From The “Ethics Movies That Drive Me Crazy Because I’ve Watched Them Too Often” Files: “Field Of Dreams”

The end of the baseball season is hard for me, although it dovetails nicely into the hell of the holidays. The whitewater rush of our wedding anniversary, Thanksgiving, my birthday, pre-Christmas, Christmas, and New Years, along with the ethics business’s dead income period and resulting Marshall cash flow anxiety at the end of every year pretty much has me distracted until January, and Spring Training starts just six weeks after that. Early November has me in withdrawal, however, so I yielded to temptation and watched the 1989 baseball fantasy “Field of Dreams.” It is also an ethics movie of sorts, exploring the complexities of family, fathers and sons, forgiveness, sacrifice, faith and redemption.

Ethics Alarms has highlighted the annoying ethics problems in two classic films, “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Now it’s “Field of Dreams'” turn. Oh, I’m still a sucker for one of the most shamelessly manipulative movies ever, don’t get me wrong. I cannot, and I’ve tried, stop myself from getting choked up when Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) says to his incredibly gorgeous hunk of a father (Dwier Brown), long dead but miraculously returned to corporeal form and younger than his son,”Hey, dad? Wanna have a catch?”

See? I got choked up just typing that! (Damn movie.). From an ethics perspective, however, the film makes even less sense than the plot.

I’m going to assume, if you continue reading this, that you’ve seen the film. If you haven’t, see it. Don’t let my jaded observations spoil it. It sure works the first time.

Here are the aspects of “Field of Dreams’ that now drive me nuts.

  • Ray Kinsella is a reluctant and unenthusiastic Iowa farmer who lives with his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan), and daughter, Karin (Gaby Hoffman). In the opening narration, Ray explains his estrangement  from his father, John Kinsella, who was a baseball fanatic and who idolized Shoeless Joe Jackson, the disgraced star of the infamous Chicago Black Sox, who threw the 1919 World Series. By the end of his father’s life, Ray hadn’t seen his father for years. He is still feeling remorseful for refusing to play catch with his father, because rejecting baseball was a way to hurt his dad.

The Problem: The whole film’s premise (and that of the novel, “Shoeless Joe,” it was adapted from) is based on the popular fiction that Joe Jackson was unjustly banned from baseball for being part of the gamblers’ plot to fix the Series. This is untrue. Jackson accepted a bribe. He did not inform authorities. He knew his seven similarly-bribed team mates were trying to lose. He did nothing to stop them. he allowed the Series to be fixed, the fans to be betrayed and the fame itself to be brought to the brink of destruction. Jackson, who was illiterate and from all accounts appears to have had an IQ of about 85, argued that he tried to win despite taking the bribe. First, the evidence is questionable on that point.Although he  batted .375 against the Reds in the series, he failed to drive in a single run in the first five games, four of which the White Sox lost. That’s how you throw games without looking like you’re throwing games. Second, he was making the argument that stealing money from bad people isn’t still unethical. Joe probably believed that, but then he was an idiot.

  • . While walking through his cornfield one evening, Ray hears a whispering voice saying, “If you build it, he will come.” He decides, after the voice keeps pestering  him, that he is supposed to build a baseball field—with lights!—in his corn field, and that if he does, Shoeless Joe Jackson will return from the dead and play there. Or something.  Annie is dubious–ya think?—but lets him do it. After the field is finished and nothing happens for months, we see Ray and Annie going over their financial records:

RAY: How bad is it?

ANNIE: Well, given how much less acreage we have for corn, I’d say we’ll probably…almost break even.

RAY: Jesus.

ANNIE: We’ve spent all our savings on that field.

RAY: So what are you saying? We can’t keep the field?

ANNIE: t makes it real hard to keep the farm, Ray.

