The Real-Life Baseball Behind the Magic of “Field of Dreams”

On August 13, 2020, we were supposed to get the real-life version of the fictional baseball immortalized in the movie Field of Dreams. Two of the teams featured prominently in the movie, the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees, were scheduled to face off at the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville, Iowa. Construction was underway on an 8,000 seat stadium in a nearby cornfield, accessible by “cornfield walking path” to the original movie field.

Unfortunately, this event was a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic and was canceled for 2020, but MLB is determined to have this special game take place next season. Given that Field of Dreams is my favorite movie, I look forward to watching the game whenever it does happen.

With this event now off the 2020 calendar, and with Field of Dreams turning 30 years old a year ago, I started thinking more about how much incredible baseball content is packed into the existing movie.

The main baseball star is, of course, Shoeless Joe Jackson. He was the namesake for the book that inspired the movie, Shoeless Joe by W.P Kinsella. Jackson is, unfortunately, immortalized for his role with the 1919 “Black Sox,” when he and seven other members of the White Sox were banned from baseball after taking bribes to throw the World Series.

As the movie’s main character, Ray, emphatically mentions, Jackson did take the money along with his teammates, but he also put together one of the best World Series performances of all time. In that 1919 series, Jackson did not commit a single error, and hit .375 with a home run and six RBI. His 12 hits were a World Series record until 1964, thirteen years after his death.

Jackson enjoyed a fruitful 13-year career before that fateful World Series, but his historic postseason performance suggests that he had many more good years left in him. His career batting average of .356 is the third-highest in baseball history, trailing only Ty Cobb (.366) and Rogers Hornsby (.359). He also ranks 13th all-time in on-base percentage, reaching first base at a .423 clip throughout his career.

Aside from Jackson, several other players on the 1919 Black Sox are featured in Field of Dreams, though not all are mentioned by name. The other seven members of that infamous club were Eddie Cicotte, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver, Lefty Williams, Happy Felsch, and Fred McMullen.

Aside from Shoeless Joe, Cicotte had the most noteworthy Major League career of the crew. He pitched for 14 years, nine with the White Sox. He was spectacular in the 1919 regular season, when he won 29 games and finished with a razor-thin 1.82 ERA. He pitched a career-high 30 complete games that season. Over his 14-year career, Cicotte racked up a 209-148 record, and his career ERA of 2.38 is 24th all-time in MLB history. With these career statistics, Cicotte could easily have made the Hall of Fame, along with Jackson, if not for the Black Sox scandal.

There must have been a lot of 1919 Black Sox nostalgia floating around Hollywood in the late 1980s. In 1988, the year before Field of Dreams was released, a movie called Eight Men Out came out. Based on a book of the same name, it told a dramatized version of the Black Sox scandal. Greedy owner and former MLB player himself, Charles Comiskey, refused to pay his players living wages, and any player who refused to accept a contract was prohibited from joining another team under the Reserve Clause; Curt Flood and the idea of free-agency still decades away. And so, a faction of White Sox took matters into their own hands.

In Eight Men Out, the famous octet is the center of key dramatic tension. In Field of Dreams, the players are much more happy-go-lucky. They’re the embodiment of magic on Ray’s field, just happy to be playing baseball in the same long-sleeved cloth uniforms and soft-billed hats in which they were frozen in time in 1919.

Aside from the “famous eight,” many other baseball players make an appearance of some sort in Field of Dreams. Shoeless Joe mentions Ty Cobb by name; he was a contemporary, albeit a strongly disliked one, of the 1919 White Sox team. Wondering what Cobb did in 1919, when the Black Sox were gambling themselves out of a championship? He hit a cool .384, which wasn’t even in his top-three batting averages of all time (Cobb had already topped that in 1911 by hitting .419), but was en route to a streak of nine consecutive years leading the AL in hitting.

