A surprising and moving novel of fathers and sons, forgiveness and redemption, set in the world of Major League Baseball…Whatever happened to Calico Joe?
It began quietly enough with a pulled hamstring. The first baseman for the Cubs AAA affiliate in Wichita went down as he rounded third and headed for home. The next day, Jim Hickman, the first baseman for the Cubs, injured his back. The team suddenly needed someone to play first, so they reached down to their AA club in Midland, Texas, and called up a twenty-one-year-old named Joe Castle. He was the hottest player in AA and creating a buzz.
In the summer of 1973 Joe Castle was the boy wonder of baseball, the greatest rookie anyone had ever seen. The kid from Calico Rock, Arkansas dazzled Cub fans as he hit home run after home run, politely tipping his hat to the crowd as he shattered all rookie records.
Calico Joe quickly became the idol of every baseball fan in America, including Paul Tracey, the young son of a hard-partying and hard-throwing Mets pitcher. On the day that Warren Tracey finally faced Calico Joe, Paul was in the stands, rooting for his idol but also for his Dad. Then Warren threw a fastball that would change their lives forever…
In John Grisham’s new novel the baseball is thrilling, but it’s what happens off the field that makes CALICO JOE a classic.
The tumor in my father’s pancreas was removed last week in an operation that lasted five hours and was more difficult than his surgeons had expected. Afterward, they delivered the grim news that most people in his condition could not expect to live for more than ninety days. Since I knew nothing of the surgery, or the tumor, I was not there when he was given his death sentence. Communication is not a priority with my father. Ten years ago he divorced one wife and had found another before word filtered down to me.
His current wife—she’s either number five or number six—eventually called and, after reintroducing herself, passed along the barest of details about the tumor and its related issues. Agnes explained that my father was not feeling well and didn’t want to talk. I replied that he had never wanted to talk, regardless of how he felt. She asked me to spread the news to the rest of the family. I almost asked “Why?” but didn’t want to bicker with this poor woman.
The rest of the family consists of my younger sister, Jill, and my mother. Jill lives in Seattle and, as far as I know, has not spoken to our father in at least ten years. She has two small children who have never met him, and never will. My mother, after surviving twelve years of marriage, got lucky and got out, taking Jill and me with her, and I have a hunch that the news of his impending death will have zero impact on her.
Needless to say, we do not get together at Christmas and exchange gifts by the fire.
After the phone call from Agnes, I sit at my desk and ponder life without Warren, my father. I started calling him Warren when I was in college because he was more of a person, a stranger, than a father. He did not object. He has never cared what I call him, and I have always assumed he prefers that I don’t call him at all. At least I make the occasional effort; he never has.
After a few minutes, I admit the truth—life without Warren will be the same as life with him.
I call Jill and break the news. Her first question is whether I plan to attend the funeral, which is somewhat premature. She wants to know if she should try to visit him, to say hello and good-bye and go through the phony motions of acting as though she cares, when in fact she does not. Nor do I, and we both admit this. We have no love for Warren because he never cared for us. He abandoned the family when we were kids and has spent the past thirty years acting as though we do not exist. Jill and I are both parents now, and we find it inconceivable that a father can have no use for his own children.
“I’m not going,” she finally declares. “Now, or later. How about you?”
“I don’t know,” I reply. “I’ll have to think about it.”
The truth is that I know I will go see him. He has burned most of the bridges in his life, but there is one rather substantial piece of unfinished business that he has to deal with before he dies.
My mother lives in Tulsa with her second husband. In high school, Warren was the superjock, and she was the homecoming queen, the most popular girl. Their wedding thrilled their small town, but after a couple of years with Warren all thrills were gone. I know they have not spoken to each other in decades, and why should they?
“Mom, I have some bad news,” I say into the phone, trying to seem sufficiently somber.
“What is it?” she asks quickly, probably afraid it is one of her grandchildren.
“Warren’s sick. Pancreatic cancer, he has less than three months to live.”
A pause, relief, then, “I was assuming he was already dead.”
And there you have it. His memorial service will not be packed with grieving family members.
“I’m sorry,” she says, but she is not. “I guess you’ll have to deal with it.”
“I don’t want to be bothered with it, Paul, just call me when it’s over. Or don’t. I don’t care what happens to Warren.”
“I understand, Mom.”
I know he hit her a few times, probably a lot more than I realized. And he drank and chased women and lived the hard life of a professional baseball player. He was arrogant and cocky, and from the age of fifteen he was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted because he, Warren Tracey, could throw a baseball through a brick wall.
