Friday, November 19, 2010

FIELD OF DREAMS (2008): Saint “Shoeless” Joe

Don’t look back.  Something may be gaining on you.
Satchel Paige
Suspicion that Mark McGwire was taking steroids during his playing days recently resulted in his not getting voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  But even for McGwire’s most devoted admirers, this is not a travesty.  Unfortunately, baseball is surrounded by so many legends fans want to believe in that the facts behind the legends become problematic - most baseball fans feel let down by the truth.  We want to believe that the failings of baseball superstars are beyond comprehension.  We want to believe that their greatness on the playing field is a sign of divinity.  And Field of Dreams not only perpetuates the myths, it also distorts the facts.
Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) is not brought back to life in this film to redeem himself for the notorious Black Sox scandal, he’s allowed to play again after his banishment from baseball because he supposedly never did anything wrong.  Field of Dreams, filmed in 1988, suggests that there never was any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Joe Jackson, and that the 1919 World Series was probably never thrown.  This version differs from all other variations on what happened.  The more cynical Eight Men Out (filmed at about the same time) suggests that the illiterate Jackson was a dupe for the other seven players on the team who did throw the series, and this at least comes closer to the accepted truth.  And Jackson, it has been maintained by such notables as the writer, Ring Lardner, could not have been involved in such a scheme because he was too stupid to be able to do anything like throw a World Series for money.  In any case, the makers of Field of Dreams adamant insistence that Jackson was innocent ignores one remarkable fact: both Joe Jackson and pitcher Ed Cicotte confessed to the Grand Jury that they threw the series for money.  (Sort of like Barry Bonds claiming that he had not taken steroids in the past, that pesky Grand Jury testimony always seems to get in the way of a denial.)
Anyway, in Field of Dreams, Joe Jackson comes back to play baseball during our modern times in Iowa on a field designed by a nutty visionary named Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), who lives on a farm with his wife and child.  Ray has a baseball connection that secretly shames him.  He never got on well with his father, who was a minor league player, and he once told his father that he could not admire a man whose hero threw a baseball series.  Of course, his father’s hero was Joe Jackson.  So, building the baseball field was Ray’s way of trying to make up for the slight.  Unfortunately, the visions don’t just stop when Joe Jackson really does come to visit.  He has another vision to visit a radical writer from Boston named Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), who apparently always wanted to play at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn (of course, since torn down).  And they also meet up with a Doctor from Northern Minnesota (now dead and a ghost?) who never got his chance to get his one major league hit and wants to come back to the field in Iowa to do so.  When finally returning to Iowa, all sorts of past (and dead) baseball players with thwarted dreams were making good use of the field.  And all of the players in one way or the other have their dreams fulfilled (including Ray who gets a chance to play catch with his young father).
So Ray gives all of the old players a chance to be in heaven – whether they deserve it or not.  Even so, the outcast Joe Jackson seems pickier about his company.  At one point in Field of Dreams, Ray notices that Joe Wood, Mel Ott and Gil Hodges are playing on his field (outside of Hodges, I’m not sure how Ray could have done such a fine job at identifying these past players).  Shoeless Joe interrupts Ray’s rapture by saying, “And Ty Cobb wanted to play.  None of us could stand the son-of-a-bitch when we were alive, so we told him to stick it!”  And so the whiny Joe Jackson of the movie, who earlier complained about being thrown out of baseball, has now decided that some people are not good enough to play on this field in Iowa.  This is particularly ironic since Cobb was a better player than Jackson.  (Just as an aside, Cobb, who probably was psychotic, was one of the few people in baseball that did not shun Jackson after Shoeless Joe was tossed out of the major leagues.  And after a great catcher, Mickey Cochrane, was beaned by a baseball in 1937 almost ending his ability to function, Ty Cobb financially supported Cochrane for the remainder of his life.)
Tax and financial problems make it seem like Ray is going to have to sell his farm.  Good for him that Terence the writer understands why this won’t be necessary.  In one of the film’s hokiest moments (and a highlight for every misguided baseball fan), James Earl Jones, in his powerful bass voice, gives the following speech:
 “Ray, people will come Ray.  They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom.  They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it.  They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.  Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say.  It’s only twenty dollars per person.  They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it.  For it is money they have, and peace they lack.  And they’ll walk out to the bleachers, sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon.  They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.  And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.  People will come, Ray.  The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.  America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game – it’s a part of our past.  It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.”
