Friday, November 13, 2009

What else was Grisham wrong about?

While on vacation recently I read the first John Grisham book that I had picked up in more than 20 years.

The Innocent Man (2006), rather than being one of his crime/courtroom novels, was touted as the true story of a man wrongly sent to death row in Oklahoma.

I decided to give it a read when I found out that the principal character was a former minor league baseball player by the name of Ronald K. Williamson.

Williamson knocked around the A's farm system 1972-73, then after a couple of years off, was given a shot by the Yankees with Oneonta.

According to both the SABR Minor League database and the Baseball Guides for the appropriate years, Williamson started pro ball with the Koos Bay-North Bend A's short-season A team in 1972 after being drafted by Oakland as a catcher. He ended the '72 season with Brulington in the Midwest League and opened the 1973 season there. He was cut after five games and finished the season in the Florida State League with the independent Key West Conchs.

Williamson was out of OB in 1974-1975, drinking, doing drugs and committing petty crimes.

The Yankees gave his another shot in pro ball in 1976, signing him as a pitcher and assigning him to Oneonta in the New York-Pennsylvania League. He pitched eight innings in five games, giving up 12 earned runs (13.50 ERA) and walking 15. According to the "official" sources, that was the end of Williamson's professional baseball career.

However, according to Grisham's supposedly factual account, Williamson pitched for the 1977 Ft. Lauderdale Yankees of the Florida State League. The photo section of the book even shows a picture it says is the cover of a team program with Williamson and three others in a posed photo. Grisham even quotes such statistics that say Williamson pitched 31 innings in 14 games with a 2-4 record. However, there is nothing in the SABR records or the 1978 Guide to support that.

Since Grisham never met Williamson and didn't publish his book until 2006, two years after Williamson's liver did him in, it's possible the author took the word of a mis-remembering relative for the 1977 discrepancy.

While such a glaring factual faux pas gives one pause to wonder what else Grisham may have gotten wrong in this supposedly factual account, the book is worth reading. Former minor leaguer Ron Williamson was a bad-ass, but not of sufficient depravity to have warranted the downright abuse of the legal system that put him on death row, evem in those days when forensic criminal science was in its infancy.

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