With the Pirates’ Opening Day fast approaching, I’ve been thinking about a time when the team was more competitive, and I decided to re-read two books with baseball themes. Both are set in eras when baseball truly was more prominent in American life. The first of these, John Grisham’s Calico Joe, is told in flashback to the 1970s, and is populated with players, both real and fictitious, familiar ballparks and details that reflect Grisham’s obvious love of the game.
A morality tale, the plot is said have been based on an actual incident which took place in 1920 during a game between the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians. In that era it was permitted for pitchers to roughen up balls, and spit, rub dirt or smear tobacco juice on them to darken them, rendering them more difficult for batters to see and assuring their trajectory would be erratic. (Years later these practices were disallowed.) One such ball struck Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in the head during an at-bat, killing him.
In Grisham’s version a bitter, old-school pitcher intentionally “beans” an exceptionally talented rookie, who never recovers, permanently ending his promising career. The novel is dark but also deals with the theme of redemption. In a 2012 interview with Bill Littlefield for the National Public Radio show “Only a Game,” Grisham revealed he’d originally planned to write two separate baseball-themed novels, one for young readers and another for adults, but that those intentions converged in Calico Joe. That seems evident in that the two main characters are one dimensional and the story is simplistic and lacks credibility, but it is skillfully told and saturated with baseball lore that any baseball fan would enjoy.
I’ll discuss a second, very different “baseball book,” Wait Till Next Year, in a future blog.