Read Calico Joe Page 2


  Sara and I met during our sophomore years at the University of Oklahoma. We married a month after we graduated. Warren was invited to both the commencement exercises and the wedding but failed to show. This surprised no one.

  We have three beautiful daughters and live in Santa Fe, where I write software for an aerospace firm. Sara was an interior designer until the girls came along and she decided to become a full-time mother. Not surprisingly, I was thrilled with each birth, each healthy baby, and not the least disappointed in the gender God selected for us. I did not want a boy, because I did not want to see him pick up a baseball and start tossing it around. Most of my friends have a boy or two, and they have all coached the game at some level. I am sure I would have felt the temptation to do likewise with a boy, so I am relieved to have all girls.

  I quit the game when I was eleven years old and haven’t watched an inning in thirty years.

  My employer is one of those progressive companies with all manner of benefits and flexible work rules. I could practically work from home, but I enjoy the office, my colleagues, even my bosses. It’s exciting to watch the technology spring to life, evolve, and eventually hit the market.

  I explain to my boss that I need a few days off for a quick trip unrelated to my job. He says fine. I tell Sara my plans, and she understands completely. She knows the history, and I guess we both have known this trip would one day become inevitable.

  I drive to the airport in Santa Fe and buy a one-way ticket to Memphis.

  * * *

  When Warren was thirty-five years old, he managed to persuade an old friend in the Orioles organization to give him one final tryout in spring training. He could still throw hard, but he had no control; plus, his name was toxic, and no other team would touch him. He bombed in his first appearance and was cut the next day. He called home and informed my mother he planned to stay in Florida, where, supposedly, some minor-league team wanted him as a pitching coach. This was not true and I knew it. I was twelve by then and well aware that my father was a habitual liar. A few months later she filed for divorce, and when the school year ended, we moved to Hagerstown, Maryland, to live with her parents.

  Warren Tracey retired from the game with a record of sixty-four wins and eighty-four losses, a career earned run average of 5.85. In sixteen seasons, he played for the Pirates, Giants, Indians, Royals, Astros, and Mets, and spent more time in the minors than in the majors. His three-year stint with the Mets was his longest stay anywhere, and they sent him down to AAA at least four times. He struck out 430 batters and walked 416. His name is in the record book only because he led the league in hit batsmen in 1972. He was never happy anywhere, and when he wasn’t being traded, he was demanding to be traded. Not a particularly stellar career, but baseball fans know that only one player out of ten who signs a minor-league contract makes it to the Bigs for a single game. When I was very young and still impressionable, I was proud of the fact that my father was a major leaguer. No other kid on my street could make that claim. As I grew older, though, I often wished I had a normal dad, one who enjoyed having a catch in the backyard and coaching his son.

  When he was with the Mets, he left for spring training each year in early January, long before he was supposed to report. He used various excuses for this, but the reality was that he wanted to get away from home, to play golf every day, to work on his tan, and to drink and catch up with old girlfriends. Jill and I didn’t care which excuse he used. We were relieved to have him back on the road.

  After the year in Hagerstown, my mother informed us that he had remarried down in Florida. Jill and I thought this was terrible news because he and his new wife might decide to start a family.

  * * *

  On the leg from Dallas to Memphis, I open my old scrapbook on Joe Castle. It is filled with newspaper clippings, magazine articles, the August 6 edition of Sports Illustrated, with Joe on the cover, and the item I had treasured most during that remarkable summer of 1973, an eight-by-ten black-and-white photo of his youthful, smiling face. Across the bottom he had printed neatly, “To Paul Tracey, with best wishes,” then scribbled his autograph. I had a whole collection of these when I was a boy. My buddies and I wrote letters to hundreds of professional players, asking for autographed photos. Occasionally one responded, and to get a photo in the mail was a reason to strut. My father got a few of these letters but was too important to grant a favor. He constantly griped about the fans who wanted autographs.

  I hid my scrapbooks from my father. In his twisted opinion, he was the only player worthy of my adulation.

  After I quit the game, my mother secretly stored my memorabilia in the attic. She gave it back—two cardboard boxes full—after I got married. At first I wanted to burn it, but Sara intervened, and it survives until this day.

