A chapter in an occasional series of posts documenting an autumn 2021 road trip through the Midwest. A continuation of the post, Highway 52 – Southbound To ‘Heaven’
“The people who come here will be drawn…” He stops, searching for words. “Have you ever been walking down the street and stopped in mid-stride and turned in at a bookstore or a gallery you never knew existed?” People will decide to holiday in the Midwest for reasons they can’t fathom or express. ~ J.D. Salinger in the book Shoeless Joe.
Isn’t that how it goes sometimes? You find yourself drawn to a small town that you wouldn’t have known existed if not for some haphazard, disjointed string of events that happened over the course of nearly half your lifetime. Okay, maybe that’s how it rarely goes.
In the autumn of 2021, I found myself in Dyersville, a small town in eastern Iowa. A few months prior I didn’t know there was such a place. And yet my visit wasn’t a random event, one of those, ‘Oh look, Dyersville. I think I’ll jump off the highway and look around,’ sort of things.
Dyersville could have been just another one of the thousands upon thousands of small towns, dots on a map all over America that most of us have never considered visiting, never even heard of. We might, on occasion, take a second’s note of some random, tiny burgs. Maybe the name catches the eye and we wonder how there came to be an Accident in Maryland. What’s so cheery about Cheer, Iowa? Would I want to live in Boring, Oregon? Why is there Hell in Michigan and from what seed did Weed sprout in California? Maybe they’re little places we breeze past, on the way to somewhere more important. Mostly though, those small towns, those little black flecks on the map are the ciphers we ignore – cartographical white noise.
Dyersville could be one of those places but it’s not. Dyersville sucks people in because Dyersville is an example of life imitating art. Like most of the Dyersville pilgrims I wouldn’t have visited had it not been for a movie and a book.
The allure of Dyersville was first germinated in the imagination of Canadian novelist W.P. Kinsella, an idea that was published back in 1982, as the book Shoeless Joe; way back, back before I turned thirty.
I’d never heard of Kinsella’s book until about five years ago. Never heard of W.P. Kinsella. He didn’t even register as a flyspeck on my own personal map of people and places.
I wouldn’t have cracked the book Shoeless Joe, had I not been at literary loose ends, looking for something, anything, to read. Nor would I have sought out that particular book had I not, on one boring, probably middle of the doldrums of a February, rainy afternoon, decided to rewatch one of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams.
I rarely sit through the credits of a movie and when I do it’s usually when I’m in the theater, and even then, I just sit through enough credits to allow the crowd to clear the auditorium. It must have been one hell of a boring afternoon that had me sitting in my living room, not only watching the credits roll, but actually paying attention. And it’s because of those few minutes of inertia that I discovered that Field of Dreams was adapted from the book Shoeless Joe.
Writer Kinsella, like his protagonist Ray Kinsella, in Shoeless Joe was a baseball fanatic. So it stands to reason that his most famous work is about baseball, just as it’s reasonable that his first work of fiction, a long lost piece that he wrote when he was fourteen, Diamond Doom was also a baseball story.
Shoeless Joe isn’t just a baseball story. It’s a story about redemption and reconciliation, about faith, and dreams coming true.
Kinsella’s magic realist novel pulled me in immediately
It’s a story about farmer Ray Kinsella, who finds himself driven by the cryptic, seemingly irrational instructions coming from the ghostly, disembodied voice of a baseball stadium announcer. Irrational to most, but to Ray, an inveterate baseball fan and amateur baseball historian, the voice’s biddings are perfectly clear.
“…I was sitting on the verandah of my farm home in eastern Iowa when a voice clearly said to me, “If you build it, he will come.”
“The voice was that of a ballpark announcer. As he spoke, I instantly envisioned the finished product I knew I was being asked to conceive.”
And so Ray plows under his cornfield and builds “the finished product,” a baseball field. The “he” part is couched in mystery, though Ray is at first convinced that “he” is Shoeless Joe Jackson, a one time outfielder for the Chicago Cubs.
Joseph Jefferson Jackson, along with several teammates, was given a lifetime ban from baseball in 1919, for conspiring to throw the World Series in exchange for a payoff by a gambling syndicate. To this day, Jackson’s actual involvement in the scheme is a subject of controversy.
In time the ghost of Shoeless Joe appears on Ray’s field, to be followed eventually by the ghosts of other long deceased players who get together to arrange pick up baseball games.
The ensuing events include Ray traveling to New Hampshire to convince writer J.D. Salinger (in the movie version Salinger is replaced by fictional character, Terrence Mann) to come to Iowa; a detour to Chisholm, Minnesota to pick up a player whose major league experience spanned an inning of one game; family squabbles over the baseball field; Ray in danger of having the bank take over his farm; the near choking death of his daughter and the unexpected appearance of the ghost of Ray’s father.