We manage to move the conversation to the kids and when she might see them again. Because of her beauty and brains, she landed on her feet after Warren. She married a slightly older man, an executive for a drilling company, and he provided a fine home for Jill and me. He loves my mom, and that’s all that matters.
I doubt if Warren ever did.
In the summer of 1973, the country was slowly emerging from the trauma of Vietnam. Spiro Agnew was in trouble and would eventually go down. Watergate was getting hot with much more to come. I was eleven years old and slightly aware of what was happening out there in the real world, but I was wonderfully unburdened by it. Baseball was my world, and little else mattered. My father pitched for the New York Mets, and I lived and died with each game. I pitched too, for the Scrappers in the White Plains Little League, and because my father was who he was, great things were expected of me. I rarely met those expectations, but there were moments of promise.
By early July, the pennant race in the National League East had settled into a bland contest. All six teams—Mets, Pirates, Cardinals, Phillies, Cubs, and Expos—were hovering around .500 and showing little enthusiasm for making a run. In the West, the Reds and the Dodgers were pulling away. In the American League, the Oakland A’s, with their swagger and colorful uniforms and long hair, were looking to repeat their championship of 1972.
My buddies and I followed the game religiously. We knew each player and every statistic. We checked every box score, then replayed the games on the sandlots of White Plains. Life at home was not always pleasant, and my escape was on the field. Baseball was my best friend, and in mid-July 1973 the game was about to be electrified like never before.
* * *
It began quietly enough with a pulled hamstring. The first baseman for the Cubs AAA affiliate in Wichita went down as he rounded third and headed for home. The next day, Jim Hickman, the first baseman for the Cubs, injured his back. The team suddenly needed someone to play first, so they reached down to their AA club in Midland, Texas, and called up a twenty-one-year-old named Joe Castle. At the time, Castle was hitting .395 with twenty home runs, fifty RBIs, forty stolen bases, and only one error at first base. He was the
hottest player in AA and was creating a buzz.
As the story goes, Castle was asleep in the cheap apartment he shared with four other minor leaguers when the call came from Chicago. An assistant coach drove him to the airport in Midland, and he caught a flight to Houston, where he waited two hours for a flight to Philadelphia. While he waited, he called his family in Arkansas with the thrilling news. When he arrived in Philadelphia, a cab delivered him to Veterans Stadium, where he was quickly fitted for a uniform, given Number 42, and hustled onto the field. The Cubs were already taking batting practice. Understandably, he was nervous, thrilled, almost bewildered, and when the manager, Whitey Lockman, said, “Get loose. You’re starting at first and hitting seventh,” Castle had trouble gripping his brand-new bat. In his first round of major-league batting practice, he swung at the first two pitches and missed.
He would not miss again for a long time.
In the dugout before the game, he huddled with Don Kessinger, the Cubs veteran shortstop and another Arkansas boy. Kessinger had been an all-American in baseball and basketball at Ole Miss and was outgoing and laid back. He managed to keep the kid loose. His only advice was “Go up there swinging.” The Cubs center fielder was Rick Monday, another veteran who had been born in Batesville, Arkansas, just down the White River from Joe’s hometown. Between Kessinger and Monday, Joe managed to survive the worst case of pregame jitters a player could imagine.
It was Thursday, July 12, a day baseball would remember for a long time.
The Phillies pitcher was a lefty, Benny Humphries, a wild fastballer who walked as many as he struck out. As Joe strolled to the plate in the second inning, he gritted his teeth and again told himself to swing at the first pitch, wherever it happened to be. Humphries thought the rookie should get introduced to major-league heat and unloaded everything he had. Joe, from the right side, guessed fastball, made perfect contact, and hit a shot that landed twenty rows back in left center field. He sprinted around the bases, much too excited for any kind of victory trot, and was in the dugout being congratulated before he caught his breath.
He was not the first major leaguer to homer on the first pitch he saw. In fact, he was the eleventh. Forty-six homered in their first at bat, eleven on the first pitch. Nonetheless, his name was in the record book. It was now open, and Joe Castle wasn’t finished with it.
In the fifth inning, Humphries started off with a fastball high and tight, a brushback meant as a warning, but Joe didn’t get the message. He worked the count to 3 and 1, then yanked a fastball down the left field line, where it barely scraped the inside of the foul pole. The third base umpire was quick to twirl his right index finger signaling a home run. Joe, who was rounding first and following the ball, kicked into a sprint and slowed slightly as he neared home plate. Now a record belonged only to him and one other. In 1951, Bob Nieman of the St. Louis Browns homered in his first two major-league at bats.
