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Cinema Summer of 1989

Field of Dreams, Major League, Roy Hobbs, and The Necessity of Revisionism

I’ve decided to start posting chapter drafts of my manuscript about the summer movies of 1989. In light of our current quarantine situation, my writing has become nothing but a chore. I know many won’t read these pages, but if you do, please share your thoughts. I hope writing once again becomes the distraction rather than the chore. Today, let’s talk baseball, specifically Field of Dreams and Major League (and The Natural).

On the previous episodes of THE LAST GREATEST HOLLYWOOD SUMMER: The Preamble / Chapter 1: Die Hard on a VHS Tape / Chapter 2: Nostalgia and the Ghastly Beauty of Ill-Advised Hollywood Cinema / Chapter 3: The ‘Burbs, Bill & Ted, and Heathers: Success and Failure in the Suburbs

No sport aligns with the magic of cinema quite like baseball.

Though the credits for Barry Levinson’s The Natural claim nothing more than inspiration from a novel by Bernard Malamud, I believed in miracle home runs, exploding light ballasts, and rolling blackouts. I found and read the novel, in which I learned that it had been inspired by the real-life incident of Phillies star first baseman Eddie Waitkus. “Inspired by” and “based on” resonated in the same frequency as “this happened—look it up.”

As adults we want to believe that magic happens, but our hope has been snuffed out by the suffocating unexceptional. Kids just believe in magic – and their expectations for the miraculous survive even the inevitable crushing epiphanies about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. (Meanwhile, Phoebe Cates is still destroying childhoods with her Gremlins monologues.) It’s only after they’ve been forced out into the world, told to grow up, be adult, file those TPS reports, that the magic dissipates. Only the worst type of child would hope for nothing more than the dust and decay of Cinéma verité and Italian neo-realism[1]. Perhaps the one overwhelming exception to adult-onset miracle renunciation belongs to the realm of sport, where impossibilities become more commonplace. The Miracle on Ice. Minneapolis Miracle. Monday Night Miracle. Music City Miracle. Bluegrass Miracle. The Miracle at the Meadlowlands. Memorial Day Miracle. Miracle on Grass. Miracles happen with such frequency that I can’t help but wonder if we should consider a rebranding.

In “Can’t Anybody Here Write These Games? The Trouble With Sports Fiction,” author Dick Francis suggests that baseball is the most appropriate sport for the genre of sports fiction because the pace and easily applied symbolism make it the ultimate conduit for metaphor – both the athlete and reader or, in this case the viewer, have the opportunity to reflect upon the passage of time between pitches, between innings, and the simplicity of the American Dream played out in head-to-head competition. Anyone can pick up a bat and a ball and become a folk hero by playing a game hallowed by the lack of artificial temporal limitations. 3 strikes, 3 outs, 9 innings—come what may.

As a result of this miracle conditioning, it wasn’t until an embarrassingly advanced age (last week, more or less) that I questioned exactly how much of The Natural’s storyhad been true. Assuming a certain amount of poetic license, no one would have believed those events had taken place exactly as depicted, but I also wouldn’t have claimed they hadn’t.

Teenage pitcher Roy Hobbs bests a Ruthian slugger nicknamed “The Whammer.” (Maaybee.) Teenage pitcher gets shot by lunatic fan. (Reasonable. Lots of crazies out there.) Wounded but recovered phenom anonymouslyreturns to baseball at age 35, reborn as a power-hitting outfielder and becomes one of the best hitters in the game. (Without steroids?) Survived 16 years with a bullet lodged in his stomach? (I’m not a doctor, but I’ve existed in the same room as my wife while she watched 15+ seasons of Gray’s Anatomy and ehhhh… I’m skeptical.) Post-surgery, aforementioned 35-year-old rookie clubs a home run to win the pennant with blood oozing through his jersey – cue cascade of electricity and swelling Randy Newman score. (This happened. You can’t tell me otherwise.)

It turns out that truth was stranger, but far less capital-D Dramatic than The Natural. The events that inspired Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel had just unfolded in newspapers around the country three years prior to its publication. Fact and creative inspiration coalesced in interesting ways. Malamud’s interpretation said a lot about how we process the fantastical to make it more real than reality. The VH1 Behind-the-Scenes “The Natural” plays more like a gender-swapped Taxi Driver than inspirational sports melodrama.

On June 14th, 1949, 19-year-old Ruth Ann Steinhagen shot Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus in room 1297A of Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel. Her teenage infatuation, recently transferred from matinee heartthrob Alan Ladd, took the form of something far more unsettling than the simple, unfortunate twist of fate found in The Natural. Ruth Ann’s obsessions ran deep, her actions fiendishly premeditated. The teenager demanded her mother set a place for Waitkus at their dinner table and taught herself to speak Lithuanian. (Waitkus’ parents had emigrated from Lithuania). In her diary, she wrote: “Phils are losing. I bet it’s none of Eddie’s fault,” before closing out that day’s entry with “I’ll be glad you’re dead, you rascal you” – which is actually, almost verbatim, the title of a Fleischer Studios Betty Boop cartoon from 1932 called “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You” featuring Louis Armstrong singing “You Rascal You.” Ruth Ann’s father forced her to attend a psychiatrist; but if you take The Snake Pit (1948) as representative of mid-century psychiatric treatment, Ruth Ann’s progress (lack thereof) should come as no shock, pun intended.

Sidestepping her parents’ efforts, Ruth Ann stole off on her own. She purchased a .22 caliber rifle (no—we definitely don’t need stronger gun laws) and spent her entire savings renting a room at the ritzy hotel where the visiting Phillies would be staying on their trip to Chicago. She paid the bellhop five dollars to leave a note in Waitkus’s room that said “It’s extremely important that I see you as soon as possible. We’re not acquainted but I have something of importance to speak to you about. I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain it to you.”