The novel begat the idea for a movie adaptation, which begat the search for a suitable location, in this case a small, family farm in Iowa.
The story goes something like this. Sue Riedel, a teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, Iowa, was working as a volunteer for the Iowa Film Office when she was tasked to find a location, the perfect farm, for the movie. The farm had to represent the epitome of Americana. It’s not known exactly what Ms. Riedel said when she found the white clapboard, two-story farmhouse surrounded by cornfields on the outskirts of Dyersville, but it was probably along the lines of what Brigham Young purportedly said when he saw the Salt Lake Valley, “This is the place.”
The idyllic location was a farm that had been in Don Lansing’s family since 1906. Lansing was at first hesitant to allow a bunch of Hollywood nabobs to tinker with his farm, but in America, where money talks, the almighty dollar spoke loudly enough to convince Lansing to autograph the dotted line, along with a neighbor, Al Ameskamp, whose land was needed in order to extend the field.
Two years later the movie was released and it roared into the top ten and garnered nominations for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And here is where life imitated art. Fictional Ray built his field and people came. Director Phil Robinson built a field and soon, baseball devotees began to trickle onto Lansing’s field, a trickle that became a baseball fan’s pilgrimage. Recognizing the potential for a cottage industry, Lansing began selling t-shirts and buttons.
Ameskamp died, his widow sold her section of the field to Lansing and eventually Lansing sold the whole ballgame to an LLC called Go The Distance Baseball, which added to it’s roster, the name recognition and financial punch of Hall of Fame ballplayer Wade Boggs and actor Matthew Perry. By the time I visited, the operation had been promoted from Lansing’s minor leagues to the LLC’s big league.
In the summer of 2021 when I was putting together some loose plans for a Midwest road trip a friend suggested that I go to Dyersville and visit the Field of Dreams. It was the first I’d heard about the field’s actual existence beyond a field in a now deceased novelist’s head, and a location for a sentimental baseball movie. I thought that whatever was built for the film shoot had been replanted with corn.
On September 22nd I drove into Lansing, Iowa, seventy miles north of Dyersville, with nothing on my itinerary for the following day. I got up in the morning, had breakfast and decided to take the drive to Dyersville.
The Field of Dreams is northeast of town. Coming from the north on Highway 52 you barely touch Dyersville’s downtown where there’s a doll museum, the Basilica of Saint Francis Xavier and the Ertl Farm Toy Museum. Unless you detour into town, you see none of this. You get no feel for the town itself.
I drove south on Highway 52 where it enters the town limits and becomes 11th Street. I turned left onto 12th Street which turns into 5th Avenue which turns into Dyersville East Road. I fell in behind a short line of cars and eventually came to an unattended kiosk with only a sign requesting donations. Parking was easy on a Thursday afternoon in autumn. I don’t imagine it would be so on a summer’s day on Saturday.
The field is smaller than I’d imagined it would be. Had major league players held a game on that field it would’ve gone on for days or until the players collapsed from exhaustion. The outfield is so short that a game would’ve been a nonstop barrage of home runs.
If you didn’t know all the hullaballoo and history behind the field, you would take it as just another ball field in corn country. There are no suites or press boxes or even stands, unless you count the tiny wooden bleachers on each base line.
There are no outfield fences. Just as in the movie, left, center and right all end at a wall of cornstalks (in the book the field is described as having standard outfield walls). Chase a flyball out to center and you don’t crash into a fence, you simply plow headlong into corn stalks. It’s hell on the corn but it does save on the wear and tear on outfielders prone to bouncing off unforgiving outfield walls.
You come to stand behind home plate, look around and say to yourself, “Wow. So this is where it all happened.”
As I Iooked around and really took in the field, I was struck by a feeling that I’d not experienced at all on this trip – loneliness. I’d covered thousands of solitary miles and done so on my own terms. I ate when and where I wanted. If I wanted a can of Hormel chili for dinner – fine. I took wild hair detours when it suited me. I could pull over, sit by a stream for lunch and an hour’s solitary repose and not get prodded to move on. If I wanted to, I could stop the car, get out and take a dozen photos of the same scene and not feel any guilt over leaving someone sitting in the car. It had been, in its own unique way, the perfect trip. That is until I stood there on a baseball field in Iowa.
Did I miss my wife? Certainly. I especially missed watching her joy and wonder at seeing something new. I missed the quiet conversations we could have had with only the sounds of the road as background music. I didn’t miss worrying about her comfort when I stayed in motels that were quite a few rungs down from luxurious. I didn’t miss traveling on a shared schedule.