  I have never been in Memphis in August, and when I step out of the airport terminal, I have trouble breathing. The air is hot and sticky, and my shirt is wet within minutes. I ride a shuttle to Avis, get my rental car, crank up the AC, and head west, across the Mississippi River, into the flat farmlands of the Arkansas delta.

  Calico Rock is four hours away.


  On Friday, July 13, 1973, the front page of the sports section of the Chicago Tribune ran the bold headline “Four for Four.” There was a large black-and-white photo of Joe Castle, and three different stories about his historic first game. The entire city was buzzing about “the kid.” For a tribe hardened by years of frustration, Cubs fans had a rare moment to gloat.

  Joe slept late in his hotel room, called his parents collect and talked for an hour with them and his brothers, then had a long, late breakfast with Don Kessinger and Rick Monday. He killed some more time by calling his teammates in Midland. Reporters were looking for him, but he was already tired of their attention. At 4:00 p.m., he stepped onto the team bus for the quick ride back to Veterans Stadium. In the locker room, Whitey Lockman walked over and said, “You’re batting third tonight, kid, don’t screw it up.” Two hours before game time, Joe walked onto the field, stretched and warmed up, then took one hundred ground balls at first base. It seemed as though time had stopped. He couldn’t wait for game time.

  When he stepped to the plate with two outs in the top of the first, there were forty-five thousand Phillies fans in the stadium. There were also millions of Cubs fans glued to TVs and radios. With the count at two balls, he ripped a double into the right field corner. Five for five. In the top of the third, with the bases loaded, he singled to right and drove in two. Six for six. In the fifth, with the bases empty, two outs, and the infield back, and from the right side, he pushed a bunt toward third. When Mike Schmidt picked it up bare-handed, Joe was flying past first base, and there was no throw. Seven for seven. In the seventh inning, he bounced a fastball off the top of the scoreboard in left center field, and as he rounded the bases, at a somewhat slower pace, the Phillies fans offered subdued but prolonged applause.

  Eight for eight.

  With two outs in the top of the ninth, and the Cubs leading 12–2 in a blowout, Joe dug in from the left side. He had two singles, a double, and a home run, and many in the crowd and legions of those watching and listening were praying for a triple. Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau were openly begging for one on the radio. Hitting for the cycle—single, double, triple, home run—was a rare event in baseball. It happened, on average, three times each season, and since Joe seemed intent on crushing all records, why not hit for the cycle? Instead, he fouled off ten straight pitches, worked the count full, then hit one of the longest home runs in the history of Veterans Stadium. As he rounded third, Mike Schmidt said, “Not a bad game, kid.”

  Nine for nine, with five home runs.

  Unbridled mania swept the streets of the North Side of Chicago.

  * * *

  After the Scrappers game, our last of the regular season, the team met for a party in Tom Sabbatini’s backyard. Mr. Sabbatini had the grill going—hot dogs and cheeseburgers—and most of
the parents were there, including my mother. My father was pitching that night in Atlanta, but we were not interested in that game. Instead, Mr. Sabbatini rigged up an impressive radio, and we listened to WCAU out of Philadelphia. It was not unusual in those days to scan the dial with a small transistor radio and pick up games from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, even Montreal and Baltimore. I often spent hours in my room at night keeping track of several games.

  Each time Joe Castle stepped to the plate, the party came to a halt as we crowded closer to the radio. Harry Kalas was the Phillies announcer, and his voice grew more excited as the game went on, even though his team was getting drubbed. With each of Joe’s hits, and especially with the two home runs, we yelled and jumped around as if we were lifelong Cubs fans. At one point, Harry said, “I suspect there are a lot of Cubs fans out there tonight, especially in the little town of Calico Rock, Arkansas.”

  When Joe came up in the ninth, we were so nervous we were bouncing on our tiptoes. After each foul ball, we took a deep breath, then leaned in closer to the radio. Harry said, “Two strikes on Castle.” We heard the crack of the bat, and Harry, in his patented home-run call, described what was happening: “The pitch … there’s a drive … this ball is … outta here! In the upper deck … Mike Schmidt territory … Greg Luzinski territory. Five for five … Nine for nine. Unbelievable, baseball fans, simply unbelievable.”

  History was happening, and though we were only eleven years old and far away from the game, we felt as if we were a part of it. We had already checked the schedule and knew that it would be late August before the Cubs arrived at Shea Stadium. My buddies were already dropping hints about needing tickets.