Waitkus called upon Ruth Ann at 11:20pm that evening. She pulled the rifle from the closet and said, “For two years, you’ve been bothering me and now you’re going to die.” She intended to kill herself and join her idol in death, but after putting a slug in his right lung she called the hotel operator to report her crime. She knelt over her fallen idol and held his hand until the police and paramedics arrived. Waitkus required two blood transfusions and six surgeries. He missed the remainder of the 1949 season but returned to the Phillies the following year. An All-Star in the two campaigns prior to the shooting, Waitkus received some purely sympathetic MVP votes for his 1950 season but never again matched the output of his prime in 1948 and 1949. Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs restarted his career at age 35; Waitkus quietly retired and withdrew from public life due to anxiety and depression self-medicated with alcohol. In 1961, he suffered a nervous breakdown and separated from his wife. He returned to baseball as a hitting instructor for Ted Williams’s baseball camp in 1966. Tragically, however, Eddie Waitkus died in 1973 from esophageal cancer (likely connected to the surgeries and hospitalization required to save his life) – at the time living alone in a boarding house in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

Ruth Ann Steinhagen’s part in Eddie Waitkus’ story reads like Dashiell Hammett pulp noir, the stuff of dangerous dames and dark alleys. One can clearly imagine the scene in a posh hotel room, the compassionate assailant kneeling over the pool of blood pouring from the chest of her fallen baseball idol, her spontaneous change of heart the narrative twist saving him from death before she’s carted off to jail by a sympathetic police detective who put a five-spot on the Cubbies that afternoon.

Roy Hobbs’s on-the-field fictional heroics, considering what’s happened since the release of the film, might not feel all that fictional. In Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series and Game 2 of the World Series, Curt Schilling pitched through an ankle injury that had required last-minute surgery. Boston Red Sox team doctor Bill Morgan sutured Schilling’s loose ankle tendon back into his skin. The blood on his sock was the result of his stitches pressing against the sutured tendon causing the wound to ooze. Schilling became a Boston folk hero (before his post-career indulgence in radical politics rapidly eroded that legacy). In the moment, Joe Buck, the game’s play-by-play announcer, remarked: “Like a scene from The Natural, Schilling climbs the mound and prepares to take on this Yankee lineup.”

With real life narratives like these it’s easy to understand why baseball fans are willing to believe in the improbable, or even the impossible. The fictions of cinema are often more grounded than the legends born of real-life events. 1993’s Rookie of the Year, exempted. The magic of baseball blurs so willingly with Hollywood’s dream factory. Both baseball and the movies are in the business of mythmaking. As mentioned, of the major American sports, baseball remains the only game not governed by a clock. Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s not over ‘til it’s over.” No matter the score, no matter the odds, baseball, by its nature, creates a sandlot for miracles.

From even the earliest days of the film, baseball captured the hearts and minds of cinemagoers through comedies of errors and tales of its legendary figures. A quick count tallies at least 29 movies made about baseball before 1930, including two adaptations of “Casey at the Bat.” That’s not to suggest that capturing the sport on film has ever been an easy task – just that the pace and romanticism transcend genre and audience demographics.

My dad passed down tall tales about Mickey Mantle, Denny McLain, and Luis Aparicio, just as I’ll share stories about the heroes of my 1980s-era Detroit Tigers: Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Tom Brookens’ mustache[2]

The sport has a long history of producing crowd-pleasers such as A League of Their Own (1992) and The Bad News Bears (1976) but also critically decorated dramas. Pride of the Yankees (1942) earned 11 Academy Award nominations. The Stratton Story (1949) won for Best Screenplay. Bang the Drum Slowly, (1973), The Natural (1984), Bull Durham (1988), and Moneyball (2011) all earned nominations, but, alas, winning none. All these stories, with the exception of The Bad News Bears, were based (some more loosely than others) on real characters and events. Even The Bad News Bears could be considered the distillation of every kid’s Little League baseball experience through the generations. During my last year in little league, a kid named Jared handcuffed himself to the dugout fence and sang Christmas carols and we had to play without a right fielder. By accident or design, he didn’t have the key to free himself – his mother had to drive home to find it.

The critical and $48 million commercial box office success of The Natural ushered more roundball into the multiplex. Bull Durham (1988) and Eight Men Out (1988) immediately followed. From 1988 until the mid-1990s, Hollywood had a vicious case of baseball fever, the symptoms of which peaked in April of 1989 with the release of Field of Dreams and Major League only two weeks apart. One; a male weepie about fathers, sons, and magical redemption; the other a broad and occasionally crass (but good natured) update of The Bad News Bears for the professional sector. These two beautiful extremes of baseball cinema played at multiplexes simultaneously during the Summer of 1989, and Field of Dreams, especially, took the field at just the right time.

Released the year prior, John Sayles’ Eight Men Out had detailed the 1919 Black Sox scandal. We knew all about D.B. Sweeney, John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, and the rest of the White Sox team that conspired to throw the 1919 World Series. As a result, we’d been indoctrinated into a club that bemoaned the unfair ban of Shoeless Joe Jackson from baseball. Joe Jackson stepped out into the late 1980s as a retro-pop icon, lending an extra brick to the foundation of Field of Dreams.

The rest had already been in place for generations.

Every young athlete understood the symbolic importance of “catch” with a father figure. If it wasn’t “catch,” it was another activity built on engaged and connected silence. It doesn’t even have to be sport. Board games, knitting, stamp collecting, you name it—if you can do it with a parent, in silence, and experience a deepening of that relationship, you’re “having a catch.”

Fathers often struggle with words, especially in movies; they excel at silent understandings happening in the background of shared activity. In Field of Dreams, we (as in children aged about 8-15), the children of men, finally understood the greater subtext. We likely hadn’t experienced loss in the same ways as Ray Kinsella; there would still be an emotional disconnect even if we understood at our highly advanced age the nature of the human condition. Any older and we might have felt cynicism about the film’s intentions. Any younger and that glimmer of recognition when Field of Dreams drags us through its emotional gauntlet disappears. I opened up to the movie because it was about baseball. I might have even recognized that it wasn’t really about baseball. “Catch” could have been skating on a frozen pond or shooting hoops in the driveway (see: 1991’s Father of the Bride). The spiritual tentacles of baseball, however, winding as they do through the generations, give the act of “catch” more resonance.