Standing on the third base line, It occurred to me that this is not a place that you visit by yourself. You share the Field of Dreams with someone who loves the game of baseball.
Looking around I saw couples; I saw groups; I saw fathers and sons and fathers and daughters. Many had brought their gloves and a ball and were playing catch, throwing a ball high in the air to catch a pop up, or skittering balls across the grass for their mates to snag grounders.
Some carried gear bags stuffed with balls and bats. I suppose they’d hoped to start a pick up game, something that simply wasn’t going to happen on a crowded field.
Some wore Major League jerseys, others wore their own hometown softball jerseys. Two paunchy men strained the seams of their Chicago White Sox jerseys, the version worn by the 1919 team that was implicated in the World Series game fixing scandal.
Uncertain about what to do and feeling that people must be staring at the lonely old guy I decided that if I did nothing else, I’d do what any self respecting baseball fan should do at the ballpark; I went to the concession stand. Naturally I had to place my order exactly as Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) placed his, in the movie, when he went to Fenway Park with Ray.
“Dog and a beer,” I said, chopping my words like Mann, hoping that the woman behind the counter would chuckle over my clever use of the line.
No response. She’d probably already heard that one a thousand times over, sometimes in weak imitation of Jones’ booming voice.
As I ate my hotdog and sipped my beer I watched the baseball pilgrims enjoying the experience. Sitting by myself I felt like the kid who gets chosen last in a game of pickup baseball; the kid who gets stuck in right field or rides the pine until a player wants to take a break (I should know, I was often that kid).
People politely stood in line to get a chance to pitch off the mound and those taking the mound reciprocated the politeness by relinquishing it after a few throws.
A guy in jeans and purple sweatshirt, who looked like he’d be more comfortable on the couch pulling from a can of beer rather than standing on a pitcher’s mound, squinted in at his buddy who was in a wobbly squat behind the plate. Purple sweatshirt guy wound up and bounced a wide pitch in the general direction of the catcher, who was probably happy to have an excuse to get out of his unsteady squat to shag the errant throw.
“I haven’t played baseball in twenty years,” said the pitcher.
“Really?” his battery mate responded. “I’d have never guessed.”
As the story approaches its conclusion, Ray finds that “he” isn’t Joe Jackson, it’s his own estranged father; in the book estranged from Ray’s brother Richard and in the movie estranged from Ray himself. John Kinsella appears as a 25 year old minor league catcher “with his whole life in front of him,” a young man who doesn’t know that he’s meeting his own son(s), not yet born.
With an Iowa sunset in the background, the movie reaches its most poignant scene following a game in which John Kinsella played catcher. In the dimming light of day, they speak briefly, John picks up his catcher’s gear and as he turns to leave, Ray calls out, “Hey. Dad? Wanna have a catch?”
John stops, “I’d like that.”
Nearly every movie births lines that become classics. Lines that become barroom bets and Jeopardy questions. Field of Dreams has its share of classic lines but at this field the most popular is some version of the line, “Hey dad, wanna have a catch?”
“Wanna have a catch?” is probably the most asked question within a twenty mile radius of the place. More so than, “How’s the family?” or even “How’s your corn crop looking this year?”
Sitting there watching the interactions, the people tossing lazy lobs or looking to throw an arm out by firing the heat seeking missiles they hadn’t thrown since high school, I came to the conclusion that this visit was an error; maybe not as egregious as Billy “Bucks” letting a World Series dribbler leak between his legs but an error nonetheless.
How cool would it have been to “have a catch” with my own son there?
I got up, tossed my hotdog wrapper in the trash and figured it was time to cut my losses before depression really set in. What the hell, go take in the Ertl Farm Toy Museum. I like die cast miniature tractors, seeders and balers as much as the next guy.
Walking down the third base line I passed a young couple “having a catch.” Both of them were wearing New York Yankees caps, but I didn’t hold that against them. Better than Dodger gear, I figured.
The young woman called out to me, “Excuse me, could you take our picture.”
“Sure,” I paused. “For a price.”
She looked at me suspiciously, waiting, I suppose, for some unreasonable or lewd request.
“Could I borrow a glove and have a catch? Just one is fine, just so that I can say that I went to the Field of Dreams and had a catch. You can’t come here and not have a catch.”
“You can throw more than one if you want,” said the man.
“Well, I’ve got two torn rotator cuffs,” explained. “Sooo…”
He thought for a moment, “Maybe one will be fine.”
