Thursday, April 21, 2011

Baseball memories and diamond dreams



W.P. Kinsella seems obsessed with baseball. The Canadian writer’s work frequently highlights the game.

One of his short stories, Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa, is the foundation of his most well-known novel, Shoeless Joe.  A copy of the first edition of the 1982 novel is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

Jim Murray, the sportswriter, loved it. “Any book that has Shoeless Joe Jackson, J.D. Salinger, Fenway Park and Moonlight Graham in it almost before you can pause to catch your breath has got to be more fun than Reggie Jackson under a high fly,” he wrote.

Indeed, Kinsella’s book is much more than a baseball book, though for many devotees of the game that would be enough. It is a story of redemption and lost dreams and second chances.

On the surface, newbie farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice telling him to plow his cornfield and build a baseball stadium, which he does, and it begins a fantasy adventure that brings him face-to-face with the ghost of disgraced baseball player Shoeless Joe and sends him on a quest to find reclusive author J.D. Salinger and baseball footnote Moonlight Graham.

In the book, Kinsella (the farmer) kidnaps Salinger and takes him on the odyssey to find Graham. In fact, Kinsella (the author) and Salinger were friends and Salinger went with him to Chisolm, Minn., in 1975 to search for Graham. They discovered that the baseball player had died 10 years earlier.

There are more Salinger connections as well. The main character, Ray Kinsella, was the name of a character in Salinger’s short story A Young Girl in 1941 With No Waist at All. Ray has a twin brother named Richard. Richard Kinsella is a classmate of Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s most famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

In the book, Kinsella and Salinger stop off at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. They encounter a bored ticket taker at the museum who perks up when Kinsella introduces his companion. "You worked for Kennedy," the ticket taker exclaims. Salinger hides his amusement at being mistaken for Pierre Salinger, who was White House Press Secretary to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Of course, moviegoers know the book was adapted for the 1989 Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams. The Salinger character was changed to 1960s writer Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones. Amy Madigan played Kinsella’s wife Annie and Ray Liotta played Shoeless Joe.

Most of the movie was filmed in and around Dyersville, Iowa. The owners of the land kept the baseball diamond and it is still an attraction today. Baseball and film lovers from around the country visit the site.

Originally, the title for the movie was the same as the book, Shoeless Joe, but after test audiences said they thought it sounded like a movie about a bum, the studio changed the name to Field of Dreams. W.P. Kinsella was fine with the change. The publishing company had changed the title of his book to Shoeless Joe. Originally, he had called it Dream Field.

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