Field of Dreams represented my first experience with the kind of sincere melodrama trademarked by Frank Capra in the 1930s and 40s. The omnipresence of It’s a Wonderful Life might have left residues of earnestness, but those Capra films couldn’t and wouldn’t resonate with a pre-teen like a contemporary film about baseball starring Kevin Costner – aka Crash Davis of Bull Durham – who even by 1989, and with another baseball movie yet to come, had become a folk hero of his own.

Though I’d been brought up in a household that regularly watched classic cinema, the pace and language of depression-era melodrama felt alien and prevented the kind of investment required for the message to take hold. While Universal horror films and the Marx Brothers formed my earliest forays into classic film, I didn’t really foster appreciation for other genres until I became a proper video store junkie in high school (boasting membership cards to four different rental establishments). Field of Dreams, on the other hand, tapped into feelings I’d just begun to unpack. It made us feel smarter and more adult than we were. Just like hitting a baseball, timing was everything.

There’s a short period during a child’s development as a movie watcher when they first become receptive to a broader range of genres and styles. I met 1989 with open arms and 1989 embraced me in return. I’d become a sponge, accepting everything that played in a mainstream theater. Before the time of the Internet and before I cared to read published film criticisms and develop my own individual tastes, I existed in a bubble created by the opinions of family and friends.

My palette wasn’t entirely discerning. Certain movies—the ones that we owned and watched on an infinite loop—became permanently etched into my virgin grey matter. Not just the famous lines of dialogue and narratives, but also impressions about how that movie had been broadly received. Field of Dreams was, according to those memories, universally loved by everyone who’d seen it.

Only recently I began to read considerations that ran contrary to that relationship. It’s useful to note that even canonical films like Lawrence of Arabia, Citizen Kane, and Casablanca cultivate both widespread love and vitriol. People are human. Certain skeptics watch a popular film aiming to dislike it and publish clickbait on the Internet. These universally beloved films inspire the loudest, most reactive negativity because that fuels clicks of disbelief and online engagement, whereas humdrum positively curates silent nodding. Most of these hot takes can be dismissed as the ravings of half-literate word-count fillers and search engine optimizers.

Field of Dreams, however, inspires thoughtful vendettas like few other films of that summer. One especially reactive article called it the worst baseball movie ever made[3]. Some of the more considerate criticisms, like David L. Vanderwerken’s “Reading Race in W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe and Phil Alden Robinson’s Field of Dreams,” however, caused me to pause and completely re-evaluate my history with the film.

Reevaluation was one of my stated goals when I first set out to watch all major American 1989 movie releases for this project. Would 1989 hold the same sway over me more than 30 years later? I thought I knew the answer to that question beforehand, but Field of Dreams forced me to come to terms with how my own expanded frame of reference would alter my affection for films I’d long considered indisputable classics.

Can nostalgia and relative enlightenment co-exist? And what is our responsibility when it comes to compartmentalizing nostalgia to see childhood favorites for what they really are? As a ten-year-old in April of 1989, I couldn’t have been expected to recognize that Field of Dreams “whitewashes” the history of baseball. I was too busy forming emotional bonds and discovering how movies made me feel. I encountered new favorites on a daily basis. These films arrived during formative years when objective evaluation becomes entangled with the art of experience and emotion. Nostalgia doesn’t prohibit reevaluation, but it does complicate the ability to overwrite those initial experiences, especially regarding films that have been viewed so many times as to become flickering wallpaper.

Field of Dreams would require homework beyond just a re-watch – namely a reading of the source material in order to understand Vanderwerken’s damning assessment that the novel and the film espouse “nativism” through its purportedly racist protagonist who idealizes a time before the integration in professional baseball. Going beyond my exposure to the film should help re-orient my understanding for the filmmaking process and the choices made to adapt the source material. My affection for Field of Dreams suddenly felt like a burden, a transgression for which I had to answer. The novel revealed layers behind the film that I’d never imagined, starting with the film’s J.D. Salinger problems. In 1989, Salinger would have been as fictional to me as his ersatz cinematic replacement Terrence Mann.

In W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, the character of Ray Kinsella attempts to “ease the pain” of legendary author and recluse J.D. Salinger. Kinsella doubles down on the metafictional aspects of the narrative by creating a playground in which Ray Kinsella, a creation from J.D. Salinger’s own fiction greets the author by saying, “I thought you might want to meet one of your own characters.” Ray and his twin brother Richard (not appearing in the film) were characters in Salinger’s short story “A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist At All” and again in his most famous novel, Catcher in the Rye. Taking the self-referentiality one step further, the Kinsellas’ father was also a baseball catcher. For W.P. Kinsella, the terms “fact” and “fiction” have very little value in Shoeless Joe; he’s writing fables on top of fables on top of fact and this limits how we can interpret the narrative.

In order to adapt Kinsella’s novel, director Phil Alden Robinson had to make many changes to the source material to appease studio executives who viewed Field of Dreams as an impossible project. Transfixed by the fantasy of a rural farmer that builds a baseball diamond to appease voices only he can hear, the filmmaker had to rework the screenplay, shift the focus, and eliminate all mentions of J.D. Salinger. After the release of Shoeless Joe, the famously reclusive author declared that he’d sue anyone who used the character of J.D. Salinger in an adaptation of the material. Hence, the shift from Salinger to American civil rights activist Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones. Changing the character from a white author to a black civil rights journalist was a deliberate sidestep motivated by the need to avoid litigation with J.D. Salinger.

This otherwise progressive conversion of a white-written character to a black man in the script creates a problematic scene in which the black James Earl Jones waxes romantically about the place of baseball in America.