  After three games in Philadelphia, and ten for the road trip, the Cubs were going home. As Harry Kalas signed off, he said, “I cannot imagine the reception Joe Castle will get tomorrow afternoon at Wrigley Field. I wouldn’t mind being there myself.”

  * * *

  The Cubs left Philadelphia at midnight and arrived two hours later at O’Hare. As the team boarded a bus to leave the airport, Joe Castle got his first taste of fame. Several dozen Cubs fans were waiting behind a chain-link fence for a glimpse of their new star. He walked over, shook a few hands, thanked them for coming out at such an hour, then hustled back to the bus, where his teammates were waiting, eager to leave but also enjoying the moment. The front office arranged a hotel room under an alias, and Joe finally fell asleep at 3:00 a.m.

  Not long afterward, his parents and two brothers left Calico Rock for the long drive to Chicago. The Cubs played the Giants at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, and only a sudden death would keep them away from Wrigley.

  * * *

  Cable television was still a few years in the future, and the only games televised nationally were the World Series, the All-Star Game, and the NBC Game of the Week on Saturday afternoon with Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek. The July 14 game was scheduled to be televised from Tiger Stadium in Detroit, where the A’s were in town. At dawn, NBC, along with the rest of the baseball world, awakened to the irresistible story of Joe Castle and his stunning debut in Philadelphia. Suddenly the biggest game of the day was the Cubs versus the Giants; indeed, no other game was even close. Every baseball fan in America would be itching for news out of Wrigley.

  It was raining in Detroit, not a heavy rain, but moisture nonetheless, and at dawn NBC made the controversial and long-remembered decision to move the Game of the Week to Chicago. The Tigers and the A’s squawked for a few weeks afterward, but no one listened. Joe Castle owned major-league baseball in July 1973, and NBC never regretted its decision. The gamble paid off; it was to be another historic game.

  Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek were roused from their sleep in Detroit and put on a plane to Chicago, where NBC was scrambling to piece together a production crew and get enough cameras wired up at Wrigley. The network was also praying for clear skies. By mid-morning, the weather was better in Detroit than in Chicago; indeed, when the Tigers game started at 2:00 p.m., there was not a cloud to be seen anywhere. Gowdy and Kubek would later admit that they were thrilled at the change of venue because of the excitement at Wrigley Field.

  In 1957, Kubek, the Yankees longtime shortstop, played against one Walt Dropo, better known as Moose because he was six feet five and weighed 220 pounds. In 1950, Dropo was the American League Rookie of the Year, but injuries soon derailed a promising career. Over the next eleven seasons, Moose Dropo played for several American League teams and hit .270 with 152 home runs, respectable numbers but not the kind to be remembered. However, in July 1952, while playing for Detroit against the Yankees, he hit safely in twelve consecutive at bats, without a walk. It was an astonishing feat, a record regarded by many experts as unbreakable.

  Suddenly Moose Dropo’s forgotten career was attracting attention. The Saturday edition of the Chicago Sun-Times ran an old photo of Dropo alongside a new one of Joe Castle, and beneath them was the question in bold print: “Twelve In A Row?” The Tribune sports page blared: “Nine for Nine!”

  Wrigley Field was built in 1914, and various expansions over the decades brought its capacity to 41,000. The previous season, 1972, the Cubs averaged 16,600 fans for each home game. Until the arrival of Joe Castle, the 1973 Cubs were averaging 16,800. By 10:00 a.m. Saturday, crowds were gathering around the ticket booths at Wrigley. Long lines were forming along Addison Street. Parties were under way on the rooftops beyond left field. Wrigleyville was alive, and as the morning dragged on, it began to rock. Everyone was desperately looking for a ticket.

  A Cubs equipment manager fetched Joe from his hotel and sneaked him into an unnoticed maintenance door under the right field bleachers. When Joe took his first step onto the turf at Wrigley, it was just after 11:00 a.m. He had slept less than three hours because sleep was all but impossible. The gates had been opened, and the stands were filling quickly. No one recognized him in his street clothes. Near the home dugout, he introduced himself to several of the groundskeepers and politely said no to a reporter. In the Cubs dressing room, he admired his new locker as he changed into his uniform. A light lunch was served, and Joe was eating a sandwich with Don Kessinger when a trainer said, “Hey, Joe, your parents are here.”

