Josh Shaffer

There’s more to ‘Moonlight’ Graham’s story

Archibald “Moonlight” Graham was the model for the slightly fabricated character in “Field of Dreams.” A Fayetteville native, brother to former UNC President Frank Porter Graham, he played his only major league baseball game this week in 1905.
Archibald “Moonlight” Graham was the model for the slightly fabricated character in “Field of Dreams.” A Fayetteville native, brother to former UNC President Frank Porter Graham, he played his only major league baseball game this week in 1905. AP photo

In 1905, a speedy Tar Heel outfielder named Archibald Graham got his first shot in the big leagues, trotting out to right field on a hot day in Brooklyn, N.Y., playing the last two innings of a blowout game nobody would remember.

He never got to bat. Never got to stare down a pitcher and wink. Never got to flop face-first into third and wrap his arms around the bag.

If this lament sounds familiar, it’s because Burt Lancaster recited it in “Field of Dreams,” the schmaltzy but immortal baseball movie from 1989. In his final role, with his mustache gone white, Lancaster aced the role of Archie “Moonlight” Graham, the ghost with an unfulfilled wish.

But even though that portrayal is largely accurate – supernatural cornfield aside – the movie never mentioned that the real Graham grew up in Fayetteville and Charlotte, a well-connected medical student who doubled as a minor-league star.

It failed to note that the true-life “Moonlight” Graham was both a distant cousin to the famous evangelist nicknamed Billy and the brother of Frank Porter Graham: UNC president, U.S. senator and a baron of civil rights.

This week marks the 110th anniversary of Graham’s momentous game, so I’m going to retrace the steps of the man who, as Burt Lancaster put it, “came this close to his dreams and watched them brush past like strangers in a crowd.”

Most of what I know about that half-inning comes from “Chasing Moonlight,” the excellent biography co-written by Brett Friedlander, my old colleague from the Fayetteville Observer.

In it, he describes Graham coming from such an influential family of Scottish Highlanders that his great-grandfather was personally transported to America by John Paul Jones. Graham’s father was Fayetteville’s first school superintendent. His mother studied among the first students at Peace College in 1857.

In those pages, “Archie” comes across as wholesome as a Hardy Boy: fast and athletic, but also bookish. He managed to juggle playing baseball and football at UNC-Chapel Hill while earning his degree, and on one spectacular day, the Heels walloped Georgia 40-0.

Archie didn’t smoke or drink, exercising everyday. But he never fit the profile of a jock. Schoolmates at UNC voted him sophomore class poet. He joined the Dialectic Society and the Shakespeare Club. His younger brother Frank idolized him, being equally academic but too small and frail from childhood illness to match his brother’s skill on the baseball diamond.

He’d hardly graduated in 1902 when the brand-new Charlotte Hornets scooped him up and placed him in center field, where he batted .321 until the whole league collapsed. But the affable and studious Archie bounced around the country – Nashua, N.H.; Lowell, Mass.; Birmingham, Ala. – playing eight seasons in the minors. All that time, he doubled as a medical student at UNC and then in Maryland, a life of moonlighting that likely spawned his nickname.

When he finally made the majors in 1905, he joined the powerhouse New York Giants managed by the tempestuous John McGraw, who had no great love for Southerners or college boys. For most of that year, Graham rode the bench next to the manager nicknamed “Little Napoleon,” seeing the world from the inside of a dugout. On the day McGraw finally “pointed a bony finger,” as Burt Lancaster described it, the Giants, with Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson on the mound, were destroying the Brooklyn Superbas.

The fraction of Brooklyn fans who remained in the stands to watch the Superbas’ eighth-inning gasp watched a 25-year-old UNC graduate, whose father fought for the Confederacy, jogging out to right field with an NY on his chest.

“No one in the ballpark on that otherwise ordinary afternoon could have imagined that pilgrims would one day journey to Graham’s gravesite to leave candy, coins, baseballs and other tokens of gratitude and esteem,” wrote Friedlander and his co-author Robert Reising.

This story persists in the 21st century thanks to W.P. Kinsella, who came across Graham’s name while researching his book “Shoeless Joe,” the movie’s inspiration. The nickname caught the writer’s eye first, then the strangeness of Graham’s lifetime statistics: one game, no at-bats. What Kinsella couldn’t learn about the boy from Fayetteville, he fudged.

“Field of Dreams” gets much of the story right. Graham never played another day in the majors. He spent the rest of his life in northern Minnesota, a beloved doctor who passed out candy and coins to kids, completing ground-breaking research on children’s blood pressure. He really did have a wife named Alecia, and they’re both buried up there.

But the film takes liberties. Graham played two innings for the Giants, not one. He played them in June, not on the last day of the season, getting shipped back to the bush leagues shortly after his big day. And he didn’t leave baseball because he couldn’t stand another season in the minors. He played three more years in Scranton, Pa., picking up a chronic cough from the industrial smoke, fleeing to Minnesota for the clean air and pure water.

But those two innings clearly took on weight as Graham aged, growing in importance at the back of his mind, a moment that defined both the distance and the borders of his life. According to the book, he gave an interview to the Charlotte News in 1963, telling reporter Ernie Acorsi that he not only went to bat, but also that he drew a walk and broke his leg stealing second.

“He didn’t come off as a man whose mind was wandering,” recalled Acorsi, musing in the “Moonlight” book. “For whatever reason, he just decided to embellish things a little.”

Whether Graham’s reputation endures in the form of a phantom Burt Lancaster or a Carolina boy prone to late-life exaggeration is no matter. He saw his dream take shape and blow away like a seeds from a dandelion, then he shrugged, collected himself and built a new one.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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