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game – it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

The speech, oft celebrated and quoted by fans, became an iconic moment in Field of Dreams, and James Earl Jones is rightfully proud of his performance – even if the words do indeed reflect a kind of nativistic ideology, per Vanderwerken’s criticism, that glosses over the sordid history of race in baseball and America. As a middle-aged black man in 1989 (especially a civil rights activist), the character of Terence Mann should have been keenly aware of the Negro league and pre-integration luminaries like Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Oscar Charleston – players who never got their shot at the big leagues because of the color barrier. As the collection of dead, white baseball players surround Mann as he makes his impassioned plea to Ray Kinsella, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that this magical Iowa cornfield has curiously concerned itself with easing the pain of ballplayers with a specific skin color. Even Gil Hodges gets a roster mention from a wide-eyed Archie Graham (played by Frank Whaley), but Hodges’ teammate, Jackie Robinson, is conspicuously absent.

These elements cannot be ignored from a modern perspective. The film and the novel trade in confused small-town Americana wish fulfilment. In Kinsella’s novel, Salinger gives a speech similar to Mann’s. He says that people will come “longing for the gentility of the past, for home-canned preserves, ice cream made in a wooden freezer, gingham dresses…” As Vanderwerken describes, Salinger used similar nostalgia language to explain how the banning of The Catcher in the Rye affects him. “Maybe banning or burning my books could become an annual event in these uptight little communities, like re-creating the first flight at Kitty Hawk.” In these passages, Salinger unifies censorship and the gentility of the past just as Terence Mann conflates the color barrier and the beautiful history of baseball.

In as much as Field of Dreams appears to desire a return to the days of white baseball and places potent nostalgia in the mouth of a black writer, it’s muddied by the Capra-esque spirit of the film. Frank Capra made films about an ideal “America” that never was. He drew upon Depression-era themes to convey “fantasies of goodwill” in films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. His films celebrate the individual over the callous institution and give cause to idealism. In World Film Directors: Volume One, he said, “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.” And while it’s not a Capra film playing on a television in the Kinsella household during Field of Dreams, his regular leading man, Jimmy Stewart, makes an appearance in a clip from Henry Koster’s Harvey (1950) – a purposeful inclusion that speaks to a non-denominational need for faith in things we cannot necessarily see. The magic once again mingling with the mundane. (Jimmy Stewart was in fact Robinson’s first choice for the role of Archibald Graham.) In Field of Dreams, the role of the pooka, a 6-foot-3.5-inch white rabbit, was played by a baseball diamond and all of its spectral inhabitants.

W.P. Kinsella and Frank Capra were not storytellers that reflected the way America was; they’re creating glossy fantasies about the way America never was. In Capra’s films, a congressman sways the cold hearts of politicians with an impassioned filibuster, an angel gives a suicidal banker a new lease on life by showing him the ways his town would have suffered without him. Even though these films are not overtly religious, there’s a spirituality in their fundamental moralism – the triumph of the underdog, courage of the Everyman. God isn’t in the details; it’s in the lives of honest, simple folk who believe in a common good and embrace their eccentricities.

In the creation of these mythological realities, the artist’s frame of reference becomes the lens through which the audience views the world. Born in Palermo, Sicily, Frank Capra emigrated to the United States with his parents and six siblings. They settled in the East Side of Los Angeles (modern Chinatown), which Capra later called an Italian “ghetto.” Capra’s father picked fruit. Frank sold newspapers and eventually went to college against his family’s wishes. After graduating, Capra taught mathematics at Fort Point as a second lieutenant in the Army. Due to illness, Capra received a medical discharge and spent the next few years living in San Francisco flophouses and hopping freight trains to explore the American west. He worked as a movie extra, played poker, took odd jobs to survive before fibbing his way onto a movie lot working for Walter Montague at Fireside Productions. It was for Montague that Capra filmed his first short, “Fulta Fisher’s Boarding House,” in 1922. Despite experiencing the worst of America, Frank Capra went on to direct films that offered bittersweet miracles to the masses and, like baseball, reflected the potency of the American dream.

W.P. Kinsella was born in Edmonton, Canada in 1935 – a fact that highlights the cross-cultural potency of “America’s pastime.” The years during which Kinsella presumably developed the baseball philosophies that would become the novels Shoeless Joe (and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and nearly 40 other short stories) took place just before and perhaps during the dismantling of the Major League Baseball color barrier. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to suggest that Kinsella felt similarly about baseball in 1945 as I did about baseball in 1989. For the record, the 1945 Detroit Tigers defeated the Chicago Cubs in a seven-game series. Hal Newhouser won games five and seven for the come-from-behind series win – twenty months before Jackie Robinson would take the field for the first time as a Brooklyn Dodger on April 15th, 1947.

The movie (nor the novel) depict the black influence on baseball. The infamous “Black Sox” were white. The major league players romanticized by these characters, also all white. In “Of the Tortoise, Baseball and the Family Farm Fantasy and Nostalgia in W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe,” Donald E. Morse writes: “Within the improbable art of his postmodern metafiction, Kinsella’s magical baseball field functions as a precise metaphor for describing a pure ideal world founded on nostalgia rather than power and sustained by love rather than money.” Nostalgia comes creeping back into the conversation and our subsequent ability to read the absence (or ignorance) of race in works of fiction becomes complicated as a result of the nostalgia and metafiction seeping through Field of Dreams’ cornfed pores.

Only 11 Negro League players had been elected into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame by 1989. (This does not count Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron, who played the majority of their careers in the MLB.) And it took an impassioned speech by Ted Williams in 1966 before they inducted the first, Satchel Paige, in 1971.

Similarly, my personal nostalgia for the cinema of 1989 doesn’t contain an ideal cross-section of the landscape. In naming my “favorite” films from 1989, you wouldn’t find much diversity because my frame of reference was dominated by a slate of mainstream films made by white male filmmakers. That doesn’t mean that diversity didn’t exist. I didn’t watch Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing until I was well into my teenage years, but that doesn’t mean I don’t now hold the film in the highest regard. If you asked me to name the 10 “best” movies from 1989, I’d place it near the top of the list (and certainly ahead of Field of Dreams). If Field of Dreams reflects the nostalgia of its author and its character, as Morse describes, it cannot also be a perfect reflection of history or truth. Nostalgia is more personal and far less objective, but it’s more than just a fondness for a bygone era that fuels the film’s emotional melodrama.