Archie “Moonlight” Graham is another important plot point in the movie with real-life baseball roots. In the film, Moonlight Graham is a baseball player who played one inning for the New York Giants in 1922 and never got a chance to bat, later becoming a beloved doctor in Chisholm, Minnesota. This dramatic arc is closely based on real events that inspired W.P Kinsella’s book; there actually was a “Moonlight” Graham who played one inning for the New York Giants in 1905, never got a Major League at-bat, and became a beloved doctor in Chisholm.

The doctor, somehow young again (and despite Ray discovering that he’d passed away the year before), joins up with him and Terrence Mann, when they pick him up as a hitchhiker. When they arrive at the magical field in Iowa, Moonlight, introducing himself Archie, the nickname of his youth, is visibly in awe of the iconic baseball heroes he sees at the field. Graham calls out three players by name in this regard: Smoky Joe Wood, Mel Ott, and Gil Hodges.

Here, the movie takes some liberties with the baseball timeline. Of these three players, only Smoky Joe Wood was an active player before 1922, when the movie version of Graham made his fleeting major league appearance. Wood pitched for the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians in his career, which spanned from 1908 to 1920. His career ERA was a sparkling 2.03, the fifth-best ERA in major league history among qualifying pitchers. He also finished his MLB tenure with a 1.09 WHIP, which ranks 18th all-time.

Wood’s best season came in 1912, when he went 34-5 with 35 complete games and 10 shutouts, pitching to an ERA of 1.91, and striking out a Walter Johnson-esque 258 batters (an absurdly high number for a pitcher in 1912). If the Cy Young award had been around in 1912 (the first year of the award was not until 1956), he certainly would have been a prime candidate for it. For a young Archie Graham, Wood would have been a very worthy baseball idol.

Mel Ott’s baseball career with the New York Giants did not begin until 1926, and he played for 22 years before retiring after the 1947 season. Ott was a bonafide home-run king in his day; when he retired, his 511 home runs ranked third all-time behind only Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx. Ott also held the National League career home-run record for nearly 20 years, until Willie Mays passed him in 1966. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1951, and died seven years later. By all accounts, Ott was one of the most prolific hitters in Giants history.

Gil Hodges, the last player in this “Moonlight Graham” trio, was the most recent player of the three. He played most of his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and was a key member in their 1955 World Series triumph over the New York Yankees, driving in both runs in their decisive Game-7 victory.

Hodges was an offensive and defensive star. He hit 20+ home runs in eleven straight years, drove in 100+ runs in seven straight, and won three Gold Gloves at first base while being touted as one of the best defensive first basemen of his time. The Gold Glove award did not exist until the end of Hodges’ career, meaning he likely would have won many more, if the award was around for his entire playing tenure. He did all of this while losing nearly three full seasons due to military service.

So what do all these old-timey stats have to do with Field of Dreams?

One of the movie’s main themes is players whose careers were cut short having a second chance at achieving baseball glory. This happens most notably in the movie for Shoeless Joe Jackson, Moonlight Graham, and Ray’s father John Kinsella. But the movie also packs in a lot of references to other players like Cicotte, Wood, and Hodges who, like Jackson, are not in the Hall of Fame but arguably deserve to be there.

With the various Hall of Fame voting committees that meet once every few years to review the qualifications of a specific era of players, it’s still possible that one of these three will eventually be inducted. Even if not, their status as baseball icons is forever immortalized on film, thanks to Field of Dreams.

While not every baseball detail in Field of Dreams is accurate (Shoeless Joe actually batted left-handed, not righty as the movie suggests), it packs in a lot of rich baseball references that reflect the backbone of 20th century baseball history.

The magic of the Field of Dreams field lies in its ability to make improbable baseball dreams come true. When we do get the first MLB game at this field, hopefully next season, it will be a wonderful tribute to the generations of players who paved the way for the modern game and crafted the nostalgia-tinged legacy of “America’s Pastime.”

Source: The Des Moines Register

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