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Films >> Field of Dreams (1989) >>

The Rewriting of Punishable History

By Illana Sroka, with comments by Janine Stavrovsky and Aishleen Radetich

[1] Baseball is America's favorite pastime. When people hear the word "America," they think of apple pie, meat and potatoes, July 4th, and inevitably the everlasting love of this country, baseball. The credit is given to a man named Alexander J. Cartwright, who drew up a set of rules for a game played with a bat, a round ball, and a glove. Along with the rules came a sketching of a diamond-shaped field on which the game was to be played. The rules that Cartwright wrote up in 1845 may have very well changed somewhat, but the game of baseball has remained remarkably constant throughout history into today. (see comment by Janine Stavrovsky)

[2] Cartwright was a part of a baseball club team called the "New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club," and his rules were for use of only this club. Soon after, other clubs started to become interested in these rules, and they adopted them into their own ball clubs and games. "It is evident that other teams were playing a good brand of ball, for in the first baseball game on record, played in Elysian Fields, Hoboken, N.J., on June 19, 1846, a team called the New Yorks, playing under Cartwright's rules on a diamond of his specifications, defeated the Knickerbockers 23 to 1 in four innings" (Lieb1).

[3] Baseball then expanded itself and moved on to integrating young men of "means and social positions." In the 1850's, baseball had a tremendous power that engaged many people from the East Coast part of the country. It got artisans, tradesmen, and shipwrights to form teams and play against each other. These teams of working men played against other teams that were made up of socialites. Within these club teams, though, there was a lot of disagreement because the people who used to partake in these games were mainly from the New York and Massachusetts areas. There were many discrepancies between the New York rules and the Massachusetts rules. This then led to the founding of the National Association of Baseball Players on March 10, 1858.

[4] The new rules that the National Association of Baseball Players had installed then allowed the amateurs and others to play the game as well. As some time went by, the amateurs became very involved in this newly invented game until the Civil War broke out. Many men were pulled from their love of the game to fight in the Civil War. This then enabled younger boys who were not old enough to fight in the war to get involved in the game. These young boys came from rural areas, farmlands, and they then were able to bring the game back to their small towns after the men from the war returned home, thus leading baseball to "spread like wildfire." In 1869 the Red Stockings of Cincinnati, Ohio, became the first established all-professional baseball team. A man by the name of Harry Wright organized this team, and he began to pay the players approximately $9,300 for the season.

[5] Money, the corruption of an innocent and unpunishable sport, had then suddenly begun its unforgiving journey into the lives and hands of many baseball players. It became a big problem in the wide world of this particular professional sport. Gambling and betting on the games became more prominent, and the players were themselves involved because of the money that they could possibly make from winning or losing a baseball game.

[6] One of the most famous and unforgettable money-related scandals was known as the Black Sox scandal in the year 1919. This scandal involved eight players from the Chicago White Sox. These eight players were convicted of accepting bribes to affect the outcome of the World Series games in 1919. The eight players were then tried, and they admitted to taking the money from the outside gamblers. They were then banned from the game of baseball forever.

[7] It was a scandal like this that made several filmmakers make films that had quite an impact on society because the Black Sox scandal was so controversial. Two films in particular, Field of Dreams and Eight Men Out, focus on this Black Sox scandal. The movie which I feel made the most innocent and unpunishable portrayal of the scandal is Field of Dreams.

[8] Field of Dreams is a movie about the innocence in history. It is also a movie about rewriting a part of history that once went wrong. It is about forgiving the bad and making it better. It enables people to be brought back from the dead to give them a second chance all because of one man's dream. The movie tries to erase the past and create a cultural amnesia about what had already happened, while motioning a "do over" to the people who have been brought back. (see comment by Aishleen Radetich)

[9] Tom O'Brien says, "Some critics try to get at something deeper in a sports movie by reading it for its 'metaphors' and 'deeper meanings.' Of course these exist; in Field of Dreams they abound" (O'Brien 80). This movie paints a picture of innocence that showers the viewers from the moment they start watching it. The ironic thing, though, is that the movie is taking a part of history that was "bad," and it is trying to search out an untainted meaning. Does it? That answer lies in a gray area. Most sports movies illustrate the importance of winning. At first, Field of Dreams does not appear to do so. When you watch the movie several times, however, you see the underlying metaphor is that winning really is everything. The movie shows that, in essence, the Black Sox won. Even though they were banned from baseball forever, the Kevin Costner character, by building a baseball field, enabled these eight players who were involved in the scandal, as well as other players, to win. They won in terms of being allowed to play again, and it being alright. So, to reiterate, the movie has an underlying theme of winning. Even though the Chicago Black Sox did not win their World Series title in 1919, they did win the chance of playing baseball again in this movie in 1989.

