(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Shoeless Joe is a baseball story with a large admixture of fantasy. “Shoeless” was the nickname of Joe Jackson, a player on the infamous Chicago White Sox team of 1919 that lost the World Series in the biggest scandal in the history of professional baseball. Eight players, including Jackson, admitted to taking bribes from gamblers who paid them to lose the series. They were suspended for life from organized baseball.

Sixty years later, an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella, while sitting on his front porch, hears a baseball announcer’s voice that tells him to “build it” and “he will come.” What is “it,” and who will come? Ray had grown up hearing baseball stories from his father, including how Joe Jackson was punished unfairly because he tried to give back the bribe he had taken and had played his best to win, leading both teams in hitting. Ray instinctively senses how to interpret the mysterious message: He is to build a baseball field, and then the legendary Jackson will come to play on it. He pursues this wild dream by plowing up some of his farm, seeding it with grass, laying out the infield and outfield, and putting up bleachers for spectators. Then he waits, and waits some more, and hopes. Eventually, the incarnation of Jackson as a young man in a baseball uniform appears on the field, soon to be joined by the other players from the 1919 White Sox team. Ray, his wife, and daughter sit in the bleachers to watch the games and eat hot dogs. Outsiders who are unbelievers, like his brother-in-law Mark, only see an empty field without any players and think that Ray may be going crazy.

A second adventure begins for Ray when he hears the voice again: “Ease his pain.” How should he interpret this mysterious message? Again his instinct tells him what to do: he is to locate J. D. Salinger, a well-known author of the 1950’s, and take him to a...

(The entire section is 775 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Young Ray Kinsella gains a lifelong love for baseball from tales told by his father, including the story of disgraced former star “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Ray leaves his native Montana to attend college in Iowa. One day, he overhears the daughter of his landlady vow that she will marry him when she grows up. Years later, that vow comes to pass. Suddenly a husband to Annie and a father to Karin, Ray begins selling life insurance, a job he detests. When local former ballplayer Eddie Scissons grows too elderly to maintain his farm, Annie talks Ray into buying it. Ray knows little about farming, but he is able to keep the farm afloat.

One evening, while sitting on his front porch, Ray hears a disembodied voice say, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray somehow understands from this terse message that he is to plow away several acres of corn and build a baseball field, complete with outfield fences and lights. He also knows that, once complete, his field will be visited by the specter of Shoeless Joe. With Annie’s blessing, Ray complies. It takes three seasons, but, finally, Annie spots a man dressed in old-fashioned baseball flannels standing in the outfield. It is indeed Shoeless Joe. He and several phantom teammates materialize regularly and play baseball on Ray’s field. After each game, they vanish into the corn beyond the left-field fence.

Ray believes that he has accomplished his mission, until the voice revisits him and implores, “Ease his pain.” Again, despite the brevity of the message, Ray perceives a full set of instructions. He is to travel to Windsor, Vermont, to the home of reclusive writer J. D. Salinger and take Salinger to a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston. Ray sets out for Windsor and encounters the famous author in his Vermont driveway. Ray entreats Salinger to join him. Fearful of unduly agitating this strange visitor, Salinger accedes. On the way, Ray details the story of his magical baseball field in Iowa. Salinger does not understand, but he envies Ray’s passion, and he relaxes enough to allow Ray to call him “Jerry.”

At the game, Ray again hears the voice, urging him to “go the distance.” Ray senses yet a third set of instructions: He must travel to Chisholm, Minnesota, and inquire after Archie “Moonlight” Graham, a ballplayer who appeared in a single game around the turn of the twentieth century but never got a turn at bat. To punctuate this directive, Graham’s meager statistics appear on the Fenway Park scoreboard. Plainly, no one else in the crowd hears the voice or sees the...

(The entire section is 1050 words.)