Calico Joe, John Grisham, and Ray Chapman

While John Grisham is best known for his legal thrillers, for the past 10 years he has branched out and written in several additional genres.  He has written a Christmas book (Skipping Christmas), a book about football (Playing for Pizza), and even a children’s series (Theodore Boone).  In his latest book, Calico Joe, Grisham takes his first crack at a novel about baseball.

Calico Joe switches back and forth between two different narratives that take place 30 years apart.  One of the narratives follows the story of baseball phenom Joe Castle (nicknamed Calico Joe) who takes the major leagues by storm in 1973.  However, his career is cut short when he is hit by a pitch by Warren Tracey; a pitcher known to throw at batters on purpose.  The book shifts between this story and one set in 2003.  The other story follows Paul Tracey, son of Warren Tracey.  Paul has had to live with an abusive and alcoholic father who left his mother at an early age.  They rarely spoke after that.  He also had to live with the knowledge that his father hit Castle on purpose.  The novel centers around Paul’s attempt to set up a meeting between the reclusive Joe Castle and his father who has always denied that he threw at Castle on purpose.

Calico Joe hits all of the major themes that you find in a great number of baseball novels: relationships between father and son; a small-town player taking the majors by storm; questions about what might have been.  Grisham has an easy-to-read writing style that makes this book a quick and fun read that any fan of baseball would enjoy.

Grisham got the inspiration for the novel from the story of Ray Chapman; a player for the Cleveland Indians who was killed after being hit by a pitch in a major league baseball game in 1920.  While I recommend Calico Joe as a fun read, there is a book written about the Chapman incident that I consider one of best narrative nonfiction books about baseball that I’ve read.  It is called The Pitch that Killed by Mike Sowell.

It’s a cliché to say that truth is stranger than fiction, but in this case it’s true.  The 1920 season had tremendous storylines that all converged in a tragic, yet amazing way.  The New York Yankees had just acquired Babe Ruth fresh off his unbelievable record of 29 homeruns in a season.  In 1920 he would shatter that record by hitting 54 homeruns.  New York also acquired two-time 20 game winner Carl Mays who had a reputation as a head hunter on the mound.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians had already developed a reputation for being one of the worst teams in the majors.  However, stating in 1917 they finished third in the division two years in a row, and then second in 1919.  1920 looked like it might finally be their year, especially with future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker leading the way and one of the top leadoff men in the league in Ray Chapman.

To further add to the intrigue in 1920, word was starting to get around about the World Series in 1919.  Rumor was that some of the players from the Chicago White Sox had been working with gamblers and had purposefully lost the World Series.

What made 1920 so interesting is that all three of these teams were battling it out for the American League pennant.   The fateful game in which Chapman died took place in late August between the Yankees and Indians.  After Chapman’s death, the Indians dedicated the rest of the season to him.  He was replaced by rookie shortstop Joe Sewell, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career.  I won’t spoil the ending, although it did happen over 90 years ago so a quick search on Wikipedia will tell you what happened.  However, The Pitch that Killed takes you inside this story and makes it come alive.  It’s a must read for any baseball fan, but I think almost anyone would find themselves riveted by these true life events.