Lost in a 'Field' of imagination
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

"It's my corn," says Kevin Costner in the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams," but really it is everybody's corn. "Field of Dreams," based on the W.P. Kinsella novel "Shoeless Joe," is about baseball and a past that never was, and the filmmakers get away with a lot, because they telegraph, right from the start, that it's a fantasy film, an "It's a Wonderful Game" for the modern age.

Field of Dreams
If they produce a "Field of Dreams" DVD, baseball fans will come.
So when you fire up the DVD and watch Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) plow under part of his cornfield to build a beautiful baseball diamond for Shoeless Joe Jackson's ghost to play on, enjoy the fantasy.

But if you want to separate fact from fiction, here's your guide:

In reel life: Kevin Costner's character, the hippie-turned-farmer Ray Kinsella, hears a voice. "If you build it, he will come," it says. And so the journey begins.

In real life: Kevin Costner keeps hearing voices. "If you make ‘Waterworld,' they will come," says one. "If you make ‘The Postman,' they will come," says another. Sometimes the voices don't know what the hell they're talking about.

In reel life: Ray Kinsella and Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) share a fantasy about baseball, and part of that fantasy involves "pardoning" Joe Jackson and the seven other Black Sox for fixing the 1919 World Series.

In real life: Eight Black Sox were banned for life by baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Shoeless Joe’s banning was, and still is, the most controversial. Though the historical record shows that he took $5,000 (and spent it), some believe he actually tried to win the Series and was treated too harshly by Landis. In any case, he remains banned from the Hall of Fame, despite a career batting average of .356.

In reel life: Terence Mann is a huge "cult" author who's become an extremely determined recluse. When Kinsella tracks him down, Mann tells him to get lost. "Oh my God!," Mann says. "You're from the '60s!"

In real life: In "Shoeless Joe," the novel, the character is named J.D. Salinger. But Salinger (the author of the classic "Catcher in the Rye") didn't like having his name in the book, and the filmmakers, anticipating a legal dispute if they used his name in the movie, changed the name and moved the reclusive character from New Hampshire (where Salinger lives) to Boston. The name "Ray Kinsella," according to W.P. Kinsella, came from Salinger's story, "A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All," published in Mademoiselle in May 1947.

In reel life: Shoeless Joe Jackson, played in the film by Ray Liotta, says, "I'd have played for meal money. I'd have played for nothing."

In real life: Most of the 1919 White Sox played for as close to nothing as owner Charles Comisky could make them. He was a notorious cheapskate, and many believe the Black Sox wouldn't have even considered throwing the Series if they hadn't been desperate for the cash. But would Shoeless Joe really have played for nothing? Maybe so, but when he participated in the fixing of the World Series, he showed that he wouldn't throw the Series for nothing.

In reel life: The cornstalks are tall and green.

In real life: Corn in Iowa during the summer "Field of Dreams" was filmed was about ankle high, because the state was suffering through its worst drought since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. But Kevin Costner walking through a field of ankle-high corn would have probably reminded viewers of the "Stonehenge" scene from "This Is Spinal Tap." So the filmmakers spent $25,000 to irrigate the cornfield -- which is, by farming standards, a tremendous waste of money.

In reel life: The ballpark grass is green.

In real life: The ballpark grass was painted green; because of the drought and tremendous wear and tear during filming, its natural color was brown.

In reel life: Ray Kinsella is a pretty good ballplayer -- he's got a fluid swing and can catch and throw well.

In real life: Rod Dedeaux, the film's baseball advisor, says Kevin Costner actually is a pretty good ballplayer -- that he would have been good enough to play at USC, where Dedeaux coached.

In reel life: Shoeless Joe bats right and throws left. Archie Graham bats right.

In real life: Jackson batted left and threw right. Archie "Moonlight" Graham batted left.

In reel life: Archie "Moonlight" Graham, played by Burt Lancaster, is an ex-ballplayer who played only one inning in the majors, in 1922, never getting a chance in the outfield and never coming to bat.

In real life: "Moonlight" Graham, who had only the second-best nickname on his team ("Boileryard" Clark took top honors), played for the great 1905 New York Giants. On June 29, Giants manager John McGraw put Graham into right field for one inning, and he never fielded a ball or came to bat. Shortly thereafter, Graham retired and became a doctor in his hometown of Chisholm, Minn.

In reel life: The young Archie Graham arrives at the field and says he sees Smokey Joe Wood, Mel Ott and Gil Hodges out there warming up.

