Note: This article was originally published in SABR’s Black Sox Scandal Committee Newsletter in December 2011.
If someone were to ask about Mexico’s most significant connection to the Black Sox scandal, the answer they’d probably get is that “Sleepy” Bill Burns — the pitcher-turned-gambler who helped fix the 1919 World Series — was tracked down by Ban Johnson’s detectives somewhere near the Texas-Mexico border and agreed to become the prosecution’s star witness in the conspiracy trial in Chicago.
But there’s another connection to Mexico worth noting, and it involves the White Sox’s third-string catcher in 1919, Joe Jenkins.
Just a week after Jenkins and the White Sox lost the World Series in October 1919, his older brother, William Oscar Jenkins, a prominent businessman in the Puebla region of Mexico and a U.S. consular agent there, was kidnapped by revolutionary rebels, setting off an international furor between the two countries that would stain William Jenkins’ reputation for the rest of his life.
The Jenkins boys were originally from Shelbyville, Tennessee. In 1901, when Joe was 10, William and wife Mary left for Aguascalientes, Mexico — and never returned. They were dead broke, but William found a job as a railway mechanic for 50 cents a day. By the end of the decade, he had raised enough money to go into the cotton hosiery business and became a significant textiles entrepreneur in Puebla, southeast of Mexico City.
Meanwhile, back home in Tennessee, Joe was asserting himself as a multisport star at Battle Ground Academy and soon signed his first professional baseball contract, with Rome (Georgia) of the Southeastern League. He gained a reputation as a better hitter than fielder, and made it to the major leagues with the St. Louis Browns in 1914. After he was sent back down to the minors for more seasoning, Joe’s contract was purchased by the White Sox in 1916. Stuck behind future Hall of Famer Ray Schalk and backup Byrd Lynn, Joe served mostly as the team’s bullpen catcher the following year as Chicago went on to win the World Series.
The Mexican Revolution was well under way by this time, and William Jenkins was profiting from it. He had become one of the most powerful figures in Mexico. On October 19, 1919 — one week after Joe and the White Sox wrapped up a World Series that would lead to baseball’s greatest scandal — William Jenkins was kidnapped by Zapatista rebels at his mill in Puebla. He was held in captivity until October 26, before a $300,000 ransom was paid to the rebels and he was released safely.
Rumors immediately circulated, possibly spread by the embarrassed Mexican government, that William had been given as much as half of the ransom money by his captors. In November, President Venustiano Carranza’s administration had Jenkins arrested and charged with staging his own kidnapping. According to Jenkins biographer Andrew Paxman, the accusation was borne largely from political fear-mongering and xenophobic stereotypes against the yanqui businessman.
But the arrest of a U.S. consular agent in Mexico greatly increased tensions between the two countries, a relationship already in poor shape after General “Black” Jack Pershing’s failed expedition across the border to capture Pancho Villa a few years earlier. Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico called for a Senate resolution breaking off relations between the two countries, and tensions remained high for some months after Jenkins was cleared of all charges.
Suspicions about how William Jenkins made his fortune dogged him for the rest of his life. He bought up the best sugar-producing land in the Matamoros Valley and later held a virtual monopoly on the country’s movie theaters. By 1960, a few years before his death, Time magazine called him “the richest man in Mexico.”
Joe Jenkins, whose major league career ended after 1919, continued to play another decade in the minors (mostly in the Pacific Coast League). All the while, he maintained good relations with his famous and controversial brother in Mexico. When the Depression left Joe unable to find steady work in the Los Angeles area he called home, William asked him to move north to Hanford to help their sister and ailing father on the family’s struggling fruit ranch. Joe and his wife, Fay, stayed in Northern California for 40 years.
William Jenkins is still remembered today for the Mary Street Jenkins Foundation he founded in the 1950s and named for his late wife. It continues to fund hospitals, universities and other philanthropic causes in Mexico.
Joe Jenkins, who didn’t even have bragging rights within his own family for front-page headlines in October 1919, died at age 83 in 1974.