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 big-league baseball game. Salinger had gained fame with the book Catcher in the Rye and other stories but had published nothing new for twenty years, apparently suffering from the pain of writer’s block. Ray had read a memorable baseball story by Salinger and hoped to “ease his pain,” namely to bring back his enthusiasm for writing, by taking him to a ballgame. This far-fetched mixture of fact and fiction is just barely plausible because of the love for baseball shared by the two men.
Ray finds Salinger living as a recluse in rural Vermont and virtually has to kidnap him to go to a Red Sox baseball game in Boston. At the game, the scoreboard suddenly displays a message seen only by the two men. It shows the major-league record of a player named Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who had played in only one major-league game back in 1905, for one inning, without ever coming up to bat, making no outs or errors. (This information can be verified in the 1990 edition of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia.) Graham must have had the shortest major-league career of all time, and one suspects that there is a story behind it. In any case, Salinger and Ray make a trip to Chisholm, Minnesota, where Graham had died in 1955.
Upon arriving in Chisholm, the two men try to find out as much as they can about Archibald Graham. After his disappointing one inning in the majors, he had gone to medical school and become a small-town doctor. Old newspaper articles and interviews with senior citizens who knew Graham provide a portrait of a beloved town benefactor. One foggy evening, Ray goes for a walk and meets a reincarnation of Dr. Graham, who shares baseball anecdotes with him. The fantasy continues on the next day when Salinger and Ray pick up a youthful hitchhiker named Archibald Graham, whose goal is to become a professional ballplayer.
Ray invites Salinger and young Graham to his home in Iowa to see the ballfield he has built on his farm. Meanwhile, Ray’s brother-in-law has been trying to foreclose on...
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