Calico Joe, by John Grisham

Calico Joe - John Grisham

It’s been a while since I last read a baseball novel. I’ve previously read The Firm and A Time to Kill, so when I discovered that John Grisham had written a book with a baseball theme, I knew it would be worth checking out.

Calico Joe takes place in two time periods: the present day (the novel was published in 2013) with flashbacks to the 1973 season. The book’s narrative mixes fact and fiction. Grisham introduces fictional players who interact with and participate on actual teams, namely the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs.  The fictional characters interact with actual people, such as Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, and Tom Seaver, and fictional games take place in real life stadiums. At the end of the novel, Grisham makes a point to include a note explaining just this, imploring, “[P]lease, all you die-hard fans, don’t read this with any expectation of accuracy. I have completely re-arranged schedules, rosters, rotations, records, batting orders, and I’ve thrown in some fictional players to mix it up with the real ones. This is a novel, so any mistake should be promptly classified as part of the fiction.”

The narrator of the tale is Paul Tracey, who, in 1973, was the eleven-year-old son of New York Mets pitcher, Warren Tracey. Paul is a massive baseball fan, and a solid Little League pitcher in his own right. However, his father is a man who parties as hard as he throws, frequently returning home drunk and turning on his own family. Thanks to Warren’s treatment, Paul’s interest in baseball eventually wans.

During the 1973 season, a rookie first baseman arrives in the majors for the Chicago Cubs — a man named Joe Castle, from Calico Rock, Arkansas. Castle’s major league career gets off to a rocket start, as he astonishes baseball fans across the country with home run after home run, shattering a number of rookie records. Calico Joe quickly becomes the idol of virtually every baseball fan in America, including the young Paul Tracey.

On August 24, 1973, the Chicago Cubs face off against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. Warren Tracey is on the mound, and young Paul is in the stands, torn between rooting for his dad and for his hero, Calico Joe. In his first at-bat against Tracey, Joe Castle hits a home run. Feeling that Castle has shown him up, in his next plate appearance, Tracey throws a pitch that beans Castle right in the head.

In all the scenes taking place in the present day, the results of this one pitch continue to reverberate through the lives of both ballplayers and of the now-grown Paul Tracey. Paul has limited contact with his father, but when Warren is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Paul has an idea on how to bring some closure regarding Calico Joe.

I really enjoyed this book. The combination of baseball and John Grisham made it a page turner, though it’s certainly not your typical Grisham novel. It’s not a thriller, there’s no real mystery in the tale. It’s a simple, straightforward story, full of nostalgia, but not without its tensions. If you’re looking for a fun, casual way to while away a lazy afternoon, this is definitely worth picking up.

This day in baseball: Waitkus is Comeback Player of the Year

Seventeen months after being shot in the chest with a rifle by an obsessed fan, Eddie Waitkus was named the Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press on November 10, 1950. The Phillies’ infielder hit .284 that season and led the team with 102 runs scored, as he continued to be one of the best fielding first basemen in the league.

Waitkus’s story would provide part of the inspiration for Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, published in 1952.

Eddie_Waitkus - Wikipedia
Wikipedia

“A Fisherman’s Tale,” Anonymous

This piece was published in 1942 and it references Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. In the novella, the main character, Santiago, idolizes DiMaggio and is a big Yankees fan. To Santiago, DiMaggio represents an ideal, and he compares himself against the ballplayer as a way to measure his own success and worth.

*

Ernest
Hemingway
Immortalized
Joe
DiMaggio
and
Joe
DiMaggio
Immortalized
Himself
And
So
Did
Ted Williams
that wonderful slugger from Boston.

Cobb: A Biography, by Al Stump

I recently finished making my way through Al Stump’s biography on Ty Cobb, simply titled Cobb: A Biography. I am aware of the criticism this book has received — Stump, it seems, went out of his way to cast Cobb in a less-than-flattering light, even embellishing or making up stories as he did so. Nevertheless, I found this biography intriguing.

Cobb book cover

Al Stump had actually ghostwritten Ty Cobb’s autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record. According to Stump, Cobb was far from being an easy individual to get along with, and there seems to be a consensus that Cobb’s autobiography had been sanitized considerably in order to paint Cobb in a better light. Stump claimed that his motivation for writing this biography after Cobb’s death was to share his own perception of the Georgia Peach. That being said, while it is widely-accepted that Cobb had many faults, this book reads like a revenge. In fact, the original title of this book, when it was first published in 1994, was Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man in Baseball. The current title actually belongs to a reworked and expanded edition of the book, published in 1996 after Stump’s death.