In real life: Smokey Joe Wood would probably have been the only player known to a young Moonlight Graham, as Wood's major-league career spanned the years from 1908 to 1920. Mel Ott didn't play his first major league game until 1926, and was born on March 2, 1909 -- almost four years after Graham really played in the majors. Gil Hodges played one game for the Dodgers in 1943, but didn't play again in the majors until 1947. So the fictional young Graham wouldn't have been able to identify Hodges or Ott.

Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan
Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan listen for "The Voice."
In reel life: Archie Graham comes up to bat, and the pitcher sends him chin music twice in a row. Graham says, "Hey ump, how 'bout a warning?" The umpire replies, "Sure, kid. Watch out you don't get killed."

In real life: Since these are ballplayers from the deep past, they're not wearing helmets (catcher Roger "The Duke of Tralee" Bresnahan experimented with a leather batting helmet in 1905, but baseball helmets were uncommon until the 1950s, when they became mandatory). And Graham (the real guy, not the ghost) really could have been killed, as was Ray Chapman, who was hit on the head by a Carl Mays pitch on Aug. 16, 1920, and died the next day.

In reel life: "Moonlight" becomes "Doc," and is lauded as one of the great, generous men of the town by locals after his death in 1972.

In real life: Doc Graham was a real local hero, and the stories told in the movie about his life in Chisholm are true. But he died in 1965.

In reel life: Karin Kinsella, Ray's daughter, says the diamond in the cornfield can be a moneymaker. "People will pay $20 to come see this field," she says.

In real life: Two farming couples -- the Ameskamps and the Lansings -- own the field. The Lansings own the infield and right field, the Ameskamps left and center. And they've been battling for more than a decade over the commercialization of the field, which draws about 40,000 visitors a year.

The Ameskamps have all along tried to make a buck off it -- at one point, Al Ameskamp replanted corn in the outfield (for the money he'd make by selling a few more bushels), then changed his mind when locals protested. Recently, the Ameskamps built a maze in their cornfield, shaped like a silhouette of Jackson, and charged visitors $6 to walk through the maze, which includes baseball trivia quizzes and exhibits. Keith Rahe, an investor in the maze project, explained: "For 10 years people have wondered what's really back in the field where all the players disappeared. Now they can find out."

In reel life: As the film ends, a line of cars is shown driving to the field. They came, as predicted, and did so in a single line.

In real life: The cars split off -- there are separate roads leading to the Ameskamps' and Lansings' operations. Lansing has been determined to keep his part of the field nonprofit and noncommercial, and accepts donations for upkeep only. Ameskamp wants some bucks. Who's closer to the real spirit of ballpark owners?

In reel life: The cars are moving, although slowly.

In real life: The 1,500 cars used to create the final scene are so jammed up, even though the shot was carefully planned, that most aren't moving. The director instructed the drivers to switch between high and low beams to create the illusion of movement.

In reel life: At the end of the film, Shoeless Joe picks Terence Mann to come join the ballplayers in the cornfield.

In real life: Shoeless Joe would likely have wondered what the hell a black man was doing on the field.

In reel life: The stolen dreams of white ballplayers are sentimentalized.

In real life: Landis banned eight white ballplayers from playing in the majors. At the same time, he supported the ban of all black players from the majors. No mention of that injustice is made in the film.

In reel life: Baseball and America and dreams and the golden past of rural simplicity are constant, overt themes.

In real life: In Japan, the movie's tagline was, "Ray Kinsella builds baseball field and at end of movie meets his dead father." The movie was huge hit in Japan, and busloads of Japanese tourists continue to visit the field in Dyersville, Iowa. As popular as "Field of Dreams" was in the United States, its central theme translated more literally to ancestor worship in Japan.

In reel life: "Field of Dreams" was a very tough sell to Hollywood studios. Many doubted that Kevin Costner could pull off two baseball star turns in a row. ("Bull Durham" had appeared the year before.) One critic suggested the film would be gone quicker than the opening weekend.

In real life: Moviegoers ate up the fantasy and loved Costner as the idealistic and confused farmer, and "Field of Dreams" has reached "classic" status, and can be found on many lists of the best sports movies ever.

"Closer Look" will be a regular Page 2 feature, exploring a hot sports topic in greater detail.



Jeff Merron Archive

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Closer Look: 'Bull Durham' in reel life

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Closer Look: Do pitchers and catchers get along?

Closer Look: The Love Triangle: Michael, Phil and Kobe

Closer Look: Pro Bowl goes Hawaii

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