This information might come as a bit of a shock, but … do you know the movie “Field of Dreams”? The one where the Iowa farmer builds a baseball field on his property and a bunch of ball players come back from the dead to play on?
It is actually a work of fiction!
But that does not mean that the film doesn’t contain real elements from our national pastime. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was the namesake of the book that inspired the film, and he and many other early 20th century baseball characters play a role in the story of Ray Kinsella’s (Kevin Costner’s) passion project.
Here’s a look at the real-life ball players and events depicted in the famous movie.
The 1919 Black Sox scandal had unusual box office relevance in the late 1980s. Just seven months before the April 1989 release of Field of Dreams, Hollywood dramatized the story of the Black Sox with the September 1988 release of Eight Men Out, based on Eliot Asinof’s book of the same name.
At a time long before the free agency and gaudy player deals we see today, eight members of the 1919 White Sox – “Shoeless” Joe, Eddie Cicotte, Chick Gandil, Oscar Felsch, Fred McMullin, Swede Risberg, and Buck Weaver Claude Williams – were accused of arranging games in the World Series against the Reds in exchange for money from a gambling syndicate run by Arnold Rothstein.
At what level some of the eight – especially Jackson – actively tried to lose the series to the Reds is controversial. But Williams lost three games in the best-of-nine, and there were several suspicious games that were later questioned. The eight players and five players were implicated in grand jury indictments. But at the July 1921 trial, a jury found the accused players not guilty on all counts.
Still, the Black Sox scandal rocked the baseball world, and the team owners were desperate to repair the image of the sport in the public eye. Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed commissioner and put all eight players on the ineligible list and suspended them indefinitely.
And so, “Shoeless” Joe and the rest of the Eight Men Out stayed – frozen in baseball times. That is, until Kinsella came over and brought her back.
(Unfortunately, because actor Ray Liotta struggled to hit left and throw right, a la Jackson, “shoeless” Joe is portrayed as batting and throwing from the other side. Joe!)
Nobody embodies an unfulfilled dream like Archibald Wright Graham. Graham is from Fayetteville, NC and played in the minor leagues for seven seasons before his contract was bought by the New York Giants in 1905. He rode the Pine for five weeks before making his debut on June 29, playing the right field in a lopsided, 11-1 road win over the Brooklyn Superbas in the last two innings.
Graham was supposed to hit next when the final was scored in the top of the ninth and he didn’t hit the ball in the bottom of the ninth. Soon after, he was demoted to the minor leagues never to appear in a big league ball game again. He retired in 1908 and eventually became the chief medical officer of the Chisholm, Minnesota public schools before his death in 1965.
Doc Graham’s baseball story would be just a footnote if the author WP Kinsella hadn’t stumbled upon his brief entry in the Baseball Encyclopedia while writing the novel Shoeless Joe, which inspired Field of Dreams.
“I found this entry for ‘Moonlight’ Graham,” Kinsella told the Associated Press years later. “How could anyone come up with that nickname? He was playing a game but couldn’t beat. I was fascinated and made a note to myself that I wanted to write something about him. “
And so came the scene where Graham’s stats flashed on the Fenway Park scoreboard. In the film, Kinsella meets an older Graham, played by Burt Lancaster, and then takes a young hitchhiking Graham, played by Frank Whaley, with her. On Kinsella’s magical field, it is finally “Moonlight” Graham’s turn to beat. Interestingly, however, he hits a prey fly … that doesn’t qualify as an actual at-bat!
(By the way, we still don’t know why Graham was known as “Moonlight.” But as writer Kinsella put it, it’s a hell of a nickname.)
“If you build it, he’ll come” is the film’s famous phrase, referring to the main character’s late father, John. But Ray’s dad, the Eight Men Out, and Graham are nowhere near the only ones arriving. Several other ghosts from the baseball past emerged from the cornfield to get dressed again.
As Graham makes his long-awaited return to the greats, he identifies three players on the field – “Smoky” Joe Wood (a pitcher for Boston and Cleveland from 1908-20), Mel Ott (a Hall of Famer for the Giants from 1926- 47) and Gil Hodges (an eight-time all-star for the Dodgers, whose career spanned 1943-63).
It’s not entirely clear who the other ghost players are. Look closely and you’ll find a selection of woolen uniforms – a Cincinnati Red here, a few New York Yankees there, and a few members of the Philadelphia A’s and the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals. There are many theories on the internet (because there are always many theories on the internet) as to who these players might be. Maybe that’s Babe Ruth in the Yankee pinstripes and Rogers Hornsby in the Cardinals hat. We’ll never really know.
But we know he built it and they came. And even if the movie was fiction, part of it was baseball fact.