Yesterday marked the anniversary of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham’s one-game major league career. Back in 1905, he played a half-inning in the outfield for the New York Giants, faded into the obscurity of pre-Internet agate and didn’t reappear to a wide audience again until 1989, when “Field of Dreams” introduced him as a baseball-playing spectre who helped save Ray Kinsella’s daughter from choking on a hot dog only to lose his ability to take part in the ghostly games on an converted Iowa cornfield.
Apparently, there was some literary license in the film, which was based on W.P. Kinsella’s novel “Shoeless Joe.” On the big screen, during a walk around Chisholm, Minn., ol’ Doc Graham, played by Burt Lancaster (and Frank Whaley in his youthful playing years), tells Ray Kinsella that he made the majors for a few weeks at the end of 1905 and sat on the bench before “old John McGraw pointed a bony finger in my direction” and sent him into right field.
In real life, he appeared in relief of George Browne for the eighth inning of a game against the Brooklyn Superbas at Washington Park. The actual game happened in mid-season and Graham was an emergency substitute riding the New York bench after being summoned from the minors.
“I jumped up like I was sitting on a spring,” Graham recounts to Kevin Costner’s Kinsella during a moonlit stroll through Chisholm’s streets. “Grabbed my glove, and ran out on the field.”
But six outs later, with a ball never leaving the infield while he was in the field, Graham’s career was over. He was on deck when pitcher Claude Elliott flew out to end the game. Graham returned to the Class B New York State League, his last outpost before his recall to the Giants and played three more seasons in the minors, losing the 1906 batting title while with the Scranton Miners by only only four points (he hit .336, while Troy’s Danny Moeller batted .340). He also appeared in 12 games for the Class A Memphis Egyptians in 1906, but played the following two seasons for Scranton. His cup of coffee in the bigs was soon to be an afterthought.
During the offseasons of his minor league career, the Fayetteville, N.C., native completed his medical degree, graduating from the University of Maryland’s medical school in Baltimore in 1905. While in medical school, Graham played on the school’s baseball teams in 1904 and 1905, and halfback for the school’s football squad (one explanation for Graham’s long ride of the pine with the Giants may have been a football injury that caused him to sit out a couple of games). He had previously done undergraduate work and played baseball for the University of North Carolina, and did post-graduate work at Johns Hopkins, taking summers off to play in the minors. The “Moonlight” nickname? Graham was once thought to be one of the fastest players in minor league baseball - the New York Evening World once wrote that Graham “is known as ‘Moonlight’ because he is supposed to be fast as a flash.”
Graham obtained his medical license in 1906 and began practicing in Chisholm, where he was a beloved if absent-minded civic treasure. When he purchased land in neighboring towns, he seemingly forgot to cash tenants’ rent checks. Legend has it that he tested children’s hearing by loudly yelling words into their ears - so loudly that every youngster waiting for a hearing exam could hear the words they would need to repeat. And he had an interest in blood pressure, painstakingly documenting the BPs of Chisholm youth and publishing the results in the one scholarly article he ever authored.
Much of what we know about Graham comes via another Maryland connection. Ex-Annapolis Capital sportswriter Brett Friedlander (now writing for the StarNews in Wilmington, N.C.) co-authored “Chasing Moonlight: The True Story of Field of Dreams’ Doc Graham” with Robert Reising in 2009. Might be a good addition to your summer reading list.