John Grisham has written over 20 novels, but Calico Joe is his first about baseball. (Photo Courtesy of Doubleday)

John Grisham has written more than 20 novels, but Calico Joe is his first about baseball. (Photo courtesy of Doubleday)

The United States has been described by some as an overly litigious society. Considering John Grisham’s vast success writing novels about Firms, Pelican Briefs, and Runaway Juries, maybe they’re right.

In his new novel, Calico Joe, Grisham sets aside courtroom drama to focus an another American pastime: baseball. Grisham join Only A Game from NPR’s New York Bureau.

The book’s main character, “Calico” Joe Castle, jumps into the big leagues with improbable, perhaps even unrealistic, success during his rookie season. Grisham told Bill Littlefield he felt Castle’s extraordinary start was an important part of engaging the reader.

“You want to read about somebody exceptional,” he said. “You want to get the reader’s attention. You want to tell a story that’s never been told, and to do that, you have to jazz it up a bit. Baseball is a game of endless statistics, and it was great fun messing around with some of those numbers.”

 Calico Joe isn’t the first baseball book to feature a superstar rookie slugger, a complicated father-son relationship, and a wise newspaper man, but Grisham said he doesn’t worry about covering old ground.

“I don’t think about cliches,” he said, “I think about the story, I think about the characters. I want to tell the story, live the story. I’m not here to deliver messages or sermons or give morality tales, I’m here to tell stories.”

“Calico” Joe Castle grew up in a small town in Arkansas before bursting onto the Major League scene, and Grisham drew upon his own childhood memories of playing baseball in the rural South.

“I played baseball from the time that I can remember as a little boy, through little league, through high school,” he said. “Like all the kids on my street, we were going to play for the Cardinals. We all dreamed of being big league players.

“Growing up in Arkansas and Mississippi, every small town, every porch, every car, every kitchen had a radio. If the Cardinals were playing, everybody knew the score. I can vividly recall playing Little League baseball [on] hot summer nights in Mississippi, and being able to hear three or four radios scattered around the bleachers. You would hear people start clapping or yelling or cheering, not for us on the field, but because the Cardinals had scored.”

Bill’s thoughts on Calico Joe:

At one point in our conversation this week about his most recent novel, John Grisham said he’d known that he wanted to write a young readers’ novel and an adult novel set in baseball, but he hadn’t known until he wrote Calico Joe that the two would end up being the same book.

Does Calico Joe succeed in being both things? Maybe so. For young readers, there’s the gloriously improbable hero, who hits home runs in each of his first three Major League at-bats and sports a batting average of .725 through 11 games. Obviously ‘Calico’ Joe Castle’s stats will only be taken seriously by readers who are very young, indeed.

But the fellow telling the story, Paul Tracey, is dealing with the slow and painful death of his father, a selfish, dishonorable skunk of a sadist whom Paul has hated and avoided for decades. This would seem to establish a conflict better suited for readers who’ve finished eighth grade, if not high school.

Grisham’s passion for baseball is authentic and apparent. When we spoke, he recalled in detail boyhood nights listening to Cardinals games on the porch and the dreams he and his friends shared of playing in St. Louis. In an author’s note he references conversations with ex-Cub shortstop Don Kessinger and retired manager Tony La Russa about the baseball “code” (Grisham’s quotation marks), which requires players to protect their teammates and retaliate for trespasses against them.

Still, some of the baseball elements of Calico Joe struck me as carelessly executed, or perhaps insufficiently edited. Grisham writes of a foul ball ripped down the right field line: If it had hit first base coach Ernie Banks, “he would have been seriously maimed.”

Has anyone ever been UNseriously maimed?

At another point Joe Castle himself bounces up “after a leisurely slide into second.” Does anybody execute a “leisurely slide” at any level higher than Pony League?

John Grisham is identified on the back of the book as “America’s favorite storyteller,” and he probably has as good a claim to that distinction as any writer. The Firm, A Time to Kill, The Pelican Brief, and a score of other novels have entertained a great many people, and lots of his books have made it to the big screen. There’s interest along that line in Calico Joe, too.

I wonder if the three home runs in Castle’s first three at-bats will seem extreme, even to Hollywood?