[10] Another thing that the film does in its relation to history is to make the era in which the film was made undoubtedly an era to remember. I say this because the film was made in 1989. It was the last chance of the filmmakers to make a bold and meaningful statement about that particular era. "Throughout the second half of the Reagan-Bush boom years, especially as the cumulative debt that fueled the boom mounted to Gothic proportions, a number of films focused on the struggles of the dead to preserve, control, or protect the living" (Nadel 48).

[11] By creating such illusions of the dead coming back to life, the film is a complete parallel to President Reagan himself. For example, Shoeless Joe Jackson, a creation of will power through the mind of Costner, parallels how Reagan thought that America was a dreamlike creation through the power of Reagan's presidency. "One will see a world in which agency is a form of nostalgia, a world in which the pharmankon of language has drugged the audience into an infinite loop of craving and escape, both of which are represented by the promise of meaningful speech, solidified by the father/king/God who is elsewhere" (Nadel 49).

[12] What this quote along with the movie is telling us is that Reagan was never able to verbalize an entire story. He had to tell a story by creating images and illusions for people of America to see. The person in America in the early to mid-1980's trusted Reagan. "By 1983 they trusted the power of illusion to carry them through the 1984 election" (Nadel 49). This trust in American history can be the same trust that Shoeless Joe Jackson had with Costner. Shoeless Joe trusted the fact that Costner will build a field so that they (the Chicago Black Sox) can come to redeem themselves. They can have a second chance.

[13] The same trust lies within Ray Kinsella, the Costner character, and his wife, Annie, in the movie. Annie believed in her husband so greatly that she let him rip away a cornfield, build a baseball field, and keep it even though they were going bankrupt because of the construction. Annie trusted Kinsella as well as felt very secure with him because he believed in something: "If you build it, they will come." This is the same way that the people in America at the time of the 1984 election believed in Reagan. He, like Kinsella, had a way with painting a pretty picture for everyone, and with their mesmerizing abilities they were able, respectively, to lead a country and a tainted baseball team to supposed victory.

[14] The interesting thing, though, is that Kinsella allows a person who has been dead for so many years to control his actions. The voice of Shoeless Joe Jackson is loud and clear when he tells Kinsella what to build and how to ease his (Jackson's) pain as well as that of Ray's deceased father.

[15] When Kinsella brings back Jackson and other ball players it is as if he is reenacting their lives. When they go back into the cornfields after a long day of ball, it is then as if he is reenacting their deaths. Alan Nadel commonly refers to this process as a "death rehearsal." He says, "But surely it cannot be death, just a death rehearsal" (50). The film cannot make people from the dead appear and then have them die again. They just go into the cornfields at the end of the day, and they come back out the next morning. These deceased players continually reappear to remind the audience that they are in this movie for a purpose, and that purpose is to wash away the guilt that lay on them from the year 1919.

[16] Their constant appearance thus far acts as a constant reminder. It is a sense of trust. We, the viewers, must trust the ball players and Kinsella to wash away the "not so good" past and reinforce it with a redeeming nature. I can compare this to something that we, as school children, have done. We, in nursery school up to fifth grade or so, used to put on plays to show everyone who came to watch us that, for example, Abraham Lincoln was a very good and very honest man. That is what we were taught. But was he? This might be a sign of cultural misconceptions. Of course we all want to believe what we learn and what we hear, but we must not trust what is always said, and we must also learn to question the very thoughts and actions of historical figures and historical texts.

[17] So why must we need the constant reminder that the Chicago Black Sox entertained a huge faux pas back in the early 1900's? Is our country feeling guilty about what we let happen? Are we immersed with a perpetual feeling of uneasiness because we let several gamblers control such a treasured American game as baseball? I think that is what part of this movie is trying to get at. By bringing the dead men back, we are thus enabling them each a second chance to be the men they were once supposed to be.

