Our connection and debt to Moonlight Graham

Jun. 29, 2014 @ 12:47 AM

What is the best baseball movie of all time?

At the top of any such list, you will find two movies with close connections to Chapel Hill and Durham.
Of course, you say, “Bull Durham,” the 1988 movie set at the old Durham Bulls Park. Some of us never tire of watching Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon. Others say that Durham’s downtown revival got its spark from the pride in place the movie inspired.
The other sure bet is “Field of Dreams,” which came out the year after “Bull Durham” and just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
But, you say, that celebration was in Iowa where the hero, again played by Kevin Costner, had built a baseball field on his farmland.
So you ask, what is its connection to us?
Costner’s character’s baseball field provided a place where the ghosts of former baseball players could play again. One of the film’s major characters, Moonlight Graham, had played only one or two innings of one major league baseball game and never got a chance to hit the ball. Later he became a small-town doctor. In “Field of Dreams” he got a chance to bat against a major league pitcher. He hit a sacrifice fly that scored a run. Then in a memorable scene, he lost the chance to continue play when he crossed the line and used his doctor’s skill to save a little girl in danger of dying.
When asked if it was a tragedy for his major league career to have lasted only five minutes, the movie character Doc Graham, played by Burt Lancaster, answered, “Son, if I'd only got to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.”
So, you ask again, what is the connection to us?
In “Chasing Moonlight: The True Story of Field of Dreams Doc Graham,” by Brett Friedlander and Robert Reising tell how the real Moonlight Graham, Dr. Archibald Graham, grew up in Fayetteville and Charlotte. He played baseball at UNC in the early 1900s.
Archie Graham combined his studies and college sports with professional baseball, playing first for the Charlotte Hornets in 1902 and then every summer until 1908, including the day of June 29, 1905, when he played for a few minutes in the outfield for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn team that later became known as the Dodgers.
For most of his professional career Archie was a popular star player for the minor league team in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He juggled medical training with baseball, hoping for another chance in the majors.
Even though Archibald Graham left our state to play professional baseball and then to practice medicine in Minnesota, North Carolina, owes him a big debt. When one of our state’s future great leaders became ill in 1916, he went to Minnesota for several months where Dr. Graham supervised his recovery.
The patient was Dr. Graham’s younger brother, Frank Porter Graham, later president of the University of North Carolina and United States senator.
When the season with his brother was over, Frank Graham had recovered sufficiently in eyesight and spirits to gain admittance in the Marine Corps in 1917 and then resume his productive life.
Just how different UNC and the state of North Carolina would have been without Frank Graham’s presence is something we cannot know for sure. But no one doubts that we are different—and better—as a result of his leadership and his example.
If it had not been for his brother, Frank Graham might never have found his way back to UNC or North Carolina.
So, take a minute to remember Doc Graham on the anniversary of his one-day major league career — June 29, 1905.
D.G. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on The Herald-Sun’s editorial page on Wednesdays and online at http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/opinioncolumnists/martin.