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Why 'Field of Dreams' is the worst baseball film of all time

As far as sentimental father-son stories set around baseball go, the film is a classic. In terms of telling honest truths about the game, it sidesteps some difficult realities.

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Kevin Costner, Gaby Hoffmann, and  Burt Lancaster in "Field of Dreams"
Kevin Costner, Gaby Hoffmann, and Burt Lancaster in "Field of Dreams"

My parents being chronically preoccupied people, there is a habit in my family of remembering birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries well after the fact, such that at some point this month my mother will be calling to say, "We should really get together to celebrate your birthday." I was born in December. As such, I hope you will forgive me for commenting on the 25th anniversary of the semi-classic baseball film "Field of Dreams" on April 23, two days after the fact. I had let the date slip from my mind, but to be fair, the film and I had fallen out of love long ago and I hadn't remembered to send flowers in years. After all this time, I can admit the film has its moments, but in the final analysis it -- somewhat unlike the book on which it is based -- has a vile, pernicious lie at its heart that throws the whole movie off kilter and destroys what is intended to be a sentimental fantasy.

A quick recap of the film's premise: Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella, a not terribly successful Iowa farmer with unresolved issues relating to his dead father. One day, he hears a voice say, "If you build it, he will come." Instead of heading off for the nearest CT machine to have his brain tumor diagnosed, he plows under his corn and builds a baseball field. Subsequently, the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by "Goodfellas" Ray Liotta as if Joe Jackson had never even heard of South Carolina, let alone had been born, lived, and died there -- oh, and he's a right-handed hitter now) appears on the diamond. He eventually brings the rest of the banned/dead Black Sox with him and they start working out. The voice speaks to Ray again saying, "Ease his pain," and Ray decides this means he should go unearth famously reclusive author Terrance Mann, portrayed by James Earl Jones. Eventually they, as well as another resurrected ballplayer, the real-life one-game wonder "Moonlight Graham" (Burt Lancaster) end up back in Iowa watching a whole roster of ghostly ballplayers playing intramural games.

The film climaxes (SPOILERS) when the bank, personified by Ray's obnoxious brother-in-law, threatens to repossess his now crop-less farm. At that point, Mann has an epiphany: Ray will save his farm by charging besotted baseball fans money to come watch disgraced dead ballplayers, as well as some non-disgraced ones, such as Smoky Joe Wood, Mel Ott, and Gil Hodges -- though not Ty Cobb, who has been refused not because he was a racist, not because he was prone to violence or slid spikes high, but because he was a "son of a bitch." Think about that: Chick Gandil and Swede Risberg, who arranged the 1919 World Series fix, get to come back from the afterworld Hell and play baseball but Ty Cobb doesn't because, you know, he played with a nigh-psychotic, but honest, intensity. That's somehow worse than throwing games.

But I digress. Mann explicates his vision of baseball, capitalism, and dead guys in a long, sentimental speech. Remember, this is James Earl Jones talking in that wonderful voice of his, the voice without which Darth Vader might have sounded like Woody Allen, so the speech carries a great deal of conviction:

Ray, people will come, Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces.

People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and could be again. Oh... people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

There are two problems with that speech, one minor, and it originates in the novel on which the film is based, Shoeless Joe, and one major, which originates in a choice made by the filmmakers. First of all, the realistic need to support a ballpark infrastructure notwithstanding, the mixture of spiritual salvation and cash, of the high moral plane and the low business of money, is painfully crass. In the book, where the same speech runs for two full pages, the reclusive author character (whose name I am purposely avoiding for the moment), has that same line about the $20: "For it is money they have and peace they lack." Then he goes on:

"They'll watch the game, and it will be as if they have knelt in front of a faith healer, or dipped themselves in magic waters where a saint once rose like a serpent and cast benedictions to the wind like peach petals."

Odd juxtaposition of images there, saints and rising serpents; usually those symbols are working for opposite sides. Regardless, he is talking about giving people spiritual peace, something some of us will spend our whole lives looking for without ever finding it. They (that is, the characters) are doing so in a 1982 book and 1989 movie. Between those two dates were the years of the televangelists, of the disgraced Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, as well as Oral Roberts, the last of whom told his adherents in January, 1987 that unless he raised $8 million in three months, God would, "call him home." The whole goal of the religion board game is to get "home" (kind of like baseball, actually), so if the Almighty is offering you a chance to go there directly, that should be a happy thing, not a threat. Still, despite having to revise the deadline to the end of the year, he got the money and hung around until 2009.

Given the period's obsession with amassing wealth (1987 brought Oliver Stone's "Wall Street," which added "Greed is good" to the national list of aphorisms), maybe charging people $20 for a small slice of the same thing would have been relatively innocent, but the equation of monetary giving and religious salvation in the 1980s was an ugly thing, and the Shoeless Joe/"Field of Dreams" story subscribes to that vision. Sorry, if you're poor and don't have $20, no washing in magic waters! Back to the homeless shelter with you! You don't get to watch the Black Sox play, which is probably okay because they're likely throwing the game for a cut of the $20 that all the fat cats paid anyway.

This is far from the film's biggest problem. The real issue, the film-breaking oversight that turns the whole thing into a rather painful, self-exculpating lie, is the casting of James Earl Jones as the novelist Terrance Mann. This is not a criticism of Jones as an actor. He's a master. If you want to see Jones in a good, authentic baseball picture, go watch him, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Pryor in the 1976 Negro Leagues/barnstorming picture, "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings," in which he plays a character very loosely based on Josh Gibson. He made another very good sports film, "The Great White Hope," based on the life of the racially persecuted boxer Jack Johnson, in 1970. This is not about him. This is about his casting, which was based on the fear of a lawsuit.