As a man, Stump paints Cobb as extremely combative, impossible to please, and unreasonably demanding. Clearly, Cobb’s life was a tortured one, what with the strange circumstances surrounding his father’s death when Cobb was still a young man, and his displeasure with the hand dealt him came out in his racism and in how he treated his own wife and children. On the other hand, Cobb the baseball player had an unmatched work ethic, demanding the best of himself as well as of those who played around him. Stump put a lot of focus also on the rivalry between Cobb and Babe Ruth, but in spite of the animosity between the two men, I also sensed a grudging respect between the two. In addition, Stump spent a lot of time exploring Cobb’s business ventures, investments, and his talent for making money.

As a reader, I confess to enjoying the journey through this book. The character of Cobb, as depicted in these pages, is a fascinating one. And while many of the stories in said pages have been discredited, no doubt their presence in the book is part of what makes it so fascinating. I have yet to read Cobb’s original autobiography, and while I’m at it, Charles Leerhsen’s 2016 biography, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, is also on the to-read list. It seems to me that one simply cannot read one without also delving into the other two — at least, not if one wants a truly well-rounded picture of the great Ty Cobb.

NLBM Tribute to Ernie Banks

Yesterday, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum hosted this talk with author Ron Rapoport about Ernie Banks. Rapoport is the author of the biography on Banks appropriately titled Let’s Play Two. This book is currently on my to-read list, but I look forward to getting to it, especially in the wake of this talk with the author. I love how Rapoport makes a point to stress how good of a ballplayer Banks was, a fact that sometimes gets overlooked as so much focus revolves around his sunny personality.

Today would have been Ernie Banks’s 90th birthday. Happy Birthday, Mr. Cub!

“Calling,” by Judy Katz-Levine

This piece is very nostalgic and a bit on the sad side. Judy Katz-Levine published this poem in 1990 as part of a collection entitled When the Arms of Our Dreams Embrace.

*

Falling asleep in the afternoon,
I forget that my father has died.
I anticipate him calling me up,
asking me how my writing is going,
and am I thinking about having children.
Making a joke or two. “Don’t worry,
Mom and I will never be lonely.”
Then I fall into deeper sleep, he
loses me, traveling in his car, the green
Chevrolet, to old baseball fields,
which are sweet with rye grass
and lush stadiums, his pals throwing
him the ball – “Give me some pepper, Al.”

The Big Fella, by Jane Leavy

I recently finished making my way through Jane Leavy’s biography on the Great Bambino himself, entitled The Big Fella.  Like anyone else, I have heard most of the stories, I’m aware of the ballplayer’s legendary status, and as a kid, I memorized the list of nicknames spouted off by the kids of The Sandlot.  However, this is the first actual Babe Ruth biography I have ever read.

Fair warning: this biography is quite the tome.  It’s not quite War and Peace, but sitting at over 600 pages, it’s not exactly Animal Farm, either.  In my opinion, though, the journey through this volume is worth the time.  Using the barnstorming tour Babe Ruth took with Lou Gehrig after the 1927 World Series as the framework for the book, Leavy injects details about Ruth’s life and analysis about his personality and character to paint a broad and detailed portrait of the man and the ballplayer.

My favorite feature of this book lies in how human it portrays the Babe.  Ruth often gets depicted as this happy-go-lucky, larger-than-life figure who transcends not only baseball, but American culture itself.  Not that Leavy ignores this facet of Ruth’s character.  In fact, she goes into great detail about how this perception of the Babe pervaded American thought even during his lifetime.  Ruth certainly lived large, and the public loved him so much, the press even willingly kept many of his indiscretions quite.  When some of those indiscretions did leak out, fans were more than willing to overlook them, finding these to be a part of the ballplayer’s charm.

Leavy’s biography doesn’t focus just on this, however.  Ruth’s life, especially as a youth, was not an easy one.  The author includes stories about his birth, early youth, his life at St. Mary’s, and his introduction to professional baseball.  She also talks about Ruth’s drinking and womanizing, and while she doesn’t forgive the Babe for these, Leavy does juxtapose that side of Ruth with his affinity for playing with and helping kids.