When Ray’s long-dead father, John Kinsella, steps forward after a game, stripping off his catcher’s gear, the focus of the film becomes even more specific than a favorite historical baseball player, idol worship, or regrets about a failed cultural revolution. The sequence of events – the field, the players, the writer, Moonlight Graham saving Ray’s daughter from choking – funnels toward this reunion. Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe clarifies the method to the corn’s madness. “If you build it – he will come,” he reiterates. The “he”wasn’t Shoeless Joe. “Ease his pain,” “Go the distance,” aren’t nudges to help curmudgeonly writers or aged doctors; these were all steps toward patriarchal reconciliation, toward repairing an irrevocable wound so tightly bound with nostalgia and regret that the two emotions had become indistinguishable.

“I just want to thank you for putting up this field… and letting us play here. I’m John Kinsella,” he says, extending a hand to Ray as his family stands at his side.

“Wanna have a catch?” Ray asks.

Field of Dreams makes a point to differentiate between non-believers (those who can’t see the baseball players) from the believers, much in the same way that we can separate those that choose to see miracles in our everyday lives. It labels the pragmatic brother-in-law the villain and the fanciful farmer plowing under his livelihood the hero. It champions the rebels, but not the realists – a framework that aligns with the comparison to Capra’s band of moral crusaders and outsiders. Our sympathies lie with the confounded and irresponsible farmer who takes a daring leap of faith because we, too, can hear those same voices. We’re always confined to his experience, through his point of view. We want him to satisfy the voice, untangle the mystery, and follow this chain of events to its illogical conclusion. It’s not our money. It’s not our farm. And it’s most definitely not our numb posteriors driving from Dyersville, Iowa to Boston, Massachusetts to Chisholm, Minnesota and back to Dyersville – which, by the way, is a 3,156-mile drive of approximately 48 hours – all based on a voice in the corn that sounds more like it’ll murder Ray with a corn thresher than resuscitate the spirit of his long dead father.

All of this goes back to something that’s been nagging at me throughout this entire conversation. What responsibility do we have as movie watchers to revise our original experiences and interpretations of films with bright red ink? As I researched the various criticisms of Field of Dreams, the magic created by my original experiences began to crumble even as I formed counterarguments and reasons why the film’s imperfect handling of race doesn’t actually detract from the movie’s spell. I forged on despite an uncertain resistance. It wasn’t that I felt opposed to the argument. I just wondered if, in a book about the contemporaneous 1989 experience, a 21st century re-evaluation was outside my scope. Maybe my role in this drama was best served as a believer, someone who can see the magic, rather than someone who can’t. Acknowledging imperfection in a work of art doesn’t render that art any less significant. The truth remains—Field of Dreams was and remains an important film for a great many people—of all races and socio-economic backgrounds.

In August of 2021, Kevin Costner stood in the middle of a temporary baseball field, cut into a field of corn on the same Dyersville, Iowa farm and introduced the Field of Dreams game. “Tonight, thanks to that enduring impact that that little movie had, it’s allowed us to come here again, but now on a field that Major League Baseball made. We’ve come to see the first-place White Sox play the mighty Yankees in a field that was once corn. It’s perfect.” Visibly emotional, the actor had to take a breath before he continued. “We’ve kept our promise. Major League Baseball kept its promise. The dream is still alive.” In this instance “the dream” represents the belief in miracles, just as in the movie. It was a miracle the movie got made and therefore a miracle that it struck a chord with audiences in 1989 and continues to endure today. It’s a miracle the site has survived to host a professional baseball game in 2021 (having been postponed from 2020 due to the Coronavirus). “Is this Heaven?” he asks the crowd. “Yes, it is.”

In the TV introduction, Costner narrates: “Come to our Field of Dreams and play ball,” he says and walks through the corn and onto the newly constructed MLB-ready diamond. He walks slowly, strolling the outfield, taking in the crowd, the carpet of green grass, holding a baseball and a pair of sunglasses. The crowd is still. They and Costner might as well be having a catch. Silence and understanding. And then players from both teams, following, emerging from the corn just as the ghosts in the film. Some run up to Costner and shake his hand. They are not one color.

The film’s shortsightedness makes it more complicated, more worthy of healthy conversations about race and representation. Ultimately, I located my center and came to an important conclusion about how we watch and internalize movies.

Neither the movie nor the novel answers questions regarding the origin of the voice. Blind faith in the inexplicable causes Ray to undertake drastic steps to appease the voice’s demands. The faith practiced by Ray Kinsella disregards religious assignation. The singular faith in Field of Dreams belongs only to Ray and his family, who stands by his actions even as those actions portend madness. Outside the deus ex auto-machina finale where hundreds of cars flood into Dyersville with the understood expectation that they would save the farm by paying to watch ghosts of baseball legends play baseball, the drama remains focused on Ray’s human experience. He’s out of his element on a farm. He regrets that he never made amends with his father and that he and his wife’s progressive dreams of 1960s died along the way to 1989. He worries he’s amounted to very little. The magic that intervenes in Ray’s life takes a more mystical and personal form than the communal Capra fantasies. One man’s desire to do right, to think outside conventional, accepted wisdom inspires others to a greater good. In Field of Dreams, the wrong made right is only personal.

A closer reading of Field of Dreams and Shoeless Joe requires us to accept these very localized implications of the narrative. Spiritual resurrection in the form of dead baseball players, fathers, and doctors has been tailored to fit Ray’s life – and Ray’s life alone. The author that Ray seizes from his reclusion helps facilitate his faith in change and redemption from the embers of failure. Moonlight Graham performs the Heimlich on Ray’s daughter and disappears. Ray’s father removes a catcher’s mask and has “a catch,” thereby ameliorating the burdensome guilt that has gnawed at Ray throughout his adult life. The voices, the baseball players, and especially the return of John Kinsella cannot be seen as universal; they’re products of Ray’s faith and naturally limited frame of reference. If – and the metafictional nature of the novel’s construction backs this up – the events in Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams represent a projection of the narrator’s wishes, it could be perceived as just as hypocritical to include Negro League players as it was to give a civil rights activist a speech about the glory days of the sport. The character of Ray Kinsella would have known very little about these players. They weren’t part of his experience, they couldn’t have been projected into the magical stalks of corn, any more than I can return to 1989 and claim devotion to Do The Right Thing, a movie with which I’d yet to become acquainted.

