As the baseball world descends on a cornfield in Iowa this week, it might be instructive to consider the career of one Moonlight Graham. The White Sox will play the Yankees in the inaugural game at the site of the iconic movie, which was released in 1989. Many stories will be written about the game and the movies this week. However, the story of Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham is one that merits a fresh look. Hopefully, his story is one that many baseball fans will find interesting and informative.
So Who Was Moonlight Graham?
The short answer is that he was a character in the Kevin Costner classic “Field of Dreams,” based loosely on the 1919 White Sox and their star, Shoeless Joe Jackson. It is a fictionalized account of the return to baseball of that team, which had 8 players banned from baseball over a gambling scandal. Yet, even though it is classic Hollywood, it is based on actual players who actually played in the big leagues. Moonlight Graham was one of the players in the movie who did play in the major leagues.
The account of his MLB career is a rather short one. Moonlight was, by all accounts, an excellent player, with a slight frame, but with plenty of speed. He played in the minors for several years before finally getting called up by the New York Giants in May of 1905. He sat on the bench for a month and a half, waiting for his chance to get into a game. Immortal manager John McGraw was hesitant to play him for some reason. Some have speculated that Graham was still sore from playing football at the University of Maryland, although we will never know for sure. In any event, Moonlight had to bide his time, hoping to get the call.
Then, on June 29th, 1905, it happened. The Giants were beating the Brooklyn Superbas 10-0, and Mcgraw inserted Graham into the lineup as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the eighth inning. Moonlight Graham had finally made it onto a major league field. A dream had come true, hopefully, the beginning of a long MLB career. Surely, Moonlight Graham was headed for great things in baseball.
Alas, as fate would have it, Graham did not get a chance to hit that day. In an ironic twist of fate, he was in the on-deck circle when pitcher Claude Elliott popped up for the last out in the top of the ninth. (Apparently, McGraw was not a proponent of the double switch.) So, Moonlight Graham would have to wait another day to get that first big league at-bat. Surely his patience would be rewarded, it was only a matter of time. He would get that at-bat next time.
Sometimes There Is No Next Time
Moonlight Graham never got another chance to play in a major league game. He sat on the Giants’ bench until his contract was sold on July 5th to a team in the minors. The reasons for his lack of playing time and ultimate demotion remain unclear to this day. Again, it may have been a football injury, or it just may have been that teams judged him not worthy to play in the big leagues. In any case, he never got another shot in the big leagues.
The Other Side Of Moonlight
While Moonlight Graham aspired to play in the big leagues, baseball was not his only passion. He also had a deep interest in medicine and aspired to become a doctor. In fact, he juggled baseball and medicine for many years, as he was reluctant to give up on his baseball dreams. Legend has it that he earned the nickname “Moonlight” because of his studying medicine while also playing baseball. However, after bouncing around the minor leagues for years, Graham finally had to close the books on his professional baseball career. Graham officially retired from baseball after the 1908 season.
Because of a respiratory issue, Graham decided to move west in search of cleaner air. He landed in Chicago, where he served a residency at the Chicago Ear and Throat Hospital. While there, he attended a conference in Rochester, Minnesota, where he heard about the clean air in the Iron Range Mountains. At the end of the conference, he resigned his post in Chicago and headed to the Minnesota wilderness. He wound up in the town of Chisholm, where he would become a legendary physician.
The Chisholm Years
Moonlight Graham began his medical practice in Chisholm, Minnesota in 1909, and would serve the citizens of Chisholm for the next 50 years. Along the way, he met and married his wife Alecia Flowers in 1915. The couple did not have any children, but they still contributed to the Chisholm community in many ways. In 1910, the still young doctor helped the small town survive a typhoid epidemic. Graham was also a major contributor to the national effort during a polio epidemic in 1914. Once again, in 1918, Graham was credited with saving many lives in the face of a worldwide flu epidemic.
Even as his medical profession was very fulfilling, the itch to play baseball was irresistible for Moonlight. After playing in some pickup games during his first summer in Chisholm, Graham played for many years on a part-time basis. Now, his “moonlighting” was on the baseball diamond, and not in a medical school. Graham had his priorities, after all. However, Graham still had at least one more baseball highlight, according to legend, In the early 1920’s, Shoeless Joe Jackson brought his barnstorming team to Chisholm. In the 9th inning, with the Chisholm team clinging to a one-run lead, Jackson hit a rocket to right field that Graham tracked down and caught for the final out. That is how the story goes anyway.
Doctor Graham went on to accomplish a great deal in Chisholm. A lot of his work was dedicated to children, as he studied pediatric hypertension. His work was published in the American Journal of Diseases of Children. He became an internationally renown physician, as his work became required reading for physicians around the world. He also gave a lecture in fron of 14,000 doctors at a conference in Chicago. So, while Graham may not have succeeded in his baseball career, he achieved Hall of Fame credentials very early in his medical career. He retired from the medical profession in 1960. In August, 1965, Graham’s failing health finally got the best of him, and he died on August 25th.
Moonlight Graham And The “Field Of Dreams”
The baseball career of Archibald Dwight “Moonlight” Graham may have been very short-lived. However, the good doctor was immortalized in the movie “Field of Dreams,” helping to keep his legacy alive forever. While some of the scenes may be embellished a bit, they are still classic. He is first mentioned by Ray Kinsella and Terence Mann as a piece of the mystery told by the movie. His story continues as he shares his dream with Kinsella. After the trip from Chisholm to somewhere in Iowa (Spoiler Alert), Moonlight finally gets his chance to bat in a big-league game.
In another strange twist off fate, the “new” career of Moonlight Graham would become a total reflection of his real-life experiences. Shortly after his first at-bat, as fate would have it, Ray’s daughter begins to choke on a hot dog. Graham, a doctor at heart, comes to the rescue and saves her life. Ray quickly realizes that Moonlight can never go back to the field. However, in one of the more touching moments in the movie, Graham thanks Ray for the opportunity for that one at-bat in the big leagues. Then, as Moonlight disappears into the Iowa cornfields, Shoeless Joe calls out to him and says, “Hey, rookie, you were good.” With that, the baseball career of Moonlight Graham comes to an end.
Moonlight Graham’s MLB career was as short as a career can be. Playing an inning or two in one game is not noteworthy in and of itself. While he touched and saved so many lives as a doctor, he also did something that many of us dream about as young boys. Archibald Dwight “Moonlight” Graham played in the Major Leagues. He lived the dream, short though his career may have been. Now, thanks to the iconic movie” Field of Dreams,” the man will never be forgotten. His was truly a life worth celebrating.
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