John Grisham is highly regarded for his legal thrillers. A TIME TO KILL, THE FIRM, THE PELICAN BRIEF and more than 20 others comprise the main part of his oeuvre. He is also a die-hard baseball fan, and CALICO JOE is his long-awaited novel reflecting his love for the national pastime.
"What gives the novel a leg-up is the attention to detail in (re)creating the game some 40 years ago... The author has certainly done his homework, seamlessly incorporating real events and players such as Willie Mays (another of young Paul’s heroes), Tom Seaver, Rick Monday, and Don Kessinger, a real friend of Grisham."
(This is not the first time Grisham has “done” baseball: he penned the screenplay for the 2004 film Mickey, which tells the story of a lawyer dad on the run and his son, a standout Little League player who has to make the trip with him. He’s also written about football in PLAYING FOR PIZZA and THE BLEACHERS.)
This relatively short tale about lost opportunities and unfulfilled potential considers, as do many baseball themes, the relationship between fathers and sons, hero worship, and the fickle fates of sports. It combines several fictional and historical events: a rookie who comes out of nowhere, as in The Natural and The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (more familiar perhaps as the musical Damn Yankees); and the mortal danger that lingers under the surface of the game, as evidenced by the death of Ray Chapman --- the only major leaguer to die as the result of being hit by a pitch --- and other “beanball” incidents that resulted in career-ending injuries to Boston Red Sox slugger Tony Conigliaro and, most recently, Adam Greenberg, who was hit in the head in his first and only big league appearance (for the Cubs, of all teams); he’s still trying to mount a comeback.
Instead of “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.”, we have Calico Joe Castle, from Calico Rock, Arkansas, an earnest player for the 1973 Chicago Cubs who has the chance to be something truly special as he takes the sports world by storm during his first few games. With the young man performing at such an unbelievable pace, could this be the year the long-cursed team makes it to the World Series?
Standing in his way, however, is Warren Tracey, a journeyman pitcher currently with the New York Mets, who falls into the role of villain a la Carl Mays, the hurler who threw that fatal pitch at Chapman. Castle is everything Tracey is not: young, talented, popular, and possessing a future. Their collision course serves as the focal point of the book, which jumps back and forth from 1973 to the present era, told from the point of view of Tracey’s now-adult son, Paul, who adored Calico Joe as a child while at the same time conflicted by his feelings for his abusive dad. These emotional scars carry well into adulthood and are barely ameliorated by the news that Warren is dying. This, Paul thinks, is Warren’s last chance to make amends for all the horrible things he’s done in his life --- cheating on Paul’s mother and physically abusing him as a lad, among other things --- but will Joe and those who protect his privacy be amenable?
CALICO JOE is not especially suspenseful; the reader knows practically from the beginning that things will not end well for the rookie. (The blurb on the dust jacket teases “Then Warren threw a fastball that would change their lives forever.”) What gives the novel a leg-up is the attention to detail in (re)creating the game some 40 years ago --- the Mets beat the Cubs on the last day of the regular season to win the National League East title, which Grisham, in his book, attributes to the loss of Calico Joe’s services. The author has certainly done his homework, seamlessly incorporating real events and players such as Willie Mays (another of young Paul’s heroes), Tom Seaver, Rick Monday, and Don Kessinger, a real friend of Grisham.
In his author’s note, Grisham acknowledges the “tricky business” of mixing the real with the imaginary and admits changing actual “schedules, rosters, rotations, records, batting orders,” no doubt with sticklers like me in mind.
Review #2 by Stuart Shiffman
The beanball is as much a part of baseball history as the home run or stolen base. Batters are hit by pitches --- either unintentionally or with purpose and intent. The ramifications of the brushback pitch have left an impact on the game. In 1920, Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman was hit by a pitch thrown by Yankee hurler Carl Mays and died from the injury two days later. In 2005, Cub rookie Adam Greenberg appeared in his first major league game as a pinch-hitter. He was struck in the head, injured, and has never appeared in the major leagues since. John Grisham, an attorney by trade and author by choice, knows all about this; like many, he was born and raised on baseball, a game steeped in history and tradition.
"CALICO JOE is more than a baseball story. Grisham often turns to family, using redemption and reconciliation as a theme of his writing, whether on death row or, as in this book, on the baseball diamond."
When your books regularly appear on bestseller lists and sales of your novels are in the hundreds of millions, you are allowed to occasionally deviate from the formula that has made you a household name. Grisham takes full advantage of that opportunity. THE INNOCENT MAN was his true account of wrongfully convicted Ronald Williamson, an Oklahoma man sentenced to death and exonerated 11 years later through the efforts of the Innocence Project. In addition, Grisham has written several football-themed novels and young adult fiction. CALICO JOE, another sports-themed novel, is a baseball story that should not shock his fans. As a child, he dreamed of a career in professional baseball. When his skill failed to match his dream, he turned to the law. But the love of the game continues even today for the Mississippi writer. He serves his hometown as little-league commissioner, and 26 teams play on the six diamonds he has constructed on his home property.
CALICO JOE begins innocently enough with an ordinary event in a typical major league season. It is 1973, and Chicago Cub first baseman Jim Hickman is injured. Because their first baseman at AAA Wichita is also hurt, the Cubs must reach down to their AA Midland Texas team for 21-year-old Joe Castle to join the major league roster. Young Castle hails from Calico Rock, Arkansas. Along with major league success comes a major league nickname honoring Joe’s hometown. Calico Joe is the toast of major league baseball, as success comes to him with a rush unlike any in major league history. In a handful of games, he breaks the record for consecutive hits by a player. Plus, every possible rookie batting record one can fathom is claimed by the young Arkansas first baseman. His bat brings the Cubs into the National League pennant race.
Joe’s major league career is chronicled through the eyes of 11-year-old Paul Tracey. His father, Warren, is a journeyman pitcher struggling to continue in the starting rotation for the New York Mets. Paul is seized by the adulation that many feel for Joe, but for Warren, Joe is the enemy. The pitcher and batter will meet in an important game during the pennant race, and the ensuing confrontation will forever change the lives of Joe as well as the father and son.
This is not your typical John Grisham novel. There are no overarching social issues, pitched physical battles, skullduggery or mysterious deaths. Instead, there is just baseball, a game to enjoy in the moment as well as in history and tradition. Clearly Grisham loves the game; he seems to take great joy in describing baseball events and mentioning the names of many players from the 1970s, some of whom were stars, others of whom were just average.
CALICO JOE is more than a baseball story. Grisham often turns to family, using redemption and reconciliation as a theme of his writing, whether on death row or, as in this book, on the baseball diamond. It may lack the suspense and fast-paced tumult of his legal thrillers, but its more taciturn style is appropriate for a baseball book because, as he observes early on, baseball is a game “played without a clock.”
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan and Stuart Shiffman on April 13, 2012