeppelin, silky and silent, floating like the moon until the time is right." After Ray's first talk with Shoeless Joe, "A breath of clover travels on the summer wind. Behind me, just yards away, brook water plashes softly in the darkness, a frog shrills, fireflies dazzle the night like red pepper. A petal falls."

These and other descriptions of the Iowa landscape add to the feeling of enchantment that Kinsella wishes to create. He appeals directly to the senses, exactly as Ray instructs Salinger to do: "Open up your senses, smell the life all around you, touch it, taste it, hear it." This is the key to seeing the way Ray sees, and Kinsella gives his reader all the help he can. Consider for example the appeal to sight and smell in the following description: "Moonlight butters the whole Iowa night. Clover and corn smells are as thick as syrup." The image of moonlight buttering the night is particularly striking and effective.

The evocative lyricism extends to the descriptions of the baseball players and their games. This, for example, is the young Archie Graham in action:

He cranks up his arm, rears back, and throws, and the ball … travels in a white arc, seeming to leave behind a line like a streak of forgotten rainbow as it drops over the fence, silent as a star falling into a distant ocean.

When Eddie tells Ray that his uncle had a gift for "describing the beauty and mystery of baseball," his words could equally be applied to Kinsella the author.

The descriptions of Ray's wife Annie and his relationship with her have a similar kind of sensual radiance. It is as if everything within the scope of Ray's deep imaginative response to life appears in the light of this soft, romantic glow.

When Ray visits the carnival in Iowa City to meet Gypsy, she shows him part of the show. In a trailer, there are about a dozen glass containers. Each contains a faded black and white photograph of a deformed fetus. Kinsella attaches some importance to this, since just before the incident, Ray's daughter Karin repeats several times the sales patter she has heard from Richard: "the world's strangest babies are here." The reader is meant to take notice.

The grim image of twelve dead fetuses symbolizes the stifled, aborted dreams that Ray has brought back to life in his enchanted baseball park. The twelve are the eight banned White Sox players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, as well as Moonlight Graham, Eddie Scissons, Johnny Kinsella (Ray's father) and J. D. Salinger.

The image recalls an incident in Ray's childhood when he shot a sparrow. To discourage him from such activities, his mother told him to bring the bird to life again. Obviously, he was unable to do that, but Ray has since learned that there are some things that can be brought back to life—forgotten hopes and frustrated desires. The sparrow incident is linked to the image of the dead fetuses when Ray calls his mother, reminds her of the dead sparrow, and tells her she must come and see "what I've brought to life." He means the baseball field, but the following day he visits the carnival and sees the glass cases. Kinsella leaves the reader to make the symbolic connection.

Literary Techniques

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Kinsella combines both fantasy and reality and fact and fiction to create an entertaining and suspenseful narrative. Simply stated, the plot centers upon Ray's magical baseball diamond where dreams do come true, and once the fantasy begins, the details are so vivid that the reader is swirled along by the characters and the narrative events. Moreover, by alternating his scenes between the fantasy baseball games and the reality in the characters' lives, Kinsella captures the transient nature of dreams while emphasizing the grace and essence of baseball, a sport that is peculiarly an American constant, or as Salinger says: "It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews waiting at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what it once was, like an Indianhead penny in a handful of new coins."

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1920s: After the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, baseball is at a low point in its history. Baseball owners are worried that spectators will stay away, thinking the game is corrupt. To punish the players and reassure the public, eight players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, are banned from baseball for life in 1920.

    1980s: Baseball player Pete Rose, the all-time leader in hits, is banned for life in 1989 by baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti for betting on baseball. Also, Giamatti refuses to consider a request to reopen the Jackson case.

    Today: Controversy still exists over whether Shoeless Joe Jackson should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1999, Republican representative Jim DeMint of South Carolina introduces a resolution calling for Jackson to be "appropriately honored" for his achievements.

  • 1920s: Baseball players earn low salaries. The average annual salary in the major leagues is about $5,000 to $6,000. There is no players' union, and players do not have agents, so they are in a weak bargaining position.

    1980s: Salaries for major league baseball players rise steadily. In 1981, the average salary is $185,651. By 1989, this has risen to $512,084. In November 1989, Kirby Puckett becomes the first $3-million-a-year player. Within a month, three other players, Rickey Henderson, Mark Langston, and Mark Davis, all top the $3-million mark.

    Today: In 2001, nineteen major league baseball players have contracts with average annual values of $12.5 million or more. Many baseball fans believe salaries are too high and are not in the best interests of the game. A Gallup poll in April 2001 reports that 79 percent of fans think that major league baseball owners should be allowed to put a cap on the total amount of money available for players' salaries.

  • 1920s: Although African Americans are not allowed to play major league baseball, there are many black professional teams. The Negro National League is founded in 1920.

    1940s: Baseball takes the first steps to racial integration. In 1945, the Dodgers sign Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 becomes the first African American to play in the major leagues.