[18] "In these death rehearsal movies the walls of the manor protect instead of entrap the family, and the ghost is not the threat but the savior" (Nadel 50). Another thing that must be looked at is the safeness and the security that the ghosts provide for us in this particular movie. If we take a step back and rewind to the beginning of the movie, the setting in itself first renders the feeling of invulnerability and protection. The movie shows the viewers a pure white painted house with a lovely and inviting porch. The house is situated symmetrically on a very perfect crayon-colored green with the brightest and most flawless blue sky. There is not one lingering cloud that hangs above to dull even the brightest moment in the movie. After the construction of the baseball field, a very neat construction (impossible in real life) there then lies a perfect cut baseball diamond with rich soil that will be stepped upon by the nation's most controversial players.

[19] The innocence that is portrayed by director Robinson stands out in several parts of this movie. First, we have a newly built baseball field that is perfect, yet its soil will soon be "contaminated" by the very cleats of the Chicago Black Sox players. Is that right? Also, along with the players come their brand new white uniforms. This must have been a mistake because the White Sox players never did have white uniforms except for the very first time that they wore them. Supposedly, Charles Comiskey, the manager of the Chicago White Sox in 1919, was too cheap to buy new uniforms for the players so the uniforms were always dirty. The uniforms throughout their ball games in the movie never get dirty. Is this saying that history lies? Is the film trying to tell the viewers that these ball players never played dirty? I do not quite agree with that.

[20] Another thing that we can look at is the fact that these ball players represent angels from heaven. They are dressed all in white, and they are there to restore something that had happened in the past. Their angelic appearance and their good naturedness helps "ease everyone's pain." It helps ease the pain of the Black Sox major mistake in 1919; it helps patch up the wounds of the past between Ray and his father; it saves Ray's daughter Karen's life; it helps ease the pain of the integration of Blacks into a white society and a white man's game; and it also eases the pain in the sense that you have to believe in order to see, for if you do not believe then your dream will not come true.

[21] Karen Kinsella, Ray and Annie's daughter, is also a sign of innocence in the movie. Karen thinks and says in the movie, "Daddy, people will come. I know they will." She seems to foreshadow a numerous amount of people coming to a farmland in the middle of Iowa to see their dreams come true. And we, as the viewers, do see some dreams come true in the movie. We see a man named Archie "Moonlight" Graham get to play in his first ever-professional baseball game. He was a man who in the early 1900's was on a professional baseball team, and he never got a chance at bat. So, with the help of Kinsella and Terrence Mann, Graham gets to make his first and only hit of a game that is played when the ghosts arrive on the baseball field in the middle of Iowa.

[22] Graham only gets one chance to hit the ball for a few reasons. First, he only wanted to hit just one ball. Second, Karen Kinsella has an accident, and she falls off the bleachers on the side of the field. Since Graham was not able to succeed at the game that he had loved the most, he instead became a doctor, and he found a great happiness and satisfaction in his profession. Graham, as a young man on the field, sees that Karen Kinsella has had an accident, and he runs to save her. Before he takes a step onto the green grass, he looks back knowing that as soon as he steps off the dirt that he cannot go back. He figures that his dream came true, thanks to the help of Kinsella and Mann, and now it is his duty to save a choking child. Karen ends up being fine; she had choked on a piece of hot dog. That's kind of ironic in itself because a hot dog is a typical baseball food, and to show Karen choking on a strong symbol of America is like showing that she is choking on a piece of American history.

[23] Another sign of making people's dreams come true and rewriting a problematic and unsettled past happens when Ray's father arrives as a ghost on the baseball field that Ray has built for his father's hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson. Ray even says in the movie that he cannot believe that his father's hero was a man who was found guilty in participating in a money scandal, but he still, in fact, listens to Jackson's voice and he builds a field. And on this field, Jackson as well as Ray's father both appear to erase a "bad" past and end on a happy note. Ray gets to see his father again, and he also gets to show his father all that he has and all that he has done. He has a wife, a daughter, a farm, and now a beautiful baseball field. He is able to also reconciliate with his father over the differences that they had before his father died that led them to stop speaking. So, even Ray, a perfect hero, is not so perfect. He too has made mistakes in the past and now, through a game of catch, he is able to see his father and let his father go on a good note as well as a much happier note.

[24] When the daughter immediately thereafter has an accident and is saved by one of the ghosts, the event has a miraculous effect on the creditors, who also opt for ghosts over food, play over work; they pave the way for the fulfillment of the child's vision, at the end of the movie as a thousand points of headlights trail off into the infinite horizon, signifying the private sector's willingness at twenty dollars a head to subsidize ghosts rather than farms and thereby purchase back a piece of their own lost childhood. (Nadel 51).