  In a narrow hallway outside the locker room, Joe hugged his mother and embraced his father and brothers, Red and Charlie. All five were in various stages of disbelief, with Joe perhaps being the most composed. “It’s just baseball,” he said. “They’ll get me out eventually.”

  Not surprisingly, Red had some advice. “Keep swinging. If it’s close, don’t take a chance.”

  Charlie added, “You’re gonna see breakin’ stuff. No more fastballs. Stay back.”

  “Right, right,” Joe said, laughing, then took his family inside the locker room for a quick tour. They were overwhelmed, sleepwalking through an adventure they had dreamed about for years.

  * * *

  The Giants came into Wrigley five games behind the Dodgers in the West. Willie Mays was gone; in fact, he was idling away his waning days with the Mets. But the Giants still had Willie McCovey and Bobby Bonds, and their record was slightly better than the Cubs’ on July 14. Their starter was Ray Hiller, a left-hander with six wins and seven losses.

  There were at least forty-one thousand rowdy Cubs fans packed into Wrigley at 2:00 p.m. Countless others watched from the rooftops beyond the left field wall. When Joe Castle’s name was called in the bottom of the first, a deafening ovation shook the old place and buried the voices of Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek.

  Hiller was a junk dealer whose fastball rarely topped eighty. He lobbed up a couple of harmless curveballs, and Joe resisted the urge to flail away. His third pitch was some knuckle-curve combo that fluttered high and outside, and with the count 3 and 0, Joe got the signal to hit away. Hiller came in with a slider that didn’t move much, and Joe swung with a vengeance. The ball lifted high and lazy at first, then it seemed to gain speed. Soon, there was no doubt it was gone; the question was, where would it land? Gary Matthews, the left field
er, took two steps back, then stopped, turned around, put his hands on his hips, and watched to see where it was going. The ball eventually bounced off the fifth-floor facade of a building, some 470 feet from home plate. Perhaps he was fatigued from all the home-run trots, or maybe he was learning to savor the moment, but whatever the reason, Joe rounded the bases at a slower pace, but not slow enough to aggravate the pitcher. “Never show up the pitcher,” Red and Charlie had drilled into him since the age of ten.

  Wrigley Field had never been louder. The standing ovation roared until Joe took a step out of the dugout, tipped his cap, and acknowledged the adoring crowd. Then he blew a kiss at his mother, who was in the owner’s seats in the second row.

  Ten for ten, with six home runs.

  Joe led off in the bottom of the third with the score tied 1–1. On the first pitch, he faked a bunt, and the entire Giant infield reacted in spasms. Ed Goodson at third and Chris Speier at short were on their heels before the pitch, expecting a line shot from an astonishingly quick bat. They eventually shot forward. Tito Fuentes did the same, while McCovey stutter-stepped around first base. After Hiller recovered from the pitch, he bolted upright, as if terrified of a bunt. Evidently, the Giants scouts had been alerted to Joe’s bunting skills. Ball one. Hiller kept his fastball off the center of the plate, opting instead to pick at the corners and hope for the best. His second pitch was a fastball, five inches outside. Joe waited and waited, then went with the pitch and slapped it to right field for a single.

  Eleven for eleven.

  It may have been the thrill of watching history in the making, or it could have been the clearing skies and sunshine and cold beer, or perhaps even the excitement that a full house always provided, or probably all of the above, but the atmosphere at Wrigley was electric. By now, Joe was receiving a standing ovation when he stepped into the on-deck circle, another when he stepped to the plate, and of course an even rowdier one with each hit.

  He tipped his cap and helmet to the crowd, then took a lead off first.

  His twelfth at bat came in the bottom of the sixth with the Cubs up 3–2. When the forty-one thousand faithful stood to applaud, they remained standing. On television, Curt Gowdy admitted to having a knot in his stomach. On the radio, Vince Lloyd described it as the most dramatic moment he could remember. Lou Boudreau went silent.

  Hiller had abandoned his fastball altogether and was surviving on long, looping curves, changeups, and a nasty combo of a slider and curve known as a slurve. Joe fouled off the first two pitches, both balls, and cursed himself for swinging at bad pitches. He shortened his stance, choked up, and took a ball high. The fourth pitch was a slow, dropping curve, a pitch that might cross the plate at the knees or six inches lower, and Joe took no chances. He chopped down on the pitch, and it slammed hard into home plate—a fair ball. It ricocheted high into the air toward third, where Goodson charged and waited, and waited. When he finally caught the ball, Joe was past first base for his twelfth consecutive hit. Move over Moose Dropo.

