On April 21, 1989, major league baseball rumbled with portents of trouble, though the disturbances, like the ominous shifting of tectonic plates, remained largely underground and were fully understood only through what followed. ¬∂ On that day Cincinnati Reds manager and former star player Pete Rose met secretly with baseball special investigator John Dowd in the cafeteria of a Catholic convent in Dayton. (Despite the confessional setting, Rose did not admit to betting on baseball.) Also, The New York Times reported that former player Dale Berra, one of several major leaguers who'd been disciplined by baseball after a 1985 trial in which seven cocaine dealers were convicted or pleaded guilty, had been arrested for conspiracy to buy cocaine, a substance quite different from the Yoo-Hoo associated with his father, Yogi, a Hall of Famer from a simpler time. Finally, that night the Oakland Athletics would beat the Anaheim Angels 10--6 with a lineup missing behemoths Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, a.k.a. the Bash Brothers, who would lead the A's to a world championship and baseball into its steroid era, one drug scandal overlapping another.
Major league baseball was becoming a darker, more complicated institution, one that would devour reputations where once there was idolatry. Naiveté would be lost. Many fans, in the figurative sense, would stop drinking the Yoo-Hoo. But that night, for 107 minutes after the lights went down at selected movie theaters, the pull of the game upon our hearts and minds, seemingly as natural as that of the moon upon the tides, never felt so strong or so timeless. It was the night of the premiere of Field of Dreams. When the house lights came up, fathers and sons dabbed at their tears without embarrassment.
Twenty years later Field of Dreams remains the quintessential moving-image expression of why we love baseball. Not major league baseball, which in the past two decades, like a body sliced open on an operating table, has both fascinated and repulsed us, but baseball as we discovered it and as we prefer to preserve it. For absolutely nailing that social context, the movie, too, is timeless.
Field of Dreams arrived as the last in a coincidental run of five baseball movies in 10 months, following Bull Durham, Stealing Home, Eight Men Out and Major League. Five years earlier we'd gotten The Natural. While those movies celebrated the ballplayer, Field of Dreams celebrated the game and our relationship with it. Baseball was the star. Indeed, the ballplayers in Field of Dreams are bit players, little more than ghosts, really. The only one given any depth is Moonlight Graham, who is admirable not for playing baseball but for leaving it—to become a doctor.
"The major leagues are about five percent of what baseball is in this country," says Phil Alden Robinson, the film's writer-director. "Baseball is mostly about things such as having a catch on a warm summer night. I think in one respect [the film] may have reminded people that baseball was more than just the major leagues. Its roots come from having a catch with your dad. It's one of my sweetest childhood memories."
Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, writing on the day of the premiere, observed, "There is a speech in this movie about baseball that is so simple and true that it is heartbreaking. And the whole attitude toward the players reflects that attitude. Why do they come back from the great beyond and play in this cornfield? Not to make any kind of vast, earth-shattering statement, but simply to hit a few and field a few, and remind us of a good and innocent time.... Field of Dreams will not appeal to grinches and grouches and realists." (The realists, in fact, tripped over Ray Liotta's Joe Jackson batting righthanded, but Robinson says it was more important to the movie to have Liotta, a righty, look and swing like a real ballplayer.)
Field of Dreams was nominated for a best picture Oscar and grossed $64 million, more than any baseball movie made before it. (Only A League of Their Own and The Rookie have done better since.) People left the theater feeling good about baseball—and crying, thanks to the moment when Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, turns to his father, another ghost come from the cornfield, and says, "Hey, Dad. You wanna have a catch?"
"I think it kind of sneaks up on you," Robinson says. "People refer to it as a tearjerker, but you don't know it until the very last scene. Up until the end it's basically a comedy. Once in a while I'm asked to speak at a screening, and it gets me every time. I know it's going to happen. I say I'm not going to cry. But particularly when you share it with an audience, you feel it."
Robinson grew up in Long Beach, N.Y., where he waited for his dad to come home from his job as an advertising executive in Manhattan so they could play catch in the last hour or two of daylight on the makeshift stickball diamond on the side lawn. ("Home plate was the worn-out patch of grass, first base was the rose bush, second base was a hat thrown down in the middle of the lawn, third base was a hedge.")
"Having a catch with your dad is something that even at the early age of five, you know means you are now turning a page," Robinson says. "It's a first step toward becoming a man. 'I give to you. I receive back from you.' It's a lovely experience with nonverbal communication, the sharing of something very sweet."
Defining our love for baseball in simple terms and rekindling it, Field of Dreams may have helped major league baseball grow into something even more gargantuan and institutional. When the movie premiered, only two major league stadiums had been built in the U.S. since 1973. But starting with Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992, 19 ballparks have opened in the past 18 seasons—most of them, in their retro style, monuments to the Yoo-Hoo days—at a cost of $7.5 billion, much of it in public funds. Moreover, with one of the most misquoted lines in movie history, the film provided the mantra for the retro ballpark construction boom. "If you build it, he will come," a voice tells Costner's Kinsella, so he plows his corn to build a ball field. The line became popularized as "If you build it, they will come." Every time a city wanted to tap into the public's warm, fuzzy feeling about baseball, not to mention its wallet, it invoked the voice from Field of Dreams.
Twenty years later big league baseball looks very different, but baseball, as Field of Dreams depicted it, does not. And what was true then is true today: If you don't get the movie, you don't get baseball. "Some people think it's a great religious movie," Robinson says. "Some people think it's a drama. Some people think it's a comedy. We don't explain where the magic comes from, why the voice appears to Ray. It's very much designed to elicit an original reaction.
"I don't mind when people say nasty things about it," Robinson continues. "I understand it's a very singular thing, this movie, and if you don't connect with it, it's not very good. But I'm so pleased so many baseball fans and players like it. The game has meant a lot to me, as a child and as an adult, and it's a good thing to honor."
Photographs Courtesy of Universal Pictures/Everett Collection
GHOSTED IMAGE Costner's character and his daughter (above) connect with the past through Liotta's Shoeless Joe Jackson (opposite page, in uniform).