Jej_bing_long_mediumJames Earl Jones in "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings" (Getty Images)

In the novel, Terrence Mann was identified as the real-life, then very-much living author of Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger. The long-reclusive Salinger was famous for protecting his privacy and being litigious in pursuit of that goal. Indeed, he made the book's publishers aware of the fact that, should Salinger be referenced in the movie he would be, as the book's author, W.P. Kinsella, recalled for, "very unhappy." Kinsella went on:

The cowardice involved was that studio executives were afraid Salinger would launch a nuisance lawsuit just as the movie was being released, and it would cost them time and a lot of publicity money to get rid of it. The moxie appeared when the executives pointed out that on a good opening weekend, the movie would be seen by 10 times the number of people who had read the book. The change would be noticed by only the literate few, people who are not valued by movie executives.

For once, the movie people were right. Over the years, most people I have met have no idea that J.D. Salinger was the original reclusive author. Also, many who read the novel have no idea that Salinger was a real person, not my fictional creation.

Good enough. Salinger the real person was not essential to the telling of the story in an effective way. Turn him into the fictional Terrence Mann and no one will be the wiser -- except for one problem: J.D. Salinger was white, which allows the novel to praise baseball's historic continuity without evident hypocrisy. Mr. James Earl Jones is an African American from Arkabutla, Mississippi, and the character's change of race turns Mann's big, romantic speech about baseball to ashes:

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and could be again.

Oh, you mean like the color line? With the exception of Gil Hodges, every player named in the film never played a single major league game with a black man. Were not allowed to. Did not ask to do so. "All that was once was good and could be again" includes a system of apartheid that extended to almost every corner of the land, from separate drinking fountains to a decades-long series of extra-legal executions of African Americans throughout the country that totaled well into the thousands -- and, oh, by the way, from Moses Fleetwood Walker to Jackie Robinson, a black man could not play baseball with a white man, not with Shoeless Joe Jackson, not with Buck Weaver, not with Moonlight Graham, not with Gil Hodges in his first call-up. Terrence Mann whitewashes baseball's past in that scene (choice of words very intentional) and the character sells out his race, his blinkered, forgetful country, and himself.

In 1987, Jones won a Tony as the lead in August Wilson's Pulitzer-Prize play "Fences," in which he portrayed a man so disappointed that his professional baseball career was stunted by the major league color line that his anger has devoured him from the inside out. There is some irony in this given the part he plays in "Field of Dreams." In the film, Ray says Mann as "a pioneer of the civil rights and the anti-war movement," but saying it doesn't mean that his big moment in the film doesn't sell out the civil rights movement. Similarly, Jones himself is proud of the film, his performance, and his climactic speech (as well he should be), but that doesn't change what the speech attempts to sidestep. I also hasten to point out that while it is possible to view the Mann speech about being about lower-case b "baseball" rather than big-B Major League Baseball with its history of segregation, this film is very specifically concerned with getting to play in major league games (that is the unresolved wish of the Moonlight Graham character) with actual segregation-era major league players. Any decoupling of the Mann speech from the color line is granting the story a sensitivity it isn't even trying to earn.

Gibson_and_paige_mediumSatchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Good luck locating them on the Field of Dreams. (Getty Images)

In the book, Salinger, having also avoided the race issue, addresses another traditionally oppressed group: "The memories will be so thick... women shelling peas in linoleum-floored kitchens, cradling the unshelled pods in brindled aprons, tearing open corn husks and waiting for the thrill of the cool sweet scent... [baseball] is a living piece of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins."

Surely the womenfolk will be happy to be reminded of those carefree kitchen-bound years, when they were not troubled with running companies and researching cures for cancer and stuff like that but merely had to shell peas so those threshing crews could eat outside. In fairness, "Salinger" does acknowledge the possibility that the kitchen might not look so good now, but in a sneering way: "I'll bet some of the men will be dragging along little women in flowered housedresses and high-heels who will see nothing and whine about sitting on a backless bleacher seat for two hours... But mostly, the arrivals will be couples who have withered and sickened of the contrived urgency of their lives."

Have you ever known a woman to wear a flowered housedress and high heels? Never mind about that reactionary dream of women back in the kitchen, though -- we're getting away from the point. Salinger says, "It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905." No it is not. Even in 1989 it wasn't in a thousand ways, and it shouldn't have been, because in the process of passing the time from then until 1989, we had left some very bad things behind. Jones' character should have known that.

The 1980s were in some ways a quiet time domestically when we were more concerned about military equality with the Soviet Union than about racial equality at home. When the latter was discussed, it was often in terms that were more derogatory than aspirational, when the President of the United States at the time the movie was made could have twice won office despite alluding to possibly fictitious people who became known as "welfare queens" and making a speech in favor of "states' rights" not far from the site of the infamous murder of three civil rights workers in 1964.

But that was 1989. This is 2014. We don't have to speak obliquely about race; we can confront it head on, particularly in baseball. Every year now we have Jackie Robinson Day when all players wear No. 42 on their backs and we confront baseball's sin of segregation and celebrate its slow, reluctant, recalcitrant ending. Should we cheer a movie that neatly skips over that? That sells a hypocritically romantic, sentimental vision of the game that is completely untrue, and worst of all, puts that hypocrisy in the mouths of a man of the race that was that hypocrisy's intended victim?

Hell no. Bury it with all the other lies that Hollywood has told about race in this country, from "Birth of a Nation" to Steppin Fetchit and onward. It's a pleasant film. It's well-acted, except perhaps for Liotta, who did less studying for his role than I typically did for a home ec final. It's Burt Lancaster's last film, and Lancaster is an inner-circle member of my film-actor hall of fame. But on the whole it's a sentimental, treacly lie about something important. We're better now at looking at the past and accepting what happened before 1947. This isn't truly a film from 1989. Mentally, it's from 1946. Leave it there.