[25] This is ironic because in the 1980's not many people were handing over money to a mystical event. Why would people want to leave their busy work place where their motto was "time is money" to come and see a baseball field in the middle of Iowa? "The impotence of this bravado would be laid bare were it not for the intervention of Kinsella's daughter, who has a vision thing that Americans will flock by car to this mystical field and, entranced, will gladly hand over twenty dollars to watch the baseball of America's isolationist heyday, the Republican boom era that led to the great depression" (Nadel 51).

[26] Not only does Kinsella's daughter offer up the innocent aspect of history, but Terrence Mann does as well. Now we must look at Terrence Mann's character in the movie. He is a black man who was a peace writer from the turbulent and controversial 1960's. Kinsella goes and finds Mann in Boston just to take him back to Iowa and help him interpret what the voices mean that he keeps on hearing. Mann, when he gets to Iowa, does not believe his eyes. There he stands in front of a huge perfect baseball field that is supposed to make dreams come true and rewrite history in a more fashionable and acceptable way. I say this because of what Mann begins to preach about the second day that he has arrived on the Field of Dreams.

[27] Mann makes an unforgettable speech in this movie. He speaks about how baseball has been the one constant that America has had to hold onto throughout all of the years. He speaks of baseball in an uncorrupt fashion, ignoring the endless betting and gambling of the games as well as what this movie relates to, which is the infamous scandal in 1919. He then goes on to talk about how baseball has always been a favorite of America and how it is so magical and great. The way this speech is presented is entirely off key when comparing it to the actual historical facts of American history. You see, blacks were not accepted in baseball in the early 1900's. As a matter of fact, blacks were not accepted in America's favorite pastime until a man named Jackie Robinson came into the professional baseball leagues in the year 1947. That's almost three decades after the Black Sox scandal.

[28] So, why would a black man, especially after coming out of such a contentious time period be making such a significant speech about a sport in which he was not even allowed to participate in until the late 1940's? Director Robinson might have been doing this to be politically correct as well as politically sensitive to the viewers. They, Mann and the filmmaker, are painting a pretty picture that everyone has always gotten along and erasing the time in history when there was extreme segregation. After Mann's whole speech about baseball as America's favorite and most cherishable pastime, he then gets invited into the cornfields with the other ghost baseball players. Where does he go? Does he go to heaven?

[29] The film leaves the viewers with such wonder, but then we get sidetracked because Kinsella stays back -- actually he does not get invited, but that is because Shoeless Joe Jackson knows that Ray's father is going to appear and his father wants to have a catch with him. But, still, why couldn't Ray go and disappear into the cornfields and meet his father there? Why did he, after putting so much time, effort, patience, and money into the building of the ball field, have to stay behind? The answer is unknown, but it is up to the viewers to come to reason with it. My reasoning is that Kinsella stays behind so that he can be there with his family. Another reason is that since he made dreams come true for some people, then he can stay and make everyone's dreams come true in Field of Dreams.

[30] Before the cars can begin their pilgrimage to this hallowed field, which the film dubs "Heaven," "the place where dreams come true," Kinsella has to go through two final rituals. First he must bid farewell to the surrogate black patriarch, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), who has served as a reluctant convert and then beneficent inspiration to Kinsella's vision. The conversion has been so complete, in fact, that this former black radical has become an unqualified fan of professional baseball in an era when black players were prohibited…Parting with this converted black surrogate, Kinsella can then be reunited with his own dead father, the masked man behind the plate, the real "he" behind the voice and the vision. In recognizing that the Field of Dreams was an altar built to the sacrificed father, Kinsella completes the Grail quest by resurrecting the patriarch, in this case, since Iowa is landlocked, not as Fisher King but as corn God, whose spring vegetation rites thus become Spring training. (Nadel 51)

Comments

Janine Stavrovsky (June 2005)

[1] Baseball is America's favorite pastime, Ilana says. And baseball continues to remain America's favorite pastime, despite all the recent scandals. Rules have been formed that shape how the game is played, and if these rules are broken, dire consequences proceed, including the possibility of great accomplishments going unacknowledged.

[2] Where do you draw the line? Every type of professional sport has conflicts, and baseball is no exception. The most recent scandal involving major league baseball players using steroids to enhance their games has been a topic of many sportscasters and baseball fans alike. In 1989, Pete Rose, who was the player-manager of the Cincinnati Reds, admitted to gambling on baseball games in the 80's, which was clearly an unprofessional act considering his position. But how many of these acts can be considered to be unforgivable? No matter how many scandals seem to tarnish the sport of professional baseball, it still remains America's pastime. Do these scandals really tarnish the game, or is the love of the game too strong for it to be truly affected?