* * *
The Mets were playing the Braves in Atlanta that night, and the game was not on television. I was in Tom Sabbatini’s basement listening to Lindsey Nelson, the Mets’ wonderful play-by-play announcer, who informed us of what had just happened in Philadelphia. It didn’t take much to get Lindsey excited. “He tied a record, folks,” he said. “Think of the thousands of young men who’ve played this game, and only two have homered in their first two at bats.”
“I wonder if he can do it three times,” added Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Fame slugger and Lindsey’s sidekick.
* * *
The Cubs chased Humphries in the sixth, and the Phillies brought in a middle reliever, a right-hander named Tip Gallagher. When Joe left the on-deck circle in the top of the seventh, the score was tied 4–4, and the Phillies fans, always vocal, were silent. There was no applause, just curiosity. To their surprise, Joe dug in from the left side. Since there was no scouting report, the Phillies did not know he was a switch-hitter. No one had bothered to notice him during batting practice. He looked at a curveball low, then fouled off the next two fastballs. With two strikes, he shortened his stance and choked up three inches on the bat. The previous season, he led the Texas League with the lowest strike-out percentage of any hitter. Joe Castle was at his most dangerous with two strikes.
A slider missed low, then Gallagher came with a fastball away. Joe went with the pitch and slapped it hard to left center, a line drive that kept rising until it cleared the wall by five feet. As he circled the bases for the third consecutive time, he did so with a record that seemed untouchable. No rookie had ever homered in his first three at bats.
* * *
Joe Castle was from Calico Rock, Arkansas, a tiny, picturesque village on a bluff above the White River, on the eastern edge of the Ozark Mountains. It was Cardinals country, and had been since the days of Dizzy Dean, an Arkansas farm boy and leader of the infamous Gashouse Gang in the 1930s. His brother Paul, nicknamed Daffy, was also a pitcher on the same team. In 1934, at the height of the Gang’s fame, Dizzy predicted in spring training that he and Daffy would combine for fifty wins. They won forty-nine—thirty for Dizzy and nineteen for Daffy. Twenty years later, Stan Musial, the greatest Cardinal of all, was revered to the point of being worshipped. With a radio on every front porch, the town, like countless others in the Midwest and the Deep South, followed the beloved Cardinals with a passion during the long, hot summer nights. KMOX out of St. Louis carried the games, and the familiar voices of Harry Caray and Jack Buck could be heard on every street and in every car.
On July 12, though, the dials in Calico Rock had been switched to WGN out of Chicago, and Joe’s friends and family were hanging on every pitch. The Cardinals–Cubs rivalry was the greatest in the National League, and though many in Calico Rock found it difficult to believe they were rooting for the hated Cubs, they were suddenly doing so, and with a fervor. In a matter of hours, they had been converted to Cubs fans. After the first home run, a crowd quickly gathered outside Evans Drug Store on Main Street. The second home run sent them into a giddy celebration, and the crowd continued to grow. When Joe’s parents, two brothers, their wives, and their small children showed up to join the party, they were greeted with bear hugs and cheers.
The third home run sent the entire town into orbit. They were also celebrating in the streets and pubs of Chicago.
* * *
As stunning as his first three at bats had been, Joe’s fourth would endear him to baseball purists forever. Top of the ninth, score tied 6–6, two outs, Don Kessinger standing on third, a tough right-hander named Ed Ramon on the mound. As Joe stepped to the plate, a few of the eighteen thousand fans clapped politely, then an odd silence settled across Veterans Stadium. Ramon’s first pitch was a fastball on the outside part of the plate. Joe waited, then whipped his bat like a broomstick, crushing the ball and lining it a few inches outside the bag at first base, a foul ball, but an impressive one nonetheless. Ernie Banks, the Cubs first base coach, did not have time to react, and if the ball had hit him, he would have been seriously maimed. Willie Montanez, the Phillies first baseman, moved to his left, but only after the ball had caromed off the stands and was rolling into right field. Instinctively, Montanez took two steps back. Joe noticed this and changed his plans. The second pitch was a changeup, high. With the count 1 and 1, Ramon tried another fastball. As soon as he released it, Joe hesitated a split second, then broke for first base with his bat trailing. It tapped the ball slightly and sent it dribbling toward the second baseman, Denny Doyle, who was as startled as Ramon, Montanez, and everyone else in the stadium. By the time Doyle got to the ball, or the ball got to Doyle, Joe was ten feet past first base and slowing down along the right field foul line. Kessinger walked home with the eventual winning run. The crowd sat in stunned silence. Players from both teams looked on in disbelief. With a chance to hit four home runs in a game—a feat baseball had seen only nine times in a hundred years—the kid chose instead to lay down a perfect drag bunt to score the go-ahead run.