As much as inclusion and representation matters in cinema, this isn’t a film that’s striving for a sense of one-to-one representative reality. Phil Alden Robinson has one goal in mind – and that’s conveying a universal story about faith and a father-son relationship. He uses baseball and the fractures of generational divide to achieve that end. It’s more than fair to comment and even criticize Field of Dreams for its failure to represent the realities of the Major League Baseball color barrier. If any pains needed to be eased or rights wronged, there were hundreds of baseball players that never even had the chance to play an inning in the field because of the color of their skin. But that is not the novel that Kinsella set out to write and it was not the adaptation that Robinson made.

Donald E. Morse addresses this charge against Field of Dreams by citing Walt Whitman. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman observed “…do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else.” This would be akin to downgrading Major League for not fostering spiritual growth. Criticizing Field of Dreams for its lack of inclusion is absolutely fair, crucifying it feels like a personal vendetta. The race of the fictional writer esteemed by Ray Kinsella makes perfect sense as a black man since Ray and his wife have been rendered as loosely drawn leftovers of 1960s activist movements. They’re championing his radical literature at a school board meeting, and his wife (played by Amy Madigan in full firebrand) screams herself out of the room in defense of Terrence Mann’s relevance. The decision to cast James Earl Jones had as much to do with his exceptional ability to read heavy-handed, sentimental screenwriting as it was a reaction to J.D. Salinger’s threats of defamation proceedings. While casting James Earl Jones might appear a little tone deaf due to his impassioned baseball speech that ignores the color barrier, it’s also a definitive act of inclusion, of casting a person of color in a role specifically written for a very specific white man.

Phil Alden Robinson could have navigated the potential issues by including anonymous black baseball players among the teams of players that emerged from the cornfield. Merely including them without a specific roll call may have resolved the discrepancy between the movie’s obligation to acknowledge the unfair treatment of these athletes and the limited perspective of a 40-year-old white male who grew up in a time before widespread dissemination of information about the Negro leagues. Giving potent, nostalgic dialogue to James Earl Jones doesn’t “break” the movie because it doesn’t detract from the otherwise universal themes of the film. Appreciating a time when athletes took the field solely for the love of the game isn’t a racial issue; Terrence Mann could have easily said those very same words about athletes in any league of any color. Money has supplanted “the love of the game” across all professional sports (and even collegiate ones as well). That said, I’m not altogether sure these minor changes would satisfy the film’s critics. There’s huge gap between “Field of Dreams could have better handled race” and “race broke Field of Dreams.”

On an episode of The Movies That Made Me podcast, hosted by Josh Olsen, Steven Canals (co-creator of Pose and a queer person of color) discussed the family dramas that impacted his young life and influenced him as a storyteller. He said, “These stories are not particularly queer and many of them are centering white families. And so I think that might be surprising to some folks, but the reality is that story is story. If you’re telling a story that leads to the universal truth, you’re going to find things that are salient.” In Field of Dreams, Ray’s story is Ray’s story, but Ray’s story also conveys universal truths about faith, the miraculous in the everyday, and the fractured connections between family.

If Field of Dreams would have been made just five years later, the ways it failed to highlight the historically disgusting treatment of players of color may have been fixed. So much necessary information came flooding into the mainstream about the Negro baseball leagues through the MLB Hall of Fame and Ken Burns’ documentary during this time that a change in perspective would have been welcome and damn near unavoidable. Throwing aside the whole film because it stumbles in this respect doesn’t do the film justice, nor does it allow for the topic to be a relevant conversation about the handling of race in Hollywood.

Celebrating the ways in which Field of Dreams inspires people of different backgrounds while simultaneously discussing how it fails to accurately portray the divided history of baseball would go much further toward proper historical representation. It would also help marry the ideas that nostalgia can be both that gooey, untouchable experience and the means by which one can view those same movies with more evolved sensibilities. Our opinion of Field of Dreams considers each of our experiences watching the film. It’s impossible to divorce those earliest experiences – nor should it be necessary to deny how a film made us feel at ages 10, 30 or 60. We foreground different elements at different stages of our life. The best movies continue to evolve and change just as we do. Nostalgia’s highly influential, but neither is it immutable nor erasable. Whether we eventually come around to seeing Field of Dreams as emotionally manipulative schmaltz that gets Shoeless Joe all wrong (he’s a left handed hitter from South Carolina and not a right-handed hitting Italian American), doesn’t overwrite those first memories created at a time when we just didn’t care about those things.

And then there’s the unwavering, unimpeachable ironclad perfection that is Major League.

First, a detour. My parents owned a tech-laden van that we used primarily for long road trips, of which we took many, including my youth baseball tournaments all over the Midwest. My dad worked for the city of Detroit (read: not exactly flush with liquidity), so this should tell you how much he valued gizmos. Modern doodads made my father giddy like he’d just received his long-backordered leg lamp, and this black Ford road warrior wielded an array that would have been the stuff of childhood dreams—if it hadn’t literally been parked in my driveway on four wheels. Two TVs (one larger one facing the first pair of rear seats and a small one between the back row), a VCR that could send video to either TV, and an original Nintendo console.

(I’ll omit the part where someone cracked open the van shortly thereafter and stripped out all of the gizmos and doodads.)

Coincidentally, Iowa was among those far-flung baseball-related destinations. We played in a national tournament of some sort and visited the Dyersville Field of Dreams. During these trips and in between games (there was much parking-lot idle time over the course of a baseball season filled with rain delays), we’d fire up movies in the back of that Batvan to pass the time. It should come as no surprise that our team’s favorites were Batman and Major League, an R-rated comedy from a now bygone model of 1980s filmmaking that also, in its own way, fed the baseball as American Dream metaphor. Anyone can play, anyone can win, and anyone can become a folk hero.

