“I remember, I think it was the very first test screening we had, it was in the LA area and it was a recruited audience and they didn’t know anything about the movie,” director Phil Alden Robinson recalled this week. “And towards the end, I was sitting in the back, and I noticed a woman about two, maybe three rows in front of me on the aisle, just weeping.
“Her head was in her hands, she was sobbing heavily,” he went on. “I started to get out of my seat. I was going to go over to her and just put my arm on her shoulder and say, ‘It’s just a movie.’ And I got one or two steps towards her and I recognized her. She was somebody from the marketing department of the studio and she’d already seen the film. And I thought, oh my God, this is really something.”
They made the movie, and audiences arrived.
Released in April 1989, two weeks after “Major League,” 10 months after “Bull Durham” and eight months after “Eight Men Out,” “Field of Dreams” was No. 6 in The Associated Press’ Top 25 favorite sports movies poll.
Robinson adapted W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel “Shoeless Joe” into a screenplay that trimmed and focused the story about a farmer who replaces corn with a ballfield as he seeks a reunion with and redemption from his long-dead father. Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, hears a mysterious, unidentified voice telling him: “If you build it, he will come,” “ease his pain” and “go the distance.” The movie culminates to leading to him playing catch with his dad’s ghost.
Along the way, his quest takes him to Boston’s Fenway Park and to Chisholm, Minnesota. He is assisted by his wife Annie (Amy Madigan), embittered novelist Terence Mann (James Earl Jones); and Moonight Graham (Burt Lancaster), who got into one game for the 1905 New York Giants, never stepped to the plate and later became a doctor. The ghost team that plays on the Iowa field is led by Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), banned along with the rest of the 1919 Chicago White Sox for accepting money to throw the World Series.
Former baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent concluded the themes were much the same as those emphasized by his predecessor, A. Bartlett Giamatti, a Yale professor of Renaissance literature who reveled in baseball’s poetic side.
“It’s at the heart of most of Western literature, the struggle to live away from home and then to get home. And when you get home, you’re embraced by your teammates and you’re sheltered in the dugout,” Vincent said. “Bart’s point was that the reason academics and intellectuals like baseball is that baseball is really a telling of the Western canon, the struggle to exist away from all and the fact that the redemption occurs when you get home.”
Giamatti, consumed that summer by the investigation of Pete Rose’s gambling, didn’t have time to watch “Field of Dreams,” “Major League” or “Eight Men Out.”
“I’m not boycotting them. I’m busy. And I tend to read books when I don’t sit here,” he said during an interview with The Associated Press at his office that Aug. 18. “I don’t want to look like this workaholic, this wonk who doesn’t — I simply have not yet had a chance to see them. I express it that way because I have every confidence I will. They are made for the ages. They are going to be in the culture, and I will catch up with them.”
Giamatti announced Rose’s lifetime suspension that Aug. 24 and died of a heart attack eight days later.
Robinson grew up in Long Beach, New York, and vividly remembers sitting in a chair between his living room and kitchen as a 5-year-old, watching Elston Howard ground to Pee Wee Reese for the final out of the 1955 World Series against the Yankees, giving the Dodgers their only title while in Brooklyn. A photo of Robinson with an arm around Roy Campanella remains one of his most prized possessions. He was scarred by the team’s move to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.
“It was the first time in my life that I’ve learned that life can break your heart,” he said.
“Field of Dreams” earned Academy Award nominations for best picture and best adapted screenplay (both won by “Driving Miss Daisy”) and best original score (won by “The Little Mermaid”). It has been repeatedly replayed on cable television in recent weeks.
The Mann character predicted “people will come” to the field to long for their past, a speech shown on video boards before player introductions at World Series games.
Even during the coronavirus pandemic, people have driven to the movie location site in Dyersville, Iowa. An 8,000-seat ballpark is being built adjacent to the preserved movie field, and the Yankees and Chicago White Sox still are scheduled to play there on Aug. 13.
“I would say about four or five vehicles a day,” said Roman Weinberg, director of operations for Go The Distance Baseball, which owns the movie site. “You’ll periodically see people slowly get out of their car and make that all-familiar walk to the diamond. Some play catch. Others just walk the bases, take a couple of pictures, hop back in their vehicle and head home. People are drawn to the simplicity of the site and just the wholesomeness of it.”
Baseball goes on, in some form.
“The mistake that some people make when they say baseball, they think of MLB,” Robinson said. “But it’s also minor leagues. It’s college. It’s high school. It’s Little League. It’s stickball. It’s stoopball. It’s fathers playing catch with their sons. It resides in a place in our hearts and imaginations that’s much, much, much bigger than just MLB.”
The Associated Press is presenting a one-of-its-kind Top 25 of sports movies, a suggestion of what to put on the screen while stuck at home. This is, of course, what we do at the AP: We rank things. So, 70 writers and editors around the world voted on the best in the history of sports cinema.
More on the AP Top 25 poll of sports movies: https://apnews.com/Sportsmovies