“Baseball really hit a grand slam,” Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa said of the August 12 Field of Dreams game in Dyersville, Iowa. “It turned out to be a game you think would have been scripted on a Hollywood movie lot or something.”
Played at a specially constructed, six-million-dollar stadium adjacent to the Field of Dreams diamond used in the 1989 film, the game featured the Chicago White Sox vs. New York Yankees in a dramatic showdown — the “Pale Hose” won 9-8 on a two-run, bottom of the ninth homer by shortstop Tim Anderson. The walk-off shot ended up in the 159 acres of Iowa corn that surrounded the ballpark.
La Russa was scheduled to manage the White Sox that night, but due to a family memorial for his brother-in-law, he was unable to be in the dugout. He did, however, view the contest on Fox Sports. “It was amazing,” La Russa said. “Unforgettable.”
The scene for Iowa’s first-ever regular season MLB game was transcendent: from the period uniforms to the hand-operated scoreboard, the emphasis was on throw-back in the very best sense of the term. Modeled after the old Comiskey Park, a grand structure emblematic of baseball’s Golden Era, it was a perfect setting for a notably low-tech encounter. Baseball not yet driven mad by Apollonian analytics.
Fox, which telecast the event with play-off intensity, also emerged a winner. Almost six million viewers tuned in, the highest total for a regular season game in 16 years. Although the exact revenue figure has not been disclosed, the network reportedly raked in astonishing advertising income.
Originally scheduled for 2020 but scrubbed due to the pandemic, the game was such a success that MLB announced plans for a repeat performance next season: this is likely to become a yearly tradition. A tradition welcome for a sport searching to re-connect with its core fan base.
Field of Dreams, the frankly sentimental baseball film which inspired the Yanks/Chisox battle, was based on W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel, Shoeless Joe. Kinsella wrote in a magical realist style, which translated well to the screen by way of Phil Alden Robinson’s script and direction — when the lead character, Ray Kinsella, was enjoined by a spectral voice (“if you build it, he will come”) to construct a ballpark in the middle of his profitable Iowa corn crop, he guilelessly proceeded to do so. Kevin Costner, in the defining role of his career, coaxed the audience through a series of suspension-of-disbelief moments as deftly as Jimmy Stewart did for Frank Capra in It’s a Wonderful Life.
The central themes of Field are a potent cocktail: the cultural significance of the American game, baseball; perseverance in the face of daunting odds; second chances which lead to transformative change; fathers and sons making amends after tangled growing pains; and, of course, redemption, suitably different for each character.
Kinsella summed it up in his novel: “Baseball is the most perfect of games, solid, true, pure, and precious as diamonds. If only life were so simple.”
Although panned upon release by some as “too much frosting on the cornflakes,” Field was nominated for three Oscars and resonated strongly at the box office. Filmed on a tight, $14 million budget, it grossed over $84 million and is still pulling in streaming audiences.
After filming was complete, Costner famously cautioned the owner of the Dyersville farm about plowing the field out of existence. The actor was prescient: the site has become an extremely popular tourist destination, and that was before Fox and MLB brought it center stage.
Back to Tony La Russa. His absence was noticeable: La Russa is one of the few left with genuine links to the game when it was truly the national pastime. La Russa made his playing debut on May 10, 1963 for the Kansas City A’s — that same evening in Baltimore, the New York Yankees faced off against the Orioles with such epic figures as Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Elston Howard, and Tony Kubek in the lineup. La Russa is very much part of the old heroic guard.
Today La Russa, who will turn 77 this October, is driving his team to a division title, perhaps more. Earlier this summer, he won his 2,764th major league game, the second highest victory total for a manager in big league history. With three World Series titles, six league championships, and twelve division banners, La Russa is a towering baseball legend, one who belongs on the Field of Dreams.
In closing, it is lamentable to note that death has claimed two vital contributors to Field: author Kinsella died September 16, 2016, and Burt Lancaster, whose brief turn as Dr. Archie “Moonlight” Graham illuminated a key mythical component in the film, passed away October 20, 1994.
Kinsella was enormously pleased by the project, especially the way the screenplay captured the essence of what he wrote. After his first viewing of the film with a live theater crowd, he said: “I don’t write play-by-play baseball. I write about the emotions of the characters involved. Sitting in the theater, I couldn’t believe my own words were tearing me up. And they were tearing up everyone around me.”
Field of Dreams was the seventy-third and final film of Lancaster’s life. The Academy Award winner’s very last words on the screen, spoken to the risen-from-beyond ballplayers gathered around him in the outfield, were “Win one for me one day, will you boys?” Shoeless Joe Jackson, as portrayed by Ray Liotta responded, “Hey rookie, you were good.” Lancaster gave Liotta a knowing look and then turned to disappear into the cornfield, an apparition as he left. If there was ever a big time movie star exit, that was it. What a curtain call for Lancaster’s luminous 45-year career.
Congratulations to MLB for remembering Field of Dreams meaningfully this August. And congratulations to Kinsella, Robinson, Costner, and company for creating such a celebratory film — if it is syrupy at times, so be it. In 2021, a dusting of American sentiment is more than appropriate.