David S. Ward, however, isn’t channeling Frank Capra’s sentimentality or Roy Hobbsian Waitkusian Ruthiness with his team of has-beens and never-will-bes; he’s looking back at the history of baseball and collecting the misfits that found fame for one reason or another. His Fictional Cleveland Indians reflect a more down-to-earth brand of eccentricity.

The Pirates’ Dock Ellis pitched a no hitter in 1970 while on LSD. Jim Bottomley received a cow from fans as a retirement present. He named it Fielder’s Choice. “Spaceman” Bill Lee once told MLB officials that he’d never smoked dope, he’d only put marijuana in his pancakes. In 1951, St. Louis Browns’ owner Bill Veeck put 3’7” Eddie Gaedel into a game against the Detroit Tigers with the number “1/8” on the back of his jersey. Detroit pitcher and Rookie-of-the-Year Mark “The Bird” Fidrych would talk to the baseball, manicure the mound with his hands, and throw balls back to the umpire because “they had too many hits in them.” Hall-of-Famer George “Rube” Waddell wrestled alligators in the off-season and wore a red shirt underneath his jersey in case a fire engine drove by the park, at which point he’d abandon the game and chase after the truck to help however he could.

Just to name a few.

The characters in Major League feel homely in comparison – but they’re all general composites of historical personalities. Dennis Haysbert’s voodoo-practicing Cuban slugger Pedro Cerrano was shaped by Latin ballplayers like Orlando Cepeda (who believed each bat only had one hit in it) and the super superstitious Alou brothers, Felipe, Jesus, and Matty, who emigrated from the previously untapped baseball hotbed of the Dominican Republic. (The public’s lack of exposure to Dominican culture fostered misguided rumors of voodoo practice.)

Major League’s voodoo, of course, is a colorful bit of mumbojumbo. Ward said, “I didn’t want him sticking pins in things. I wanted him to have a little voodoo character that could appease the voodoo gods.” David S. Ward made Jobu, the rum-loving figurine that held the keys to hitting a curveball, a part of the story from the earliest drafts of the screenplay. Nobody, especially Ward, believed that Jobu would ultimately become a pop-culture icon, spawning Twitter accounts, t-shirts, and quotable dialogue (“Yo, bartender! Jobu needs a refill!”). 

Players like third-baseman Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen) and catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) come from the game’s contemporary archetypes. As per Field of Dreams’ thoughts onnostalgia, baseball fans of a certain age would wax romantic for an era in which ballplayers just loved to play. Dorn’s on the backside of his career. He’s made his money and now he only cares about cashing checks and keeping his face pretty for endorsement deals. He represents the athlete who’s lost his fire. Jake Taylor’s a former star, now a fringe Major Leaguer hanging on to the last days of his youth, the inverse of Dorn in that he carries on despite wonky knees and a career that’s eviscerated his social life. When the Cleveland Indians send him an invite to spring training, he’s playing in Mexico and thinks he’s being pranked by some guy named Tolbert. He’s the everyman character that represents our competitive idealism in the modern era of baseball. The grown man playing purely for the game itself, but also fearful of facing adulthood, a condition required by his impending retirement.

And as for the film’s centerpiece, Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, Charlie Sheen’s wedge-headed California Penal League pitching prodigy comes directly from a baseball legend you may not have known about. Ward based his most memorable character on a pitcher by the name of Ryne Duren. Duren, who pitched during the 1950s and 60s, looked like an accountant and wore Coke-bottle eyeglasses to correct his vision bordering on legal blindness. Reportedly his prescription called for 70/20 in his right eye and 200/20 in his left. Batters feared standing in the batter’s box against Duren; his spectacles suggested he had no idea if his 100-mph fastball was going to end in the batter’s ear or the box seats.

Duren’s legend began in a tiny Wisconsin town called Cazenovia where his high school coach wouldn’t let him pitch for fear that he’d kill somebody. Duren made his major league debut in 1954 for Kansas City. Traded to the Yankees three years later, he pitched a no-hitter for the Denver Bears in his first outing and became a minor-league sensation – a factor that actually delayed his return to the major leagues. He became an integral relief pitcher for the New York Yankees teams of the late 50s, but he was also a bit of a showman – which draws the direct line between Duren and Rick Vaughn. When called upon by manager Casey Stengel, he wouldn’t use the bullpen gate – choosing instead to hop the fence and begin a long, slow walk to the mound with a blue warm-up jacket covering his pitching arm. During warmups he’d intentionally throw the first one 20 feet over the catcher’s head and gradually work back to the strike zone.

Long-suffering 1989 Cleveland Indians fans would have taken great pleasure in witnessing the miracle season enjoyed by their team courtesy of Hollywood magic. The worst-to-first leap enjoyed by the fictional Indians has become less miraculous in recent years. Major League franchises have enjoyed 13 such seasons since 1990, beginning with the 1990/91 Atlanta Braves. Even if Cleveland hadn’t finished higher than fourth in their division since 1968, fans would have taken a measure of solace in the film’s depictions of greedy owners, prima donna free agents and the underdog story of the misfits that beat the damn Yankees and won the division.

Major League works first as a screwball comedy, but also as a kind of love-letter to the blue-collar, industrial city of Cleveland. The film opens with shots of the Cleveland skyline, barges and monuments backed by Randy Newman’s “Burn On.”

Cleveland city of light, city of magic
Cleveland city of light, you’re calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin’ through my dreams

That Newman’s song opens Major League is a recall to Cleveland’s darkest days. The Cuyahoga River, which runs through the city, has caught on fire from industrial waste pollution at least 13 times between 1868 and 1969. The 1952 fire caused the most destruction ($1.3 million in damages), but the 1969 fire caught the nation’s attention. On June 22nd, 1969, oil-slicked debris was ignited by sparks from a passing train. The fire reached heights of five stories, destroyed a bridge, and lasted for nearly 30 minutes. Coverage of the fire brought national attention to the Cleveland area and increased pressure on the government to regulate the waste disposal practices of industrial manufacturers. As a result, Congress passed the National Environment Policy Act on January 1, 1970 that took the first step toward establishing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act (1972).

