- Chasing Moonlight: The True Story of Field of Dreams’ Doc Graham
- John F. Blair, 208 pp.
Stepping Off the Field of Dreams
There’s a scene in Field of Dreams where the camera lingers on a baby-faced baseball player wearing a New York Giants uniform. He has just seen a girl fall from the bleachers and he comes running towards her, hesitating for a fraction of a second on the edge of the grass.
Then he drops his glove, takes a step and metamorphoses into the incomparable Burt Lancaster in one of his last starring roles. In an instant, Moonlight Graham has become Doc Graham, and he can never go back to the game he loved.
It’s a nice moment, for what it says about giving up one dream for another, and I was always pleased that young Archie Graham was finally able to get his wish of facing up to a big league pitcher – and hitting a sacrifice fly.
But it seems we can’t let Archie walk off into that cornfield just yet. For in the long follow through of W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel, Shoeless Joe, comes Chasing Moonlight: The True Story of Field of Dreams’ Doc Graham.
Written by Brett Friedlander and Robert Reising, it claims the real Archibald Graham, (and, first surprise, he was indeed very real) had a life that “merits a much more complete chase and a much more extensive and accurate analysis.”
This kind of prose makes Graham sound a little like the U.S. Budget or a DNA test, and Chasing Moonlight is not going to set any sports fan’s hair on fire with its narrative. But here and there, especially when baseball is concerned, it gives us a hint of a time when the game was young.
Young enough at the beginning of the twentieth century that a promising college player could spend his winters studying medicine and his summers moonlighting in the minors. With the travel and the salary, it sure to hell beat working for the man.
Born in 1879, Graham stepped into pro baseball in 1902 as a favor to his old coach at the University of North Carolina. Eddie Ashenback managed the Charlotte Hornets of the North Carolina league (cue memories of lollygagging players in Bull Durham) and liked the thought of having the smart centerfielder in his line-up.
An olden-day Dustin Pedroia, Graham made up for his relative shortness (5’10″) with his speed off the base, his deft hand with the bat and his strong throwing arm. He joined the Hornets for a season, then kicked around the Class B New England League for a couple of years before being spotted by scouts.
In the end, he signed with the NY Giants, a move in retrospect that sealed his baseball fate. John McGraw, the ornery manager, wasn’t overly impressed with a medical student who couldn’t report to spring training, and with the Giants doing so well, wasn’t about to give him a shot.
“The world knows nothing of its greatest men,” Graham said prophetically in his 1905 yearbook entry, and it was in that same year that he would have his one shot at conventional greatness. June 29, 1905. The Brooklyn Superbas are getting a beating from the Giants at Washington Park. With the game assured, McGraw gives his eager speedster the nod and sends him into right field during the eighth inning. And nothing happens. In the ninth inning, Graham briefly catches the scent of glory in the wind from the on-deck circle, but he never makes it to the batter’s box. The game ends, Graham gets sent down to Pennsylvania’s Scranton Miners and that’s the end of his time in a Giant’s uniform.
But I wouldn’t feel too sad for Archie. In the next three years, Graham would help the Miners to two New York State League pennants and himself to a batting league crown. In between he also played doctor. As quoted from the Scranton Times, here’s a sample of what he had to deal with during an unseasonal cold snap:
Hogan Yancey has the croup and has been wearing onion poultices. Gus Ziemer is suffering from the same affliction and Wilkie Clark is rubbing him with goose grease… McArdle is drinking boiled apple-jack to keep his pipes open and Joe Schrall has chills so bad that his uniform won’t stay on him…Ramsey has tabooed anything stronger than ginger ale and soda water. This is cruelty of the most aggravated kind and if the team ever gets out of the frigid zone, they will never forgive [the manager] Ramsey.
In 1908, Graham finished his last season with a .277 batting average and a 75 run career high, and officially retired, though he would continue to play ball at any opportunity.
The story now moves to Chisholm, Minnesota, where Graham set up his practice. Having met a nice girl named Alecia, he married her, and lived an ordinary life marked by good doctorly deeds.
He helped fight a typhoid epidemic, when, as he said, “flies were so thick that if you ate a piece of pie in some of the restaurants, you had to bite twice to tell which you were eating, blueberries or flies.”
He insisted on preventative measures in the 1918 flu epidemic, decisions that spared many of his patients.
And he did an extensive study recording children’s blood pressure over time, providing researchers with a large set of stable data.
All this is very heartwarming – indeed, heartwarming enough to inspire his friend Veda Ponikvar to write an editorial that is paraphrased in the film:
Without any fanfare or publicity, the glasses or the milk…. or the ticket to the ball game found their way into the child’s pocket.
Yet in a funny way I wish I hadn’t read past that game in 1905. I’m not sure I wanted to know that Doc Graham lied about his time in the majors, claiming “he’d actually batted once, drawing a walk, before suffering a season-ending broken leg attempting to steal second.”
Nor did I want to know that those eyeglasses he gave to children were often the wrong prescription, causing problems with vision. Nor that he labored on inventions that never succeeded. Nor that he once on a picnic with his wife refused to give a high school boy a chicken drumstick, telling her, “[Working class] people aren’t used to this kind of food.”
“It’s a sad time when the world won’t listen to stories about good men,” Kinsella once said, but he might have added a caveat about the kinds of stories we like to listen to. Kinsella and Field of Dreams gave us a parable of a good man, invisible and beloved; Chasing Moonlight gives us a history.
And though this basic, straightforward account may be intriguing for those who always want to know more, I’m not sure it beats Burt Lancaster saying, “I’d best be getting on home, before Alecia begins to think I’ve got a girlfriend.”