  Again, he tipped his hat to the screaming crowd. Willie McCovey, a fierce competitor, tapped him on the rear with his glove and said, “Congratulations, kid.” Joe could only smile and nod. He was dreaming and in another world. Not too many years earlier, his baseball card collection included a double “All-Star” selection featuring both Willie McCovey and Willie Mays.

  In the top of the eighth, McCovey hit a two-run bomb that sailed over the right field bleachers and was probably never found. The Giants led 5–3 when the Cubs came to bat in the bottom of the inning.

  The score was one thing, but the majority of the fans were not there just to watch a ball game. It was a rare moment to celebrate. Their beloved Cubs had not won a World Series since 1908. There had been some memorable moments—the 1945 team lost the Series in seven games to Detroit—though this had been during the “war years,” when the good players were serving in the armed forces. There had been a few Hall of Famers—Hack Wilson in the 1920s and Ernie Banks in the 1950s and 1960s. Generally speaking, though, Cubs fans were accustomed to disappointment. They were fiercely loyal, but also desperate for a team or a player that was better than the rest.

  Joe’s thirteenth at bat had enough pressure because of the first twelve hits, but add a runner at each base, two outs, and two runs down, and the tension on the field was suffocating. The crowd was standing, yelling, some were even praying. Hiller was gone, replaced by a right-hander named Bobby Lund, a veteran reliever who threw exceptionally hard. Joe would later admit that he preferred to hit from the left side because he could pick up the fastballs a bit quicker. He was always content to foul off pitches and work the count full, but in this, his thirteenth and possibly most important at bat in whatever career he might eventually have, he decided to be impatient. He took the first pitch, a high fastball, and after one look at Lund’s delivery, he was ready. The second pitch was another fastball, maybe an inch outside, but close enough to rip. Joe hit a scorcher to right center, a bullet that Tito Fuentes at second actually leaped for and missed badly. The ball stayed ten feet off the ground until it crashed into the ivy, where Bobby Bonds played it on one hop and fired home. With two outs, the runners were off with contact, and Joe’s double cleared the bases.

  When he slid unchallenged into second base, he owned the record, the one that had been labeled “unbreakable.” Standing on second, he put his hands on his knees and stared at the dirt and for a few seconds tried to believe and savor the moment. The stadium was manic; the noise was earsplitting.

  The Giants catcher, Dave Rader, had the ball and, when the dust settled, called time. Slowly, he walked past the mound to second base, where he ceremoniously handed it to Joe Castle. The crowd roared even louder with this memorable act of sportsmanship.

  Joe removed his helmet and acknowledged the adulation. The umpires were in no hurry to resume play. They were witnessing history, and the game is played without a clock. Finally, Joe walked to the seats beside the Cubs dugout and tossed the ball to his father. Then he went back to second base and put on his helmet. He looked deep into center field and quickly wiped a tear from his cheek. A camera caught it, and Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek made sure the world saw that Joe Castle, standing alone on second base and alone in the record book, now a legend, was human enough to show emotion.


  After an hour on the flat, two-lane highways of northeastern Arkansas, I realize I am quite hungry. Outside the town of Parkin, I pull in to the gravel lot of a barbecue shack and hope for the best. To avoid potential conversation, I take a portion of my scrapbook to read during lunch. Over a pulled pork sandwich and a root beer, I flip through pages of press clippings I have not seen in decades.

  As soon as Joe arrived in the majors, I began visiting the library in White Plains to collect stories from the Chicago newspapers. Using a massive Xerox machine near the periodicals section, I made copies at five cents each. The July 15 Sunday editions of both the Sun-Times and the Tribune were packed with stories and photos of Saturday’s historic game. Joe was interviewed at length about the game, and it was obvious he was thoroughly enjoying the moment. Among many memorable quotes, he said such things as:

  “Well, if they keep me in the lineup, I’ll probably hit .750 for the season.”

  And, “Oh, sure, we have seventy-four games left. One home run per game is not out of the question.”