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The Fictional Afterlife Of ‘Moonlight’ Graham

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FIELD OF DREAMS  airs on Sunday, October 7  @ 8 pm | 7C.
Stay for the enhanced version at 10:15 pm | 9C.

Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham really did make his first and only appearance in the majors on June 29, 1905. A 28-year-old rookie, Graham was described in the sporting press as being “quick as a flash of moonlight.” A late substitute in a lopsided 11-1 win in a game between the Giants and the Superbas, Graham replaced George Browne in right field for the bottom of the 8th inning, though he didn’t have much to do there – nothing was hit his way. In the 9th inning, he was left on deck when the Giants made their third out, and never got to hit.

Earlier that season, after spending three years as a pretty good hitter in the minors, Graham had declined an invitation by Giants manager John McGraw to attend 1905’s spring training, citing a wish to finish medical school. Graham finally joined the Giants on May 23. Five weeks later, he made his debut in Brooklyn’s Washington Park. His only mention in that the local Evening Telegram’s play-by-play account of the game was “Graham went to right field for New York.”

More than a decade after Graham’s death in 1965, W.P. Kinsella was
leafing through the Baseball Encyclopedia, a Christmas present his
father-in-law had given him a few days earlier. “I found this entry for
‘Moonlight’ Graham,” Kinsella recalled. “How could anybody come up with
that nickname? He played one game but did not get to bat. I was
intrigued, and I made a note that I intended to write something about
him.”

Kinsella’s choice to revive ‘Moonlight’ Graham was pure coincidence. Of
the more than 16,000 players in major league history, there are more
than 900 who only got one game, and Kinsella’s imagination could as
easily have been fired by ‘Twink’ Twining, ‘Goat’ Cochran or
‘Steamboat’ Struss. “I just thought, ‘What an incredible name,” said
Kinsella. “This is better than any character I could ever create.’ My
approach to fiction writing is that when I need facts, I invent them.
So I would have invented a background for Moonlight Graham, but I’m
sure nothing as wonderful as the truth. It was a gold mine.”

Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, set in 1979, keeps the correct date of
Graham’s big-league appearance, but when it was made into Field of
Dreams, writer-director Phil Alden Robinson changed the setting to 1988
and set Graham’s only game in 1922. “Doc Graham actually died in 1965,
but we changed it to 1972 because there was a certain prop I wanted to
use in the scene where Ray is walking down the street late at night,”
Robinson admitted. “That poster only existed in 1972, and that’s really
the only reason we changed the date.” The gag that the director
couldn’t resist was the brief shot of a campaign poster for President
Nixon in the window of a store selling tape recorders.

Eventually, there was a band named Moonlight Graham, a couple of
websites dedicated to him, and a scholarship fund established in his
honor. On the 100th anniversary of Moonlight Graham’s only major-league
appearance, the Minnesota Twins held “Moonlight Graham Day,”
celebrating his achievements in his life outside baseball – and all
because W.P. Kinsella happened to find his nickname intriguing. “I
didn’t anticipate this happening,” Kinsella admitted.

Veda Ponikvar, the newspaper editor in ‘Moonlight’ Graham’s adopted
hometown, barely mentioned Graham’s days in baseball when she wrote his
obituary (which is paraphrased in the movie) and an editorial entitled,
“His Was a Life of Greatness.” Ponikvar explained, “Long before the
movie, I recognized that he was someone very special.”

In 2005, 86-year-old Vera Ponikvar was asked about her fateful meeting
with W.P. Kinsella. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, “On a hot
Friday afternoon in the mid-‘70s, several years before the book came
out, a 1930’s-era rumble-seat Ford pulled up in front of the Chisholm
Free Press. The men who got out introduced themselves to Ponikvar as
W.P. Kinsella and J.D. Salinger, whom she immediately recognized as the
reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye. They wanted help finding Doc
Graham. They seemed stunned to learn that he’d been dead for a decade.”

Yet W.P. Kinsella maintains that he has never even met J.D. Salinger,
and in fact was accompanied by his wife, Anne, on his trip to research
Moonlight Graham. In the intervening 30 years, Ponvikar’s recollection
became entwined with W.P. Kinsella’s fictionalization of it (in which
the reclusive author ‘Ray’ kidnaps is J.D. Salinger) and she passed it
on as fact. Ponvikar’s false memory has nevertheless become part of the
legend of Moonlight Graham.

Sources:
“Kinsella Character Actually Played 100 Years Ago,” ESPN.com, 6/25/05
Doug Miller, “Moonlight Still a Star, 100 Years Later,” MLB.com, 6/29/05
Larry Oakes, “A One-Game Flop, But a Lifetime Hero,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 6/29/05
Field of Dreams DVD: Bravo Special: “From Page to Screen”
Field of Dreams DVD: Director Commentary
“Shoeless Joe Jackson Meets J.D. Salinger,” Arete, Fall 1983
“Minnesota Sports Myths,” www.milkeespress.com
“Say It Ain’t So,” www.geocities.com/deadcaulfields

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