And so, handed the woman’s phone, I took pictures; he pitching and she catching; she pitching and he catching; pictures with a backdrop of the field; pictures with a backdrop of cornstalks; pictures with the house in the background. I was no longer in a hurry to leave. I had the company that I’d been missing.
As they posed and I took photos, Paul and Laurie and I became Field of Dreams friends. They were longtime Yankee fans and it was their love of the pinstripes that brought them together. It was a baseball movie that brought the three of us together, if only for an hour, in Iowa.
Photos done, Laurie handed me her glove, well worn and carrying the aroma of worn leather and the hint of green grass that every baseball glove carries; the scent that anyone who’s played just a few innings can appreciate. I appreciated Laurie loaning me her glove. Handing your glove over to a perfect stranger is an act of faith, a confidence that whoever is borrowing it will treat the glove with the reverence that it deserves. Anyone who appreciates baseball feels a kinship with his or her glove. A baseball glove is an old friend. My glove, over forty years old, still sits in my closet and on those now rare occasions when I have a catch (the last time being with my grandson), I pull it out, admire its suppleness and its scent and then I go out to find that neither I nor my old friend, my glove, have forgotten how to catch a baseball.
Paul stood on the mound and I behind the plate. His first throws were soft lobs, I imagine to make sure that the old man could actually catch the ball and not miss and have it bounce off his aged bean. After he was certain that he wouldn’t concuss the old codger he amped up the speed.
There is nothing like it really. The sizzling sound of the ball as it approaches, and the pop as it connects with leather. The satisfaction of fielding the ball in just the sweetest few inches of the glove.
A throw or two turned into many and we talked as we threw. Having been on the road and not having kept track of the Major League standings, I asked Laurie if the Giants were still on their unexpected tear in the NL West.
“They look like the favorites to win the Series,” she said.
She told me that they had been on a driving trip around Sioux Falls, South Dakota and on a whim decided to detour the 350 plus miles to Dyersville.
As we tossed the ball I glanced for a moment at the sky behind Paul. It was the Midwestern sky I’d come to marvel at, the sky I’d followed during weeks of driving.
In Kinsella’s book, Moonlight Graham describes that sky precisely, “Yes, that’s what I wish for Ray Kinsella: the chance to squint my eyes when the sky is so blue it hurts to look at it..”
The sky was indeed that blue and the clouds fair pearly puffs that hung, just seemingly out of arm’s reach.
I mentioned it to Paul, telling him how I’d been in such awe of that blue Midwestern sky; that coming from a major metropolitan area, the skies of Middle America were like nothing I could recall ever seeing before. He figured that the pristine skies were the result of not being fouled by seven days and fifty-two weeks of gridlocked traffic.
I could’ve stayed there all afternoon and I imagine that they would’ve let me be “that guy,” the straggler, the one who over stays at the party long after everyone else has left. So as not to put them in the awkward position of having to initiate goodbyes, I suggested to Paul and Laurie that I take their picture “disappearing” into the cornfield, the way the ghostly players do in the movie.
Photos done, we said our goodbyes.
I’d started the day, back in Lansing, Iowa, unsure about taking the seventy mile drive south to Dyersville. Hell, it was a baseball field. I’d been to lots of ballparks. From rutted dusty softball fields, to groomed little league parks, to cold and miserable Candlestick in San Francisco, to Dodger Stadium to Citi Field in Washington D.C.
What could be so special about a ball field in a cornfield in Eastern Iowa?
That’s hard to describe. Impossible to describe to someone, who doesn’t have an appreciation for a dog and a beer in the fifth inning of a sunny July afternoon; who hasn’t arrived at the stadium early to watch batting practice and hear the crack of the bat echo from home to right to center to left and back to home; who doesn’t recognize that there’s a sweet, rough, melody in the the sing song pitch of a guy hawking programs as you enter the stadium; who hasn’t booed an umpire; who never started cheering, silently maybe, for the opposing pitcher in the fifth inning because he’s throwing a no hitter; who hasn’t had that head shaking reaction after watching a shortstop go deep in the hole, snag a shot that by all rights should be a hit, and then throw the batter out at first; who hasn’t gone through the emotional rollercoaster of a 162 game season and then, win or lose, sat staring forlornly at players leaving the field for the last time and knowing that the renewal of baseball is half a year away.
To explain the enchantment of the ball field in the cornfield to someone who can’t watch a game past the first inning would be like – hell, you might as well be speaking in Latin.
My visit had started out with all the earmarks of a lonely disaster. I started out feeling like a third wheel until the baseball gods, or maybe the ghost of Shoeless Joe, led me to Laurie and Paul.