[3] Take the legendary Black Sox incident for example. Eight players from the 1919 Black Sox were banned the summer after the 1919 World Series after they were accused of throwing the series. One of the main characters in Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe Jackson, was at the center of this scandal. Jackson testified that he knew about his fellow players trying to fix the World Series, but he did not participate in the scandal. His performance in the games supports his claim, since he gave a flawless performance by batting .375 and making no errors whatsoever. But the Baseball Commissioner will not grant his absolution and allow his career to be documented in the Hall of Fame.

[4] Ironically, a few months after Field of Dreams was released in 1989, Pete Rose, the well-renowned baseball player who spent most of his career with the Cincinnati Reds, was given a lifetime ban from baseball because of his excessive gambling on the sport. Rose even went as far as making bets with bookies that were affiliated with organized crime. The Baseball Commission has strict rules about gambling, and a strong no-tolerance policy has existed ever since the Black Sox scandal. At the time, Rose denied betting on games, but in more recent years he has admitted that he bet on games in the past. Even after Rose has admitted his mistakes, there are fans who believe this great player should be immortalized in the Hall of Fame while others stick with the Commission in the sense that Rose broke the rules and therefore cannot be eligible for induction.

[5] Rose's gambling will never erase the great performances he made as a major league ball player. This directly relates to baseball as a national pastime and the numerous scandals that surround this sport: no matter what scandals may occur within any generation, baseball will continue to be America's pastime because of the passion, devotion, and love of the game that the fans and players possess. Many people are willing to forgive Rose for his gambling habits because he was a great player and deserves to be recognized in the Hall of Fame. Even if Rose never makes it into the Baseball Hall of Fame, people will still know how great a player he was, just like the Field of Dreams viewers accept Shoeless Joe Jackson because he expresses his love of the game.

[6] Many of these issues are brought to light in the movie Field of Dreams. Many heroes in baseball have been cast into the darkness, never to reemerge into the Hall of Fame into which their careers should have placed them. But even though these castaways such as Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose are not officially recognized for their talents, their legends will always resurface in the hearts of baseball lovers everywhere, because the heart of this game lies within the talent, passion, and skill that these players once possessed.

[7] The sport of baseball will never be completely tainted because of the history and enthusiasm that exists for this sport throughout the country. For the small number of players who have participated in any type of scandal such as gambling or steroids use, there are many more players who remain loyal to the sport and rules laid out by the Baseball Commission. Ultimately, these scandals will come and then fade, leaving behind a wonderful history of record hits, long-awaited successes, a crowd full of cheers, and families, friends, and major league hopefuls who watch the players create a legend that will last for centuries to come.

Aishleen Radetich (Feb. 2009)

Not only does Field of Dreams "rewrite a part of history that once went wrong," but it also emphasizes the relationships that were formed and ultimately forgotten as something in the past. The appearance of Shoeless Joe Jackson reminds Ray Kinsella both of his love for baseball, which he ultimately shared with his father, but it also brings together the eight men that were removed from the game that they loved so much. Through the voice that Ray hears, we are able to see the plot of the movie unfold. In his building of the baseball field, he enables the game of baseball to be brought back into these historical eight men's lives. We, as an audience, are able to see the innocence and pure love for the game that Shoeless Joe and his teammates had through the enjoyment they appear to have while on Ray's playing field. It allows us to forget the negativity that was expressed at the time of the scandal and appreciate the game of baseball as America's sport. In building the field, the game that was stripped from them once again becomes a large part in the men's lives. The idea of giving them a second chance definitely rings true in the way that they are able to come together as a cohesive group again, something they had lost so many years ago. The movie definitely brings about a positive role of baseball and the need for strong relationships in the lives of human beings. More, the role of the father-son bond being renewed in the last scene through a baseball catch encompasses the "do over" idea of these relationships. The reappearance of both Ray's father and the eight baseball players further accentuates the bonds that ultimately result from the game of baseball.

Lieb, Frederick G. Encyclopedia Americana Online

Nadel, Alan. Flatlining on the Field of Dreams: Cultural Narratives in the Films of President Reagan's America. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997.

O'Brien, Tom. The Screening of America. New York: Continuum, 1990.