The Problem: And I said Shoeless Joe was stupid. NOW they are having this conversation? This is so irresponsible and incompetent, it defies description. Ray has a family. They have a little girl. Spending their savings on Ray’s whim and a ghostly and ambiguous whisper is the ethical equivalent of parents blowing their money on drugs. Through it all, Annie, who proudly styles herself as a Sixties veteran, is relentlessly cheery regarding her husband’s lunacy, and once Shoeless Joe appears on the cornfield diamond she’s all in. What, honey? Another voice is telling you to drive to Boston (from Iowa, remember) and talk famous recluse novelist Terrance Mann ( J.D. Salinger in the novel) to join your fantasy? You want to leave while we are trying to stay out of bankruptcy? Sure, go for it!

At the very least, they could have skipped the lights. None of the 1919 White Sox ever played in a night game; there were none then.

  • While Ray is gone, Annie’s brother (who can’t see the eight banned and dead Black Sox who Shoeless Joe brought back to play on Ray’s field)  forms a syndicate that buys the farm’s mortgage from the bank. Now they are demanding that the note be paid, or they will force the Kinsellas into bankruptcy, and foreclose.

The Problem: What? Who does this to his own sister, brother-in-law and niece? Nobody normal; this is evil, though brother Mark says it’s “business.” Business! The Godfather wouldn’t treat his family this way. Yet at no point does the script hint of any breach between Annie and Mark that could explain such a betrayal, and Annie remains cordial and loving to her brother even while he is going out of his way to destroy her family.

We also meet Annie’s sister and mother, who appear to have no problem with what Mark is doing. The movie is again ethically incoherent. If Mark is supposed to be the anti-Christ, then the screenplay should signal just how terrible his conduct is.  Nobody even says it’swrong. The issue is treated like a normal family squabble.

  • Ray returns from Boston with Mann (James Earl Jones), having also swung by Chisholm, Minnesota and gone back in time to meet old-time cup-of-coffee ballplayer Archie “Moonlight” Graham in 1972. He was a doctor then, and still regretting the fact that he never got to bat in his brief shot at the Major Leagues in 1905. The 1905 model of Graham is somehow picked up by Mann and Linsella on their way to Ray’s farm. When they arrive, even more old, dead baseball players are on the field, playing a full game this time. Archie suits up, and get his chance to come to bat at last.

The Problem: For a movie about the mystical appeal of baseball and its players, the movie is inexcusably sloppy with details. Shoeless Joe was a left-handed batter, while Ray Liotta, who plays him, bats right. “Moonlight” Graham was a real player, who did only appear in one game, without batting, and he did become a doctor. But he died in 1965. When Archie finally gets at bat, the pitcher throws at his head twice, sending him sprawling. “Hey ump,” he says to the home plate umpire (and where did the umpires come from?), “How about a warning?”

In 1905, when Archie Graham played, that question  would have provoked confusion. There were no warnings. There were no warnings for beanball pitches when any of the players in that game were alive: that was a practice that started after Moonlight Graham was dead.

I know, this is relatively minor. It still drives me crazy, every time.

  • Mark shows up during the game, still not seeing the players, with an eviction notice. The movie now gets even weirder. Both daughter Karin and Terrence Mann, sounding like they are possessed, give monologues explaining that the family will not be ruined financially because “people will come” to spiritually cleanse and reinvigorate themselves  by seeing the ghostly players play.

The Problem: Their argument, in addition to being batty (Where will all these people stay? There are only stands enough to seat a few spectators: will they be expected to stand?)  Mann says they will hand over 20 dollars for the privilege. So now Ray is going to profit from what was supposed to be a selfless act of faith? How are the ballplayers going to be compensated?  Will they be compensated, or are they Ray’s slaves now? Will they have to abide by a schedule?

In the (ridiculous) ending, we see the headlight ofhundreds of cars on the road, coming to see the field. But the players have already quit for the day. There will be nothing to see, and the players haven’t given any hints of when and if they will return.

This is a movie about integrity, and yet the movie itself has none.