* * *
Most of those
listening to the game along Main Street in Calico Rock had seen the identical drag bunt, though Joe Castle had seldom needed it. They had seen far more tape-measure shots and inside-the-park home runs. His oldest brother, Charlie, who was sitting on a bench outside the drugstore, had taught him the drag bunt when he was ten years old. He’d also taught him to switch-hit, steal bases, and foul off pitches that were close but not what he wanted. The middle brother, Red, had hit him a million ground balls and perfected his footwork at first base. Both brothers had taught him how to fight.
“Why’d he bunt?” someone in the crowd asked Charlie.
“To score the run and take the lead,” Charlie replied. Plain and simple.
The Cubs announcers, Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau, had been plowing through the record book during the game and were certain that they had their facts straight. Three home runs in the first game of a career was a first. Four consecutive hits in a first game tied a modern-day record, though some rookie had five hits back in 1894.
Chicago won 7–6, and by the time the game ended, virtually every Cubs fan was tuned in. History had been made, and they didn’t want to miss it. Lou Boudreau promised his listeners that he would soon have Joe wired up for a postgame interview.
The crowd in Calico Rock continued to grow, and the mood was rowdy, the pride palpable. A half hour after the game was over, Lou Boudreau’s voice came across the radio with “I’m in the visitors’ locker room with Joe Castle, who, as you might guess, is surrounded by reporters. Here he is.”
Sudden silence on Main Street in Calico Rock; no one moved or spoke.
“Joe, not a bad first game. What are you thinking right now?”
“Well, I would like to say hello to my family and friends back home in Calico Rock. I wish you could be here. I still can’t believe it.”
“Joe, what were you thinking when you stepped to the plate in the second inning?”
“I was thinking fastball and I was swinging at the first pitch. Got lucky, I guess.”
“No player has ever homered in his first three at bats. You’re in the record book.”
“I guess. I’m just happy to be here. This time last night I was playing in Midland, Texas. Still hard to believe.”
“Indeed it is. I gotta ask you—and I know you’ve already been hit with this—but what were you thinking in the ninth inning? You had a chance to hit four home runs in a game, yet you bunted.”
“I was thinking about one thing—getting Don home from third for the go-ahead run. I love playing baseball, but it’s no fun if you’re not winning.”
“Well, you got a nice little streak going here. Think you can keep it up tomorrow night?”
“I haven’t thought about tomorrow night. Don and some of the guys are taking me out for a steak, and I’m sure we’ll discuss it then.”
“Yes sir. Thank you.”
Few in Calico Rock went to bed before midnight.
* * *
As promised, my mother awakened me at 6:00 a.m. so I could watch the early morning New York news programs. I was hoping for a glimpse of Joe Castle. Channel 4 did a quick rundown on the National League games. The Mets had won in Atlanta to put them two games over .500. Then there was Joe Castle sprinting around the bases in Philadelphia, once, twice, three times. The drag bunt, though, got as much air-time as the three home runs. The guy could fly.
My mother brought in the New York Times from the driveway. On the front page of the sports section was a black-and-white photo of Joe Castle and a long story about his historic debut. I found the scissors, cut it out, and started a new scrapbook, one of many I meticulously maintained. When the Mets were in town and my father was home, I was forced to save the newspapers for a few days before clipping the baseball stories.
I loved it when the Mets were on the road. My father was gone, and our house was peaceful and pleasant. When he was around, though, the mood was far different. He was a self-absorbed, brooding man with seldom a kind word for any of us. He had never met his potential, and this was always the fault of someone else—the manager, his teammates, the owners, even the umpires. On the nights after he pitched, he often came home late and drunk, and that’s when the trouble started. I suspected, even at the age of eleven, that my parents would not stay together.
He rarely called home when the Mets were away. I often thought how wonderful it would be for my father to check in after a game and talk baseball with me. I watched or listened to every Mets game and had a dozen questions, but I guess he was too busy going out with the boys.
For me, baseball was a joy to play when my father wasn’t watching. Because of his schedule, he rarely had the chance to see my games, and that was an indescribable relief. When he was there, though, I had no desire to play. He would lecture me on the way to the park, snarl at me during the game, and, worst of all, berate me all the way home. He even slapped me once as soon as we were driving away from the field. From the age of seven, I cried after every game my father saw me play.