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'Moonlight' Was Real, Not Just Reel

Immortalized in 'Field of Dreams,' Archibald Graham played in one game 100 years ago.

June 26, 2005|Ben Walker | Associated Press Writer

His big league career lasted all of one game, a few fleeting moments in right field.

He stood out there on a summer afternoon so long ago, on a patch of grass since paved over in Brooklyn.

Yet many folks are certain "Moonlight" Graham was a made-up character from a movie, not a real-life ballplayer for the New York Giants.

" 'Field of Dreams' was before my time," said Willie Mays, the greatest Giant of them all. "That was a real thing? How come nobody told me?"

Yet the tale is true, at least most of it. Because on June 29, 1905 -- exactly 100 years ago on Wednesday -- Archibald Wright Graham made his lone appearance in the majors.

He never got to hit. Instead, he was left on deck. A late substitute in a lopsided 11-1 win, he played only two innings and there's no proof he ever touched the ball.

"Graham went to right field for New York" was his only mention in the local Evening Telegram's play-by-play account. And, just that fast, the 28-year-old rookie described in the sporting press as being "quick as a flash of moonlight" was gone.

No wonder it took quite awhile for his story to get around -- and for author W.P. Kinsella to make Graham a part of the poetry and romance that celebrate the lore and lure of baseball.

More than a decade after Graham died in 1965, the prize-winning author was leafing through the Baseball Encyclopedia that his father-in-law had given him for Christmas a few days earlier. Among the listings for every player and their lifetime stats, Kinsella came across something that stopped him.

"I found this entry for Moonlight Graham. How could anyone 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," he said.

A few years later, he did. His 1982 novel, "Shoeless Joe," was adapted into the 1989 film "Field of Dreams," and Moonlight was reborn.

Eventually, there was a band called Moonlight Graham, a couple of websites were dedicated to him and a scholarship fund was established in his honor.

"I didn't anticipate this happening," Kinsella said in a telephone interview from his home in British Columbia, Canada.

In the movie, Graham's name mystically flickers onto the scoreboard at Fenway Park. Reflecting on the one at-bat he never got in the bigs, he says: "Back then I thought, 'Well, there'll be other days.' I didn't realize that that was the only day."

And he asks, "Is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?"

Veda Ponikvar knew Graham for almost a half-century in Chisholm, Minn. He arrived around 1912 after the town placed a newspaper ad for a school doctor, and Ponikvar said he never talked about his ball playing.

Nor did he explain his enchanting nickname.

"I think it was because by the light of the moon, he practiced his game," she said. "But some people said it was because he moonlighted as a doctor."

No matter, she said, Burt Lancaster's kindly portrayal was perfect.

"I remember probably in the third grade when he inoculated me for scarlet fever," she said. "I still have the mark on my arm. Growing up, I thought it was the most horrible thing. Later on, I thought, 'Oh, Doc Graham, you're pretty precious. You left your mark.' "

Now in her mid-80s, she'll be at the Metrodome on Wednesday to throw out the first ball before Kansas City plays Minnesota on Moonlight Graham Day.

All because of sheer luck.

When Kinsella thumbed through the Baseball Encyclopedia, he could've easily turned to the pages for Twink Twining, Goat Cochran or Struss. Of the more than 16,000 players in major league history, they're also among the 900-plus guys in the Elias Sports Bureau registry who got into only one game.

"I had no backup," Kinsella said. "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."

OK, so what if he really didn't play on the last day of the 1922 season, as in the movie? Or that he batted left-handed, rather than right in the film? Or that he got sent down after his one big league game and spent three more years in the minors?

Those blue hats he bought for his wife, Alecia? "Absolutely true," Ponikvar said. And the way he patted children to clear food stuck in their throats? "He did it to me," she said.

In all, it's a story that fans everywhere embraced. Well, almost everyone.

"I didn't see 'Field of Dreams.' I don't watch movies about what I do," San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds said.

On the other hand, Los Angeles Angels first baseman Darin Erstad estimates he's watched it 20 to 30 times.

"It's a special thing because it's a dream of a lot of kids out there, to have the opportunity to put on a big league uniform for just that one time," he said.

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