    1980s: Los Angeles Dodger vice president Al Campanis is fired after saying on ABC's Nightline that African Americans do not have the abilities to succeed in baseball management. The statement brings attention to the lack of African Americans in leadership positions in baseball and other professional sports. A drive to increase minority hiring begins, and, within two years, an African American, Bill White, is appointed National League president.

    Today: Although heavily represented in sports such as professional baseball, football, and basketball, African Americans remain underrepresented in leadership positions.

Literary Precedents

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Kinsella's Shoeless ]oe belongs to the American sports-literature tradition that includes poems, essays, short stories, and novels about all forms of Shoeless foe sports. Among the sport novels are, to suggest a few, Lawrence Shainberg's One On One (basketball); Leonard Gardner's Fat City (boxing); Peter Gent's North Dallas Forty (1973, football); Bernard Malamud's The Natural (1952) and Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association (1968, baseball). These novels expose some of the unsavory aspects of their various sports; for example, the doom inherent in Fat City for boxers, the excessive violence for the sake of corporate enterprise in professional football, Roy Hobbs's personal failure in baseball. Generally, these works and others of their ilk emphasize how the particular sport is a metaphor for the world and even life itself. In juxtaposition to these starker renderings of the sporting world, Kinsella's novel is devoid of any violence or hardened villains and simply recaptures the beauty, grace, and essence of baseball as a sport. In this sense, the novel entertains the reader while permitting him to escape temporarily and to experience the mythic baseball world, still the oldest sport in the American heritage.


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In 1984 Field of Dreams, the movie adaptation of Shoeless Joe, premiered. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson, the film received mostly favorable reviews and starred Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella, Amy Madigan as Annie Kinsella, Burt Lancaster as Doc Graham, and James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann, a character that was substituted for J. D. Salinger's role in the novel.

Media Adaptations

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  • Shoeless Joe was made into the movie Field of Dreams, directed by Phil Alden Robinson and starring Kevin Costner, in 1989.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Beach, Charles Franklyn. "Joyful vs. Joyless Religion in W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe." In Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall 1998, pp. 85-94.

Garman, Bryan K. "Myth Building and Cultural Politics in W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe." In Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue Canadienne d 'Etudes Americaines, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter 1994, pp. 41-62.

Lewis, Maggie. Review in Christian Science Monitor, July 9, 1982, p. 14.

Merlock, Ray. "Shoeless Joe: From Pickens County to the Field of Dreams." In South Carolina Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 1990, pp. 68-76.

Plummer, William. "In Another League." In Newsweek, August 23, 1982, p. 64.

Review in Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1982, p. 141.

Schweld, Barry. Review in Library Journal, April 1, 1982, p. 745.

Further Reading
Joffe, Linda S. "Praise Baseball. Amen: Religious Metaphors in Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams." In Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring 1992, pp. 153-63. Joffe discusses some of the allusions to Christianity in the novel and also the differences between the novel and the movie.

Kirtz, Mary K. "Canadian Book, American Film: Shoeless Joe Transfigured on a Field of Dreams." In Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1995, pp. 26-31. Kirtz argues that the film Field of Dreams eliminates the feminine "moral presence" in the novel and presents the story as a "man's story" with a patriarchal political message.

Lord, Timothy C. "Hegel, Marx, and Shoeless Joe: Religious Ideology in Kinsella' s Baseball Fantasy." In Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall 1992, pp. 43-51. Lord shows how baseball serves as a metaphor for religion. He also demonstrates that the way in which Ray handles the threat to his farm shows his philosophical assumptions about spiritual and material reality.

Pellow, C. Kenneth. "Shoeless Joe in Film and Fiction." In Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 17-23. Pellow argues that the film Field of Dreams is not a satisfactory version of the novel. It strips the novel of its poetry and distorts its political and social themes.


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Cheuse, Alan. “An Outsider’s Homage to Baseball Lore.” Review of Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella. Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 23, 1982. A very favorable review. Cheuse comments that the novel, despite its bizarre plot, leads the reader into “a world of compelling whimsy” and nostalgia for the great American pastime.

Christian Century. XCIX, May 26, 1982, p. 621.

Christian Science Monitor. July 9, 1982, p. 14.

Kinsella, William P. Interview by Robert Dahlin. Publishers Weekly 221 (April 16, 1982): 6-7. An interesting interview with biographical information about the author, William P. Kinsella. With reference to Shoeless Joe, he said that he wanted to write “a book for imaginative readers, an affirmative statement about life.”

Kinsella, William P. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. This novel is a fantasy on a much bigger scale than Shoeless Joe, featuring time travel, magic, and a ballgame that lasts more than two thousand innings.

Library Journal. CVII, April 1, 1982, p. 745.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, July 25, 1982, p. 10.

Newsweek. C, August 23, 1982, p. 64.

Sports Illustrated. LVI, May 10, 1982, p. 8.


Critical Essays


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