Baseball On Radio in Greenville, SC - Shoeless Joe Jackson Connection?

 By: Johnny Kicklighter
In the 1950's and 60's I remember listening to Chicago White Sox games on radio regularly with my grandfather. He had an old tube style radio cabinet in the living room, and also owned a small transistor radio that he would use when sitting in the front yard. Listening to White Sox games isn't particularly unique except that I was living in Greenville, South Carolina at the time. The games were hosted on a small hometown radio station, WMRB-1490AM, located in downtown Greenville. As I grew older I sometimes wondered why would Chicago games broadcast into the Deep South?

My interest was rekindled in 2006 when an investor purchased and relocated the Shoeless Joe Jackson house located at 119 East Wilburn Street. Unbeknownst to me, Jackson's house was located just two blocks from where I attended Crestone Elementary School in 1958-60. Moreover, my grandpa and I lived less than one mile from East Wilburn Street. Jackson's house eventually became the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum now located in downtown Greenville. It was placed adjacent to the stadium that hosts a Single-A Boston Red Sox affiliate, the Greenville Drive. Again, I asked myself as to why were White Sox games broadcast in my hometown. Was Shoeless Joe Jackson's legacy connected to the broadcasts? Were the broadcasts the result of a fan base that had developed around Shoeless Joe? The idea was both interesting and intriguing.

I begin my search by contacting the new owner of WMRB 1490AM radio. WMRB was purchased by Randy Mathena in 1987 and renamed WPCI. Randy was friendly and responsive to my queries but was unable to substantiate the White Sox broadcasts. I wrote a letter to the widow of the founder of WMRB, Frank Cope, but didn't receive an answer. I found a research paper on the history of WPCI Radio written by some Furman University students. The paper was helpful in providing a general history of the

station, but it did not mention the Chicago White Sox broadcasts. I also contacted Arlene Marcley, the curator of the new Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum. She allowed me to place a poster in the museum soliciting information but still no leads.

It was in early 2010 that I found a hint on Facebook. I had made a random posting to the Greenville, SC Facebook page and received a comment from a Greenville native. He believed that during the Textile Mill baseball league days, some mills adopted Major League teams. My contact theorized that Brandon Mills, where Shoeless Joe got his start, may have adopted the Chicago White Sox. Were Chicago White Sox broadcasts the result of Shoeless Joe Jackson's affiliation with the White Sox and his playing time with Brandon Mills of the Textile Baseball League? I was sure that I struck pay dirt.

A quick Google search steered me toward the book, "Textile League Baseball: South Carolina's Mill Teams, 1880-1955" by Thomas K. Perry. I wrote Mr. Perry a letter about the theory and he responded with an email. Perry wrote, "After we moved away from Greenville, Dad would take me on fishing trips to Lake Hartwell. The cabin, owned by my great aunt and uncle, was wonderfully rustic, and had no television. During those spring evenings, we would listen to the White Sox games, and I was intrigued with the performances of Tommy John and his teammates. I remember asking Dad why a Greenville station would carry the Chicago games, and he said it was because Shoeless Joe played there years ago. Not an official explanation, I know, but Dad was raised on a mill village in Anderson, SC, so he knew the history of textile sports (he played basketball). I believe his explanation to be true, though I have no official documentation."

Alas! Finally, I had confirmation that someone else had heard the broadcasts; but what of the purpose and their origin? I thought Mr. Perry had just written a historical narrative on Textile Mill Leagues. Surely, during all that research, if mill teams had adopted Major League teams, he would have found evidence of it. I went back to Randy Mathena of WPCI and shared with him Perry's comments. This reignited Randy's interest and he gave me the telephone numbers for Jim Cope, son of former owner Frank

Cope, and retired WMRB disk jockey, Bill Krieger. The hunt was on.

