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'Moonlight' still a star, 100 years later

'Moonlight' still a star, 100 years later

The words are now legendary in the lexicon of baseball and film. The scene is indelible. The movie is 1989's "Field of Dreams."

Kevin Costner's character, Ray Kinsella, has been magically transported to the barren streets of the small town of Chisholm, Minn., late one night in 1972.

"The Godfather" is playing at the local theater on one side of Main Street. A distinguished old man strolls down the sidewalk on the other.

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Kinsella approaches him and asks, "Are you 'Moonlight' Graham?"

The man turns around with a classically trained dramatic pirouette, and we realize it's none other than the late, great Burt Lancaster.

"No one's called me 'Moonlight' Graham in 50 years," he says, beginning one of the most memorable character sketches in baseball movie history.

Dr. Archibald Wright "Moonlight" Graham becomes a pivotal player in Kinsella's ultimate epiphany of playing catch with the ghost of his father in a glorious Iowa cornfield.

But the most fascinating part of the character is the fact that it was based on a real person. Archie "Moonlight" Graham really did exist, and not just in the imagination of novelist W.P. Kinsella, the Canadian literature professor who wrote the 1982 book, "Shoeless Joe," that "Field of Dreams" is based on.

"Moonlight" Graham really was a baseball player, and just like in the movie, really got only one game of Major League service. The date was June 29, 1905, which happens to be 100 years ago today.

The ballfield was Washington Park in Brooklyn, and Graham, who had just earned a medical degree, came into a game for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Giants, on the strength of a lights-out start by Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson, were leading, 10-0, when Moonlight Graham was sent out by manager John McGraw to replace starter George Browne in right field.

Graham spent two innings in right, didn't have any balls hit to him, and didn't get an at-bat. He never played in another big-league game, and like in "Field of Dreams," decided on a career as a doctor in Chisholm a few years later that ended with his death in 1965.

According to David W. Smith, the founder of the baseball research site Retrosheet, Graham was on deck when the last batter flied out to end the ninth in the 11-1 Giants victory.

In "Field of Dreams," the old "Doc" Graham, expertly played by Lancaster, has one touching soliloquy about the missed opportunity.

"Well, you know I ... I never got to bat in the Major Leagues," Moonlight says. "I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big-league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn't. That's what I wish for.

"A chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases -- stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That's my wish, Ray Kinsella. That's my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?"

In the movie, there was.

Costner's character hits the road with fictional recluse 1960s novelist Terrence Mann, played by James Earl Jones and inspired by J.D. Salinger. They pick up a hitch-hiker in the Midwest and it turns out to be a young Archie Graham, played by Frank Whaley.

They return to the field of dreams in Iowa, where Graham gets to the plate and drives in a run with a sacrifice fly.

In the movie and in real life, however, Doc Graham ultimately dedicated everything to the medical profession.

Veda Ponikvar, the longtime publisher of the Chisholm newspaper, summed it up beautifully in her real-life editorial on Graham's passing that was paraphrased by late actress Anne Seymour in the movie.

Some of the things mentioned in the film, such as Graham's tradition of buying his wife, Alecia, all kinds of blue hats, were truths discovered by W.P. Kinsella when he went to Chisholm to research his novel.

Some of the truth will come to light today at the Metrodome, where the Twins will recognize the 100th anniversary of Graham's only big-league appearance with "Moonlight Graham Day," which coincides with the Twins' game against the Kansas City Royals.

A scholarship fund was set up in Doc Graham's name in 1992, which is now funded in part through the sale of Moonlight Graham memorabilia. Since 1994, the Doc Graham Memorial Scholarship has been awarded to two Chisholm High School graduating seniors -- one boy and one girl -- who have demonstrated outstanding service to their community and school and who possess remarkable potential for the future.

The pregame ceremony will feature the 2005 Doc Graham Memorial Scholarship award winners, Nikki Haenke and Travis Tahija, throwing out ceremonial first pitches.

Ponikvar, now 86, will deliver the baseballs for the ceremonial first pitches to the Doc Graham Memorial Scholarship award winners, and the first 10,000 fans at the game will receive special "Moonlight" Graham baseball cards.

In the end, Graham's commitment to his profession and community were far more important to him than the five minutes or so that he experienced as a Major League baseball player.

The year after a huge fire ravaged Chisholm in 1908, Graham spent six years practicing medicine at a local hospital and the next 44 years as the Chisholm schools physician.

During that time, he earned national recognition for a 13-year study of children's blood pressure and gained the love of the town by riding on school buses to athletic events.

Simply making it to the Major Leagues is such a huge accomplishment, though, that even playing in one game is something to be proud of.

Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly, for example, toiled in the Minors for 10 years before sticking in the Majors in 2002 at the age of 30.

"Coming up in Little League and college and in the Minors, it's what you dream about, of getting that one shot to play in the big leagues," Donnelly says.

"When you get there you want to stay."

Graham might have only stayed for five minutes, but his overall view of life wasn't soured by that fact.

This part of Graham's real-life personality was summed up beautifully in "Field of Dreams," when Kinsella says, "Fifty years ago, for five minutes, you came within ... you came this close. It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they'd consider it a tragedy."

Moonlight looks back at Ray with a knowing, weathered smile, and says, without hesitation, "Son, if I'd only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes ... now that would have been a tragedy."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Mike Scarr contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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