Video: Moonlight Graham remembered

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At the Metrodome in Minnesota Wednesday, an 86-year-old woman and two kids from Chisholm, Minnesota, threw out ceremonial first pitches before the Twins game against the Kansas City Royals.  The team was saluting Doc Graham Day.  The kids are the recipients of the two Doc Graham memorial scholarships. 

Does that name, Doc Graham, ring a bell?  How about Moonlight Graham?  Sure, it’s been 16 years since the movie came out, but it runs every month on TV. 

Think hard now.  Surely you remember Moonlight Graham.  “Field of Dreams?”  There you go. 

It’s perhaps the iconic depiction of baseball on film, a magical combination of history, fantasy and innocence.  It’s become that largely because of just one of its many characters, that fanciful creation that author W.P. Kinsella called Moonlight Graham.

Graham supposedly played in just one Major League Baseball team, then became the beloved town doctor of the tiny town of Chisholm, Minnesota. 

Well, it would have been a fanciful creation, and Moonlight Graham would have been one of fiction’s great characters, except for one detail: there really was a Moonlight Graham. 

He really did become the beloved town doctor of Chisholm, Minnesota.  And he really did play in just one Major League Baseball game.  That one game was exactly 100 years ago on Wednesday. 

In Chisholm, Minnesota, 70 miles from the Canadian border, they never called him Moonlight.  Instead, they opted for Doc or Doctor Graham.

W.P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe, says he came across his name in a baseball encyclopedia given as a Christmas gift.  “He was listed as Moonlight Graham.  And I thought, ‘What a wonderful name.  This is better than anything I could invent,’” says Kinsella. 

This movie story really is true.  In 1904, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham was a .323 hitter with Manchester of the New England League.  He was then purchased by the National League champion New York Giants and joined them on May 23, 1905. 

And for reasons lost to history, he didn’t play a game until June 29.  That day, with the Giants leading 10-0 in the eighth inning, manager John McGraw finally put him in right field.  Nobody hit the ball near him. 

With two out in the top of the ninth inning, Moonlight Graham was on deck.  He would have been the next hitter, his first time up in the big leagues.  But Claude Elliott flied out to end the inning.  The Giants sold him to Scranton 16 days later. 

He never got his chance in baseball.  But, he did get the chance to help people.

According to Veda Ponikvar, founder of The Chisholm Free Press and Tribune, Graham jumped on a train to Minnesota after reading a small ad listing a doctor opening.  And he never left.  Dr. Graham lived in Chisholm right up until his death 54 years later in 1965. 

Ponikvar is also in Field of Drams.  The actress Ann Seymour reads the obituary of Doc Graham that Vida wrote: "And there were times when children could not afford eyeglasses or milk or clothing. Yet no child was ever denied these essentials because in the background there was always Dr. Graham. Without any fanfare or publicity, the glasses or the milk or the ticket to the ballgame found their way into the child’s pocket."

Bob McDonald was one of the other children.  He’s been Chisholm High School‘s basketball coach for half a century, only its third since 1921.  Doc Graham’s baseball life, his love of sports was important, but it was nothing compared to how important his life was as the town doctor. 

“That’s the big item you see.  In baseball, you kind of help yourself and you entertain,” says McDonald. “Athletics are like that, you entertain people.  But he comforted people.” 

Kinsella says it was an asset.  “I mean, what I was afraid of, was that this was going to be a guy who sat in the American Legion bar and bragged about playing in the major leagues for 40 years.”

As the movie suggests, somewhat tragically, Graham came close but never reached his dream. But Graham, played by Burt Lancaster, famously says, “If I‘d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.” 

In the movie, Doc Graham, returned to his youth, doesn’t have to pass up anything.  He gets to bat against a major league pitcher, and he saves a little girl’s life. 

Just a dream, right?  Not entirely. 

There’s one more piece to this story, and it is a long way from Chisholm, Minnesota.  That single game in which Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham appeared was played at a stadium called Washington Park in Brooklyn, New York.  It strains credulity.  Now, a century later, it’s part of the Con Edison‘s Electric company‘s substation.  The outfield wall, the one against which Moonlight Graham would have to measure his entire baseball career, still stands.  It is the oldest ballpark remnant in America. 

You can almost see Moonlight Graham in his one moment in the big leagues, still captured in a kind of waking dream. 

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