Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Calico Joe

It’s fashionable to say that you don’t read John Grisham, even when you do. He has had a few real stinkers and the literary critics hate him, but audiences continue to love him. Give me audience over critics any day. Old friend John Ray brought one of Grisham’s latest books to me the other day called Calico Joe. If you think this doesn’t sound like a legal thriller, you are right.

John (John Ray, not John Grisham) knows about my love for baseball and for real events portrayed in fiction. This book fills the bill on both counts.  Although Joe Castle, the major leaguer at the center of the story, is fictional, he is supposedly based on Ray Chapman, a player who was killed by a pitch.

I did not say that Joe is killed in the book, so I haven’t spoiled it yet. But Grisham does such a good job making his first baseball book (Painted House had a hint of baseball) believable, I started to wonder what I was doing to miss this significant event in 1973. My twenties went by like a blur, so I figured this was one more thing I failed to notice.

I was almost relieved to see that Joe was fictional. As I read, I was reminded of two of my favorite players as a kid.  Herb Score and Rocky Colavito.  I liked Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Pee Wee Reese, but I needed modest heroes (the strong silent type) and Rocky and Herb filled the bill.

Their backgrounds also fascinated me. Herb was run over by a truck when he was three and later had rheumatic fever. That gave hope to this little runt of a kid (me) who dreamed of playing major league baseball. Like John Grisham, I played Little League and high school ball, but never came close to being good enough for college ball, much less the majors.

It also helped that Colavito and Score came to the Cleveland Indians at the same time and just when I was most in awe of baseball (from nine to twelve). Unlike Grisham, who favored the St. Louis Cards, the Indians were my favorite team. The two players struck a friendship that would last a lifetime. I figured I had something to do with that.

Score was called the left-handed Bob Feller, who threw the fastest pitch in baseball back then.  But, when I was thirteen, a batter drilled a line drive into Score’s face. The ball broke some facial bones and injured an eye. Everyone, including me, figured his career was over. He made it back, but then injured his elbow and never returned to the top of his game.

He had a successful career after his playing days in broadcasting.  On his way home after being inducted into the Broadcasters Hall of Fame, he was run over by another truck and suffered trauma to his brain, chest and lungs and fractured the orbital bone around his eye.

Tall and handsome Rocky Colavito was a hitter. He dropped out of school at sixteen to concentrate on baseball and signed with the Indians farm club when he was just seventeen. He worked his way up and in 1958 he had forty-one homers, just one behind Mantle. He hit over forty the next year too. He hit four homers in a row in 1959. Then the Indians traded him to Detroit.

That trade begin the legend that became known as the Colavito Curse on the Indians. So many bad things happened to Cleveland after they traded him that Terry Pluto wrote a book about it.

What does all of this have to do with Calico Joe? It kept me from giving away the plot. And this book is just as interesting as the real-life stories of Score and Colavito. Thanks, John (Ray, that is).

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