  • The dual speeches by Mann and Karin infuriate Mark, and his ensuing rant ends up causing Karin to fall off the stands to the ground. She lies unconscious, not breathing. Terrance Mann says, “I’ll get the car!” But with his daughter in mortal peril, Ray notices Archie lingering at the foul line, as if he’s trying to decide what to do. For what seems like an eternity, Ray delays trying to help his daughter because he has a hunch that 1) Archie will cross the line and magically become old Doc Graham from 1972, although 2) nothing like this has happened before and 3) Ray is gambling that Archie will do this before Karin has suffered permanent brain damage. Annie,as usual, is just standing around while her daughter’s life and IQ points ebb away thinking, “Cool!” Fortunately, Archie does cross the foul line, becomes Doc Graham (Burt Lancaster), gets the littel girl breathing, and Karin, with no help from Ray, isn’t a vegetable.

The Problem: These are the worst parents in Iowa.

  • Following this miracle, Mark suddenly can see the players. “Don’t sell this farm, Ray,” he says.

The Problem: What about that eviction notice? Oh, never mind. Meanwhile, Annie cheerily sends her cruel and traitorous brother in for lemonade, without any apology from him, treating the whole episode as if he had belched at the dinner table of something.

By this point, I have been yanked right out of the movie.

So why does this scene still choke me up???

21 thoughts on “From The “Ethics Movies That Drive Me Crazy Because I’ve Watched Them Too Often” Files: “Field Of Dreams”

  1. If you really want to see a great baseball movie that has some ethical questions, but which doesn’t go as far into fantasy as Field of Dreams, watch It Happens Every Spring. It stars Ray Milland as a young college professor (this is an OLD movie–black and white), who doesn’t make enough to marry the dean’s daughter, accidentally stumbles across a liquid that makes baseball repelled by wood, takes a leave of absence, and goes to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals. Besides Field of Dreams isn’t really a baseball movie; it’s a reconciliation movie, and it’s for those of us who were once close to our fathers and never quite got around to telling them who much we cared until it was too late.

  2. The Problem: Their argument, in addition to being batty (Where will all these people stay? There are only stands enough to seat a few spectators: will they be expected to stand?) Mann says they will hand over 20 dollars for the privilege. So now Ray is going to profit from what was supposed to be a selfless act of faith? How are the ballplayers going to be compensated? Will they be compensated, or are they Ray’s slaves now? Will they have to abide by a schedule?

    In the (ridiculous) ending, we see the headlight ofhundreds of cars on the road, coming to see the field. But the players have already quit for the day. There will be nothing to see, and the players haven’t given any hints of when and if they will return.

    The scene with the long line of headlights descending on the farm reminds me of the scenes of processions at Lourdes (see here). People in the thousands descend on a site where the Virgin Mary appeared to a French country girl, St. Bernadette, and requested that she build a chapel in a grotto that was practically a garbage dump. Most people who go there will not experience any physical healing or see any apparitions. Most people know that the likelihood of seeing anything miraculous is negligible, yet they still come. They believe it is still worth making the pilgrimage just to visit a place that has been so particularly blessed.

    Now, I have no idea if the makers of “Field of Dream” had in mind a holy pilgrimage akin to Lourdes. But I would argue that people would come to visit a place that has been specially touched, many of them would never see a single ghost ballplayer (even if they are out playing!), many of them will sleep on open ground, and many of them will make voluntary donations to keep the field safeguarded against the world. It is, at least, behavior consistent with the human condition, since we’ve seen it elsewhere.

  3. After I wrote this, I stumbled across a post, coincidentally from this year, by Craig Calcaterra, the lawyer-NBC Sports baseball blogger who I have referenced from time to time. His piece is called “Field of Dreams” is absolutely terrible,” His post is absolutely terrible, and sadly confirms my growing suspicion that progressive politics have eaten Craig’s brain. Too bad.
    To bein with the movie is not terrible. It’s a terrific movie, a classic. Craig can say he hates it, and that can’t be disputed. But most people love the movie; and so do most critics. Entertainment should be judged on how entertaining it is, and how successful it is in getting to an audience. Most movies don’t This one does, and has, and probably always will. Craig doesn’t have to like it. But he does have to accept that it’s a good movie.

