Baseball had a rare PR triumph earlier this month when it held a regular season game between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox in the Iowa cornfield diamond that was the setting for the cult movie favorite “Field of Dreams.” The TV ratings were the best for any regular season broadcast in 16 years. That’s amazing, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Despite rumors of its demise, baseball still has a cultural bedrock of tradition, nostalgia and history unmatched by any other sport, professional or amateur. So many Americans would not tune in to a baseball game if they didn’t still have a flicker of affection for the sport, and if your argument is, “Yeah, but that’s just because of the movie,” the movie wouldn’t have become iconic if a lot of people didn’t care about baseball. As Terrence Mann said,
Now my confession: I’m not a wild fan of the film, nor that scene. The scene in particular is unforgivably stagey and artificial: it’s right out of the (much better) book, “Shoeless Joe,” and not even the great James Earl Jones could make it sound like anything but a recitation. I got annoyed, during the hype for the game broadcast, with “Field of Dreams” being repeatedly called “The greatest baseball movie.” I don’t regard it as that; I think it just barely makes the top five, and I could be talked out of ranking it that high.
For good reasons, many baseball writers, fans and bloggers have criticized the film over the years, and not just because it is shamelessly manipulative. But it is that. Baseball writer Craig Calcaterra, a vocal debunker of the film, writes,
“I will fully admit that a story about a father and son repairing a longstanding rift over a game of catch — with or without the magical realism elements — could form the basis of a MAJOR chills moment in an absolutely fantastic movie. The problem, as I’ve said in the past, is that “Field of Dreams” does not earn its chills moment. It is lazy in that it does not sketch out the dispute between Ray and his dad in anything approaching realistic terms — it’s dashed off in the rushed intro with almost no details — and it does nothing to explain why Ray’s moving the Earth and the Heavens to bring his dad back to that ball field is so important or why it serves as the “penance” Ray must pay for whatever reason. With no buildup or backstory, there’s no payoff.”
But worse, for me and others, is the slipshod handling of baseball history. “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was not innocent of taking a bribe to throw the 1919 World Series, he was guilty. He was not a thoughtful, wise-cracking Ray Liotta, he was just north of being a moron. He batted left-handed, and famously so, not right-handed like Liotta. When Frank Walley’s character, a magically reincarnated and youthened old ballplayer named Archie “Moonlight” Graham, whose single appearance in the major leagues was in 1905, is nearly beaned by a close pitch, he says “Hey ump, how about a warning?” Umpires didn’t warn pitchers for throwing at batters in 1905, and not for more than a half-century after that. Sloppy.
Some of the criticism of the film is contrived, but the movie walked right into it. For example, there are no black players among the baseball ghosts who assemble behind Mann’s speech. Well, the players are supposed to be contemporaries of Jackson, who played between the wars, except that Walley’s character says at one point, “There’s Gil Hodges!” Not only would Graham at his age never have heard of Hodges, Hodges played on the Dodgers with Jackie Robinson! If Hodges, who died in 1972 (just like Graham!), was on that field, Jackie should have been too, unless baseball is still segregated in Heaven. Again: sloppy.
“Field of Dreams” is also an ethics movie, however, and even in that realm it is annoying. I wrote down some (but not all!) of my complaints in this post, among them,
- While walking through his cornfield one evening, Ray [Kevin Costner, who waled out of the cornfield before the game this month) 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, Ray surmises, Shoeless Joe Jackson will return from the dead and play there. Or something. His wife 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.
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.
And I said Shoeless Joe was an idiot! 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.
What? Who does this to his own sister, brother-in-law and niece? Nobody normal; this is evil, though brother Mark says it’s just “business.” Business! The Godfather wouldn’t treat his family this way. Yet at no point does the script hint of any rifth 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. That’s not ethical, that’s insane.
Later we 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’s wrong! The issue is treated like a normal family squabble.
- Mark shows up during a ghost 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.
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?), suddenly veers away from ethics into commerce. 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 of hundreds 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. Will they still be asked to pay 20 dollars? This is a movie about integrity, and yet the movie itself has none.
- Here, for me, is the worst. The dual speeches by Mann and Karin infuriate Mark, and his ensuing rant ends up causing little Karin to fall off the stands to the ground. She lies unconscious, not breathing. Her life is ticking away! 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 save 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 is beyond saving 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 little girl breathing, and Karin, with no help from Ray, isn’t a vegetable.
These are the worst parents in Iowa.
- Following this miracle, Mark suddenly can see the players. “Don’t sell this farm, Ray,” he says.
Wait, what? 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.
But hey, if it gave baseball a boost after last year’s pandemic-scarred season, I can almost forgive it all. Almost.