Randy Newman would become better known for his more chipper cinematic hits such as “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” for Toy Story. In 1989, however, Newman wasn’t an omnipresent soundtrack artist. The choice to use “Burn On” has as much to do with its status as a Cleveland song as it does the tone and historical significance; it feeds into this sentiment of Cleveland and the Indians rising from the ashes of legendary failures. If producers had just wanted a peppy song about Cleveland to kickstart a baseball movie about a lovable band of rogue baseball players they might as well have just chosen Ian Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks” (the future theme to The Drew Carey Show) or the Michael Stanley Band’s “My Town” (the video for which actually seems to have influenced the look of Major League’s opening sequence).

In many ways, Major League’s high-concept premise works as a functional counterpoint to Field of Dreams. One wields fantastic realism and the other reality-based fantasy. Though the movie feels like an 80’s movie from start to finish – a loose and rambling structure based on vignette-style comedy foregrounding an impossible, feel-good premise – it also fosters a timeless hope and fantasy of a pure professional baseball game played for the love of competition – and overcoming insurmountable obstacles laid in their path. Their new team owner intends for them to fail and attempts to sabotage their success at every opportunity.

The first cut of the film set up Margaret Whitton’s Rachel Phelps as a deviously motivational figurehead. She’d removed their hot tubs and commercial airliners as a well-intentioned means for prodding the team to victory. After lukewarm test screenings, the film was re-edited (along with a couple of added scenes) to place her as a more traditional and adversarial villain. The 11th-hour rework succeeded because, like Roger Dorn, the caricature fed the fan’s conception of the soulless professional owner who doesn’t value winning as much as the dollars in her pocket and a beachfront condo in Miami.

In this uncommon instance, the test screenings produced a beneficial outcome. That’s not to say that Willie Mays Hays being escorted out of his barracks for being a Spring Training-crasher, only to smoke a couple of punks like they were standing still in bare feet and pajamas wouldn’t still provide the same laughs. Like The Bad News Bears before it, Major League gained non-quantifiable appeal by “stickin’ it to the man.” It’s no secret that “stickin’ it to the man” has provided thrills from the very origins of cinema. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character had its roots in the notion that “the man” was there to be object of the “stickin’ it.” In rendering Phelps a literal and figurative cardboard cutout, Major League created a clear adversary standing in the way of the Indians’ success that had nothing to do with the Yankees or Pete Vukovich’s cartoon-villain facial hair. The off-the-field stakes became greater than the on-the-field competition. And it had to be – this assemblage of discarded athletes couldn’t have hoped to compete on a level playing field. The moral victory eclipsed the value of the game itself, which you may recall was only a game to determine the champion of the division, not the World Series. (You only learn that they lose the World Series in the unremarkable 1994 sequel.)

Major League also had the benefit of that 1989 release date, the last year before competitive imbalance really took hold of the sport. In just a few years, the suspension of disbelief required to accept that a team with a minimum payroll could compete against the New York Yankees would have made Ward’s comedy feel more like fantasy wish-fulfillment, a re-imagination of the slobs (or nerds) vs. snobs movies of the 1980’s such as Revenge of the Nerds, Animal House, Pretty in Pink, etc. That slim margin for acceptance makes a world of difference during the final, winner-take-all game.  When Lou Brown calls Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn in from the bullpen to face his nemesis with the game on the line, Major League inspires more than just laughs. It flips a switch and creates one of the finest fictionalized baseball contests ever captured on film.

The standing crowd belting out “Wild Thing” as the former California Penal League flamethrower sets his rigid gaze on the mound. We’re invested emotionally. In fact, David S. Ward takes credit for real-life closers adopting signature anthems. After Major League’s release, Phillies’ closer Mitch Williams immediately started using “Wild Thing” for his walk-out music. But it wasn’t commonplace until Trevor Hoffman began stepping out to AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” and cemented the tradition into the modern era. Since Hoffman, relievers have used all manner of sonic preludes ranging from Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” (Armando Benitez) to “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent (Huston Street) and “Stand Up” by Steel Dragon (Joe Nathan). Yes, that’s right. Joe Nathan used a song by the fake hair-metal band in Mark Wahlberg’s Rock Star.

Few have lived up to Hoffman’s precedent, and none have equaled Rick Vaughn’s entrance in Major League – precisely because it felt perfectly organic and duly earned in 1989. This moment still causes those stomach butterflies to race even though the outcome has been set in stone for decades. Rick Vaughn’s eyesight and wildness began as a throwaway joke, one of dozens tossed out during the Indians’ spring training introductions, but when he spins around on the mound to face Vukovich’s slugger – there’s no trace of comedy. Rick Vaughn’s gaze channels our competitive nature, our identification with the underdog. The insecure part of all of us cheers these fictional humans because the movie does more than pay off a gag; Major League makes us a believer in the miraculous, something the greatest baseball tales have always done.

Maybe Roy Hobbs and Eddie Waitkus never actually won a game with a monster home run into the light ballasts, maybe Shoeless Joe Jackson never emerged from an Iowa cornfield, and maybe the Indians (the Guardians as of 2022) will never again win the World Series, but no small part of us wants to believe in everyday magic even as evidence to the contrary assaults us on all fronts. Baseball, and sport in general, rekindles our child-like wonder and movies about sport need to see the magic in a cornfield, in whatever form it takes.


[1] Film movement that contended with the economic and moral hardships in post-World War II Italy and often depicted the scarred national psyche through everyday boredom, poverty, oppression, injustice and desperation. Start your day with a soothing cup of disillusionment. 

[2] They won’t care about any of it until I mention the mustache, at which point they’ll demand a Google Image search. Since I assume you weren’t a Tiger fan in the 80’s you should probably go ahead and Google that now, too.

[3] The author clearly had not seen Ed (1996)the heartwarming story of a pitcher played by Matt LeBlanc and his ballplaying chimpanzee mascot.

By jdp

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, movie watcher and vinyl crate digger. I've interviewed Tom Hanks and James Bond and it was all downhill from there.