    Craig calls the film: “A story about how a parent’s values are more important than their children’s, how youthful idealism is a sin and how 1960s-style progressivism must be repudiated and repented for.” Jeez, projecting much, Craig? I don;’t think anyone not infected with the Angry Left Virus would ever see the film that way. Ray realizes that family relationships are more important and deeper than the things families fight over, that’s all. The symbolism of playing catch with dad isn’t that its some kind of moral capitulation, but that fathers and sons can just bond in the momentary innocence of a traditional activity.

    Craig says the idealism of the Sixties is mocked, and this insults him. It’s not mocked; It’s celebrated far too much in the film. The Sixties were ridiculous, and the “idealism” of the Sixties were a toxic combination of naivete, sentimentality, narcissism and nonsense. But “Field Of dreams” doesn’t say [baseball’s racial issues.].” Craig is being hyper-defensive in his lovebeads,

    He also bitches that the movie doesn’t take a completely tangential turn and reference race. This is the Social Justice Warrior brain-meld: everything is about race. he says, the Jones character:

    “Call me crazy, but I feel like a black, progressive writer who cited Jackie Robinson as his hero earlier in the movie may have made at least passing reference to that.” Let us all give thanks that Craig has never written a play or a screenplay. Yeah, Mann doesn’t mention global warming,either. Shame on him.

  4. I’ve never been a big fan of “Field of Dreams,” although since it features deadball-era ballplayers I watch it when it comes on.

    The whole “Shoeless Joe was a dummy and besides he was great, so put him in the Hall of Fame” argument never washed with me. He was smart enough to run a business (a liquor store) for several decades before his death, so it’s not like he didn’t know which way was up. And, as Jack points out, HE TOOK MONEY FROM GAMBLERS TO THROW THE WORLD’S SERIES!!! You don’t have to be able to spell “cat” to know that’s wrong.

    Back to the movie: It’s just way too maudlin, even though I also get choked up when Ray asks his dad if he wants to have a catch. I always wished my dad would’ve taken the time to play catch with me, so it hits home.

    Another pet peeve: The writers buy into the lazy and erroneous caricature of Ty Cobb that was propagated by the slimy sportswriter Al Stump. The notion that Cobb was shunned by everyone in baseball is a complete lie. It’s true that only two ballplayers came to his funeral, but that was in accordance with Ty’s wishes. Anyone who wants the real story about Cobb, and how his name was smeared by the disgusting Stump, should read Charles Leerhsen’s fine book “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.” Much of Leerhsen’s research echoed that of amateurs who posted their findings on the baseball fever website. (The author even acknowledges some of the work done on that website by guys like Wesley Fricks and the late Bill Burgess).

    I know the writer of the screenplay was merely going with the prevailing “wisdom” about Cobb by throwing in the line that he also wanted to play in the cornfield but was blackballed because nobody liked the SOB when he was alive. But it’s still lazy.

    Even lazier: Anyone who knows anything about baseball history knows that Joe Jackson was a farm boy from South Carolina; hell, that’s part of his legend (he was so uneducated and backwoods he really didn’t know he was throwing games).

    So why would the writers cast Shoeless Joe as a wisecracking Jersey boy?

    Again, the father-son catch scene does get me choked up, but the rest of the movie is lame.

  5. Jack,
    Your musings on ethics, baseball, fathers and sons, and the name “Joe” spurred my memory to the book “Calico Joe” by John Grisham.
    If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. The values of forgiveness and redemption are deeply explored in it. And yes, I got choked up while reading it.