The book also delves deeply into Ruth’s relationship with his manager, Christy Walsh.  We get an overview of Ruth’s personal finances, and Leavy demonstrates how much the Babe profited from Christy Walsh’s management.  She conveys the impact Ruth and Walsh had on popular culture, foreshadowing the celebrity-obsessed society that followed them and continues to pervade our world today.

Leavy also does a good job giving us a glimpse into the Babe’s shortcomings as a family man and the impact this had on his daughters.  There is also a great exploration of Ruth’s life after baseball, including the disappointments he faced as he continuously got turned down for management roles.  Leavy goes into detail about his final days, as well, discussing his illness and, ultimately, his death.

Overall, I was impressed.  I did, at times, wish that the structure of the book followed a more linear path, rather than bouncing around Ruth’s life the way that it does, but given the amount of research and detail included in these pages, it’s a shortcoming I’m willing to overlook.

Quote of the day

The motion began in a gentle sweeping curve and culminated in a pose, held for an instant, of tense power.  It was an exhibition of the perfection of masculine grace.  Beautiful pitching like that is among the lost arts.

~James Weldon Johnson, from Along This Way

James Weldon Johnson 1932 Library of Congress
Johnson in 1932 (Library of Congress)

“Casey @ the Bat Analytics,” by Mitchell Nathanson

This parody of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey At the Bat” was published in 2019 by Mitchell Nathanson, author of A People’s History of Baseball.  Not only does it incorporate modern-day metrics like WAR, PitchTrax, and exit velocity, the poem also paints a frighteningly accurate picture of today’s in-stadium crowds.  The piece is very well done, and in spite of shaking my head in recognition, I find that I rather enjoy it.

*

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney whiffed again, the eighteenth K that night,
A sickly silence fell, for somehow baseball wasn’t right.

A straggling few got up and left, annoyed they even came;
And most who stayed were kind of drunk or wagered on the game.
Yet still to come was Casey, whom the fans had long extolled,
Though at the age of 31 the metrics deemed him old.

But first ahead was Flynn, a player much accursed;
His BABIP was atrocious, and his WAR was even worse.
Another guy came up as well, his name recalled by few;
Confusion sowed by double switches made in hour two.

But Flynn defied the numbers, making contact with the ball;
And sent it on a mighty arc — it caromed off the wall.
—The guy should be on third,— a salty graybeard spat and cursed,
As Flynn removed his batting gloves, a jogger still at first.

The other guy, as well, reached base, a waiver-wire addition;
Dropped by a last place club dumping salary without contrition;
And when the blaring music stopped, fans noticed what occurred,
Instead of crossing o’er the plate, young Flynn just jogged to third.

As Casey stepped into the box, the scoreboard roared “Make Noise!”;
Which the crowd most surely would’ve done, if not for all their toys.
About 5,000 hometown fans were checking in on Twitter;
So most remained oblivious to Casey as the hitter.

Ten thousand eyes were somewhere else as he scratched upon the dirt;
And Velcro-strapped his batting gloves and touched six places on his shirt.
And kissed his bat, then tapped the plate nine times or maybe 10;
Then from the box did Casey step, and start it all again.

The pitcher’s antics on the mound were also quite a show;
Whole seasons seemed to pass before he hinted at a throw.
Yet here it came, the cowhide sphere, arriving at great speed;
‘strike one,— the umpire firmly called. But PitchTrax disagreed.

The fans who watched upon their phones could see it plain: outside;
Unless their phones had zero bars, or batteries had died.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” the fans all stood and roared;
At least so roared the older ones, the younger ones seemed bored.

Two strikes remained. The oldsters, fretting, began to wring their hands;
While younger fans, in hour four, sped toward concession stands.
Then Casey dug in once again; the second spheroid flew,
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, ‘strike Two.’

“Fraud!” cried the maddened few at all the blue-clad, rulebound fools,
While waving off the heady clouds sent up from nearby Juuls.
Now Casey’s face grew stern and cold, the fans all rose as one;
As midnight neared their hope was clear: just let the game be done.

As Casey runs the metrics, and adjusts his swing for lift;
The fielders check their little cards, and drift into a shift.
And now the pitcher fires a rocket off, despite his ample gut;
And now the air is shattered by great Casey’s uppercut.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sport is as it used to be;
And fans still hang on Casey’s fate, not exit velocity.
But that era’s gone — don’t cry into your $15 beer;
While all the laughing children shout, “Football season’s here!”