116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
If not for advice a taxi driver in British Columbia got from an alumnus of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, there would be no Field of Dreams Major League Baseball game in Dyersville Thursday night.
The New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox are coming to Dyersville Thursday, and the person most responsible was a Canadian who moved to Iowa City to devote himself to writing.
That’s W.P. Kinsella, who was driving a cab and taking writing classes at the University of Victoria in his late 30s. One of his instructors, author W.D. Valgardson, is the aforementioned Writers’ Workshop alum. Valgardson encouraged Kinsella to enroll in the Workshop and pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing.
Kinsella got on a bus in suburban Vancouver and deboarded in Iowa City.
“For him, coming to Iowa was the turning point,” said William Steele, an English professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville and the author of “Going the Distance: The Life and Works of W.P. Kinsella.”
“He had published some short stories and was starting to get a following, but without going to Iowa he doesn’t write ‘Shoeless Joe Jackson,’ and without writing that none of this other stuff happens.”
In a 2004 essay for Sports Illustrated, Kinsella wrote “I did not want my two years of graduate studies to end. I decided to try to show, in my fiction, how I had come to love Iowa.”
So he began writing a collection of short stories called “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa.” That started a series of events that led to the Yankees and White Sox meeting this week in what was once farmland.
“Phil Robinson, who wrote the screenplay for ‘Field of Dreams,’ said none of this should have happened,” Steele said.
“When Kinsella was leaving Iowa to go back to Canada to teach in Calgary, he wrote ‘Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa’ really as a tribute to Iowa as a place.
“Then this editor’s assistant in Boston (Larry Kessenich) reads a two-sentence blurb about that short story and says it will make a great novel. Kinsella said ‘Well, I’ve never published a novel,’ and Larry says ‘Well, I’ve never edited one.’ They work together and it turns into this novel.”
It was called “Shoeless Joe” and it was published in 1982. It got a lot of favorable reviews. “Then,” Steele said, “Phil Robinson gets a hold of it.”
Robinson was a film director who pitched a movie about the novel to several Hollywood executives. He finally got Universal Studios to bite in 1987. Universal signed actors Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster for the film.
The film generated over five times the $16 million it cost to make it. Ever since its release, fans have journeyed to Dyersville to see the field, run the bases, “have a catch.”
“I was very happy that screenwriter and director Phil Alden Robinson and his crew decided to film ‘Field of Dreams’ in Iowa,” Kinsella wrote in SI. “They scouted locations from Georgia to southern Ontario but finally settled on one near the town of Dyersville, near Dubuque. The location turned out to be excellent.”
Many novelists end up disliking how their stories turn out after they’ve sold their movie rights. Not Kinsella.
“He said he couldn’t have done a better job with the screenplay than what Phil Robinson did,” Steele said. “When Phil sent him a copy of it he read it and started crying. Then when he saw the movie when it premiered in Canada, he was moved to tears again by what Phil was able to do with it. He absolutely loved it and said it couldn’t have been done better than what it was.”
Thirty-two years later, “Field of Dreams” resonates enough to have the very real Yankees and White Sox playing in Dyersville, with a Fox national TV audience.
At 81, Kinsella died in British Columbia in 2016 with the help of a doctor acting under Canada’s physician-assisted suicide law. He had been hospitalized for two weeks before that because of complications from diabetes.
His oldest daughter will be at Thursday’s game. So will Steele, Kinsella’s biographer and friend.
It seems as much a fantasy as a tale of an Iowa farmer turning a cornfield into a baseball field and attracting ghosts of former major leaguers like Jackson to play on it. An MLB game in rural Iowa. At the Field of Dreams.
It may be the one thing Kinsella wouldn’t have dreamed up. Maybe.
“There are very few things I can say with absolute certainty how he would feel,” Steele said, “but this one I know: He would absolutely love it.”
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