 It’s remarkable that the reclusive and cantankerous Terence Mann, a writer in the mode of Langston Hughes or Richard Wright, whose voice is so revolutionary that PTA committees everywhere are discussing whether his books should be banned from our schools, a man so progressive and passionate, could utter such schmaltz.   Baseball was never that innocent.  It’s been a big business since prior to World War I.  It’s the only form of entertainment in America that the United States Supreme Court has provided an exemption for concerning anti-trust provisions.  Baseball teams have demanded millions of dollars from cities for financial support and have moved their teams if that support was not forthcoming.  Ballplayers since the 1920s have made more than corporate executives.  Baseball owners are now mostly billionaires. The deluded writer was only correct in stating that baseball has been a constant.  The game has been resistant to the very change that a writer of his ilk would have wholeheartedly demanded.  For the first half of the 20th Century, black players were not allowed to play at the major league levels.  Mann’s tenuous connection to the Black Sox Eight only comes down to this: Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the famed baseball commissioner who restored order by banning the eight players from baseball for life, also foresaw that no black player would play in the American or National League for as long as Landis was alive.  And the past in baseball has been so hallowed that we hated the very men that broke the single season and career home run records of Babe Ruth.  Now we are concerned that these same records will fall into the hands of homerun hitters on steroids, so we have to hold congressional investigations over the matter.
Baseball is the best sport.  I know of no adult male who did not secretly wish to have been given the talent to play the outfield like Cobb, DiMaggio, Mays, Clemente, Henderson or Griffey.  Such physical gifts are so rare that we tolerate paying such players twenty to thirty times more the salaries than we will ever earn.  And baseball is for everyone.  Even individuals who get tired out running ninety feet to first base can play the game cheaply and relatively safely.  Your kids can be entertained playing it for hours without getting in trouble save for breaking a window or two.  But let’s just not mistake it as the cure for all ills.  Field of Dreams obviously was meant as a fairy tale, but the speech that James Earl Jones gives also makes baseball a tenet of religious faith.
Ty Cobb sliding into third base with the spikes high or Bob Gibson throwing at the head of a player who earlier got a hit off of him is as much a part of baseball as Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech or Bobby Thompson’s homerun.  Many great players also had great personality flaws.  Ruth was undisciplined to the point of ending up in the hospital for eating too much.  Hack Wilson, Jimmy Foxx, Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin were probably alcoholics whose lives were greatly shortened by drinking.  Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were high on about every substance known to man.  Doc Ellis allegedly threw a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD.  The amiable Hal Chase, one of the great first basemen, did what he could to throw all sorts of baseball games for little money in return.  Denny McClain was found guilty of racketeering.  Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were antisocial to a neurotic degree.  Fan favorites like Willie Mays or Kirby Puckett, who seemed to so much enjoy playing the game out in centerfield, had their own private demons that we only became aware of after these players retired.  And even the angelic Joe Jackson early in his career was traded away by Connie Mack because Jackson kept leaving the team.
I would enjoy baseball a lot less if I really thought these players were a bunch of innocent dopes that have thought about nothing else than balls, strikes and past glories.  If we’re going to admire them, let’s admire them for their complexities rather than their simplicities.  Jackie Robinson’s entry into the major leagues or Curt Flood’s court battle to become baseball’s first free agent requires much more analysis than a calculating of their slugging percentage or looking at their stolen base totals.  And I’d rather see Kevin Costner in Bull Durham than in Field of Dreams because the former character was not so dazzlingly naïve.  There have been some real tragedies in baseball, i.e. Gehrig’s contraction of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Roy Campanella’s car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, or Roberto Clemente’s death in an airplane crash when he was going to assist earthquake victims in his native home of Nicaragua.  But like Mark McGwire, leaving Joe Jackson out of the Hall-of-Fame or even out of baseball does not come close to rising to that level of tragedy.

January 24, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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