    • I also read “Calico Joe,” a few years ago. The book was a gift from my wife. (She has gradually, sometimes reluctantly, learned baseball from me, over the course of our marriage. She is a bigger fan of Grisham than I.) In case Jack has not read it yet, I won’t spoil anything about it by saying anything more specific here, other than just to brag that I knew, before I was one page into it, the basic plot of the story. I can understand the getting choked up (from the book, and from “Field of Dreams”), even if that did not occur to me while I enjoyed them both.

  6. I’ve never seen the movie but it reminded me of that song about the boy who wanted to spend time with his dad, but when he finally got the chance he didn’t do it. At least this one has a happy ending.

  7. I’m vague on this now due to the passage of years since I looked into it, but it seems to me that the sympathy for the Black Sox is rooted in a due process complaint. Eliot Asinof, the author of the book Eight Men Out, recognized that Jackson took the money, didn’t try his best, and confessed. He seems to think the real crime, though, is that once the players were acquitted* in court, they were barred from playing without additional procedure within baseball. The book dates from 1963, and a due process argument and a sympathetic subject pretty much shut down any factual arguments about the matter.

    To follow on what Jack said, I think it’s generally agreed that four games started by pitchers Cicotte and Williams were fixed. Two games started by pitcher Kerr were not. A third start (Game 7) by pitcher Cicotte, ironically to be called “the double cross game,” was probably also honest – the double cross was the players taking vengeance on the gamblers who weren’t paying as promised. The final game is something of a mystery. The best bet seems to be that all players except pitcher Williams were trying to win. In the four games we know were fixed, Jackson hit .250. In the remaining four, he hit .500, with his only home run

    *It’s not true that they were acquitted of a charge of throwing games. Everyone agreed there was no such law, so they were tried on a fraud charge that the prosecution couldn’t make coherent.

    • The thing is that the Commissioner’s Office was installed essentially to clobber those players. No process was in place yet: this was the precedent from which a process evolved.

      There is every reason to feel sympathetic for the 8. Their owner was a monster, and cheated them. Lots of gambling was going on in baseball, and probably some fixing too, and as with steroids, the problem was ignored for too long. The 1919 Series was the tipping point, and they are the sacrifices. But once you have accepted money to throw the World Series, how can you ever be allowed to play again?

  8. I’ve never been into baseball, but I do consider it more about redeeming a sour relationship with a father. (Ray’s financial shenanigams will give his daughter her own relationship to redeem about now?) It’s a song for people who don’t have that chance to reconnect through a fantasy baseball field.

    It really has more fantasy than the field itself, as Doc Graham was already dead in the present of the movie. When they talk to him as the old man the movie marquee shows a little bit of time travel to probably get around the 1965 death of Graham.

    I also wonder how ten acres or so of cornfield killed their yields that much. (I missed the lost savings, and caught the visually dramatic night game scenes) Farms in the midwest are way bigger than the couple hundred acres that are common in the east, almost 350 acres today. Ten out of 350 shouldn’t be as much a dealbreaker if the other 340 are run properly. But it’s clear he wastes as much or more with the green grassy yard around the house. He really is a bad farmer, probably chasing as sad a dream as his father did baseball. But green farmland is so much groovier than making a few bucks with a corn maze to save the farm…

    I love the movie though.

  9. “Build it and they weill come,” became the go-to slur on any proposed real estate project that wasn’t pre-leased to a meaningful degree. I always got a kick out of its use in that context.

  10. Yeah, that right-handed Shoeless Joe, to me, is the most annoying inaccuracy about the movie.

    Annie’s preachy Sixties bullshit, that supposedly, simultaneously, (1) swayed the crowd of pitchfork-parents to oppose “censoring” a book from their delicate darlings’ reading assignment, and (2) figuratively bitch-slapped a mouthy-mean religious zealot who somehow nonetheless knew a juicy tidbit about the book’s author’s sexual practices, dominated one of the movie’s more obviously and annoyingly unnecessary scenes. As my eyes rolled, I thought: “Score the obligatory Hollywood Two-Minute Hate.”

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