Baseball fans are dreamers. Not baseball players, mind. I’ve known a few of them, and while they’re superstitious as the day is long, they are at their core a fairly practical species. No, I’m talking about us baseball fans. The rhythm of a baseball game, either on television or sitting at the ballpark in the hot July sun on a Sunday afternoon, beer in hand, allows a lot of time for contemplation. Baseball, with an unbroken history longer than any other sport in America, is layered with traditions and collective wisdom bordering on mysticism. A dreamer’s fertile field.
Shoeless Joe is a novel for dreamers.
It is the story of one such, an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella, who was later portrayed by Kevin Costner in 1989’s Field of Dreams (though Costner, as usual, played Kevin Costner in the film). The very first page gives us the now-famous whisper: if you build it, he will come. Yet, surprisingly little is made of this revelation for its own sake—Ray never really questions the lunacy of hearing voices, and what’s more, he knows precisely what the voice is referring to. He must build a ballpark on his farm, so that "Shoeless" Joe Jackson will once again be allowed to play his famously graceful left field (the place "where triples go to die"). Luckily, Ray is blessed with the most understanding wife in the history of ever, and a young daughter who is just as much of a dreamer as he. As he gradually builds his small shrine to America’s pastime (neglecting the functional part of the farm in the process), the voice continues to instruct him.
Without giving too much away (and there can’t be that much in a book that’s been in print for nearly 35 years), the voice eventually leads Ray on a journey across half the country, through the depressed late-70’s rust belt of formerly gilded baseball towns. He is joined along the way by an unlikely duo—the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger (not entirely by choice), and the major league ballplayer with the shortest stat line in history, Moonlight Graham. Their mission is unclear even to them, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The story is not so much about what happens to Ray. Instead it becomes a guide to life through the generation-bridging ideals of baseball. See, dreamers tend to have a hard time dealing with the challenges that real life and all its cynical tarnish can present to them. Baseball offers a sense of control over the chaos. The book is filled with soliloquies about finding serenity amid insanity, the value of hard work, even at a profession that was not your first choice, and the arcane (but institutionally ironclad) rules of the game that can be applied to everyday existence.
Still, the book is not without its faults. The monologues that make it so powerful can at times begin to feel pretty saccharine. And I’m put at a disadvantage reading it after I know the rough outline of the story from the movie (and the many references and parodies made since), so that the impact of some of the great revelations are lessened somewhat. But I’m certainly not alone in that.
I would admit to nearly shedding a tear at some of Shoeless Joe's more emotion-laden stories of the Black Sox, the reasons writers write, and the oldest living Chicago Cub. But in the immortal words of Jimmy Dugan: There’s no crying in baseball.