I first telephoned Mr. Bill Krieger who was now in his mid 80's. We had a delightful conversation discussing the history of WMRB and the city of Greenville. He said Frank Cope purchased the 1490 AM radio station with the financial backing of the Simpson partner of Belk-Simpson Department Stores of Greenville. Cope named the station WMRB taking the call letters from the phrase, "We Make Radio Better".

Regarding sports broadcasts on the station, Krieger said WMRB was the host to South Carolina Gamecocks football. Frank Cope had also purchased the rights to broadcast "The Masters Golf Tournament" originating in Augusta, Georgia. He confirmed that WMRB became host to Chicago White Sox baseball broadcasts. Krieger said that Frank Cope and a local business associate from Household Finance brokered an arrangement with the Chicago White Sox organization. The corporate headquarters for Household Finance was located in Chicago and they were key sponsors on the White Sox Radio Network. When I asked Krieger if he thought the White Sox broadcasts had anything to do with Shoeless Joe Jackson's fame, he stated he had no recollection that Shoeless Joe's popularity had anything to do with the broadcasts. He believed it to be purely a business decision. He also went on to say that the Chicago White Sox broadcasts ended in the late 60's and were eventually replaced with the Atlanta Braves in the early 1970's.

I then called Jim Cope, the son of Frank Cope. Jim Cope told me was about 10 years old when his dad purchased the radio station. He remembered the Chicago White Sox and Atlanta Braves radio broadcasts. Without telling him the details of my previous interview with Bill Krieger, I asked Jim to give me the reasons why his father would broadcast Chicago White Sox games in Greenville. Jim stated he had no details or knowledge of the conversations surrounding the reasons why the broadcasts got started. Cope did state that his dad would have based the decision solely on business and how it would benefit the station. I asked Jim if it was possible that with Greenville being the home of Shoeless Joe Jackson, and given Shoeless Joe's popularity, could that have been a factor in the decision? He stated he did not recall any discussions or an atmosphere of popularity of Shoeless Joe during that time. Jim Cope did not believe Shoeless Joe had anything to do with his dad's decision to bring the Sox to WMRB.

Fully armed with this new information, I began a web search to find a connection between Household Finance and Chicago White Sox. I quickly found a blog entry by a Lee Abrams regarding play-by-play baseball and other chatter. Abrams stated, "I remember the transistor under the covers. Bob Elson and Don Wells calling a Chicago White Sox night Game…every ad was for "Friendly Bob Adams" with Household Finance. They took you right there…an indescribable magic that combined tension, joy and a sense of security and warmth that said all is OK with life…especially since we have Hoyt Wilhelm warming up in the bullpen." The Household Finance connection collaborated Bill Krieger's 85 year old memory and the puzzle was now complete. Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Chicago White Sox broadcasts in Greenville appeared to be nothing more than an amazing coincidence.

Feeling comfortable that I had run my investigation to the finish line, I sought to document the results of my research. I produced a PowerPoint graphic depicting the history of radio frequency 1490AM WMRB, now WPCI. After combining the graphic with the interviews and other source files, I sent them off to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and the Greenville Historical Society. Both agreed to catalog my research for posterity's sake. I also created a poster that now hangs on the wall of the Shoeless Joe

Jackson museum, and if you check out Wikipedia, you'll find entries on the WPCI radio and Shoeless Joe Jackson pages. Finally, I framed my graphic and presented a copy to the owner of WPCI, Randy Mathena, where he proudly hung it on the studio wall in his radio station.

This was not a very romantic ending to my quest but it appeared to be the facts. Ironically, even though some local listeners falsely conjectured the Chicago White Sox broadcasts were the result of Shoeless Joe, this speculation may have inadvertently fueled Shoeless Joe's popularity. I like the way Thomas Perry summarized this entire journey in an email: "Brandon Mill folks probably made the Joe Jackson/White Sox connection immediately as reason for the broadcasts. And in inimitable business fashion, the radio station would not have reason to stop this conjecture because it meant more loyal listeners. Rest assured, I ain't giving up my memories of summer talks on the porch with my dad!"

And neither am I.
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