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Time Machine: 'A Field of Dreams' revived Shoeless Joe Jackson's tarnished image

The Ghost Players, who played exhibition baseball games on the #x201c;Field of Dreams#x201d; ball field near Dyersville,
The Ghost Players, who played exhibition baseball games on the “Field of Dreams” ball field near Dyersville, wave farewell in 1995 before disappearing into a cornfield. (Gazette archives)
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Shoeless Joe Jackson’s nickname came from his time playing baseball for Greenville in the Carolina Association. He had a sore heel and kicked off his shoes to play in his stockings.

The Philadelphia Athletics brought him to the major leagues, and he played for Cleveland before going to the Chicago White Sox in 1915. The outfielder was batting .356 — Hall of Fame numbers — before the “Black Sox” scandal.

In the 1919 World Series, eight members of the heavily favored Chicago White Sox, including Shoeless Joe, were accused of throwing the Series to the Cincinnati Reds in a betting scheme. Jackson sandbagged a few plays in the outfield but had 12 base hits in the Series, a record that would stand until 1964, and led both teams with a .375 batting average.

A grand jury acquitted the White Sox players in 1921, but Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first baseball commissioner, banned all eight from the game for life.

‘A babe in arms’

In 1939, Tait Cummins, The Gazette’s sports columnist, wrote about the scandal:

“A genius with a bat, Shoeless Joe was a babe in arms when confronted by every other phase of living. His lack of book learnin’ is legend and his willingness to go along with the boys on any devilment was due more to a love of fun than to inborn cussedness,” Tate wrote.

“No White Sox player of any decade had a greater bleacher following, and the adoration showered on Joe by his boosters spurred him to the heights. No phase of the Black Sox scandal was so widely regretted as the implication of Jackson at the height of his career.

“Few human interest stories touched the hearts of more sports followers than the picture of Jackson leaving Comiskey Park for the last time, surrounded by boys, with one little fellow tugging at his hand and crying: ‘Say it isn’t so, Joe, say it isn’t so.”

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“Shoeless Joe was walking into obscurity. In his case, justice might well have been softened with mercy.”

Kinsella’s book

Consigning Jackson to obscurity turned out to be premature. In 1982, Canadian W.P. Kinsella’s novel, “Shoeless Joe,” came out based on the scandal that cost Jackson his career.

Kinsella studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1976 at the age of 41. He loved Iowa, saying, “I don’t know why, although Iowa is certainly the friendliest place you’ll ever find. I feel comfortable here. It’s like one of my characters says, ‘Once you fall in love with the land, the wind never blows quite so cold again.’ “

Kinsella began his famous novel in Iowa City as a short story in 1977. An editor at Houghton Mifflin asked to see the rest of the story. As a result, Kinsella wrote his first novel, which he called “The Dream Field.” His publisher changed the title to “Shoeless Joe.”

The movie

Six years later, Universal Pictures announced it would film the movie version in Dubuque with a budget of $12 million to $15 million. Filming was to take place on a “wonderful, absolutely marvelous” Dubuque County farm that producer Brian Frankish refused to identify.

Kevin Costner (as Ray Kinsella) and James Earl Jones (as sports writer Terrence Mann, replacing the book’s original J.D. Salinger) starred. Amy Madigan was cast as Kinsella’s wife, Annie, joining Burt Lancaster as Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham and Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe.

It soon became obvious the movie would be filmed near Dyersville when a ball field was built on the Don Lansing farm (left field was on Al Ameskamp’s farm).

During filming, the two teams wore vintage wool uniforms on hot Iowa days and used equipment from Jackson’s era.

Despite the heat, they left in the line: “Is this heaven? ... No, it’s Iowa.”

As filming progressed, a scene of a Boston Jewish neighborhood with two bagel bakeries was set up in Dubuque using 50 dozen bagels from Iowa City’s Bruegger’s Bagels. Proprietor James Kempf said it was the first time his bagels had been used in a movie.

That last scene

The final scene of the movie, shot at dusk on a hot August night, involved 1,500 cars and drivers to illustrate Jackson’s promise, “If you build it, they will come.”

The camera pans from eye level to a 3,000-foot helicopter view showing a long line of cars, with headlights on, streaming through the Iowa night toward the ball field.

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As filming wound up, Costner told Gazette writer Dee Ann Rexroat, “I think this movie’s going to mark time in a very special way” and would be as timeless as “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

In March 1989, the movie’s title was changed from “Shoeless Joe” to “Field of Dreams” before it premiered in Dubuque on April 20.

Now, 30 years after the movie, as Major League Baseball builds a major league field alongside the original Field of Dreams, it looks like Costner was right.

Comments: d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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