What's the Connection between Moonlight and Baseball?

In particular, how is moonlight related to baseball's foul territory?

Moonlight is like foul territory because they both flip things around. In most sports, such as tennis and basketball, you can't keep playing once you cross the out-of-bound lines, but in baseball you can. When a baseball player catches a ball in foul territory and makes an out, we see that the foul line is not the final out-of-bounds line, after all. It's an illusion. The foul line says, "This looks like the out-of-bounds line, but actually the game can keep going beyond this line." And since boundary lines in sports symbolically represent social authority--limits, rules, what you can and can't do--the foul line embodies American ambivalence about authority. The foul line represents a desire to both respect and throw out the rules at the same time, a desire to keep play going, even after it's supposed to be over--like moonlight.

This "magical" contrarian side of foul territory even comes out in a specific scene in the movie "Field of Dreams."

First let's start with the obvious, general connection: a major character in the film is "Moonlight" Graham. Novelist Bill Kinsella, the author of the book that the movie was based on, focused on "Moonlight" Graham because he was taken by that nickname and story when he found it in the Baseball Encyclopedia. Yes, Archibald "Moonlight" Graham was a real player in American baseball. He played a half inning in the outfield for the Giants in 1905, was next up to bat in the 9th inning but never got to because the Giants won the game, then he went back to the minors, and later became a doctor in Chisholm, Minnesota. Nobody is sure why Archibald was called "Moonlight," but it seems likely that it was due to his extraordinary speed. Some experts at the time considered "Moonlight" to be the fastest runner in the game, with one newspaper explaining that he is "known as 'Moonlight' because he is supposed to be as fast as a flash" (see SABR and this excellent biography).

The makers of "Field of Dreams" wisely chose to place a key "Moonlight" Graham scene in foul territory. I'm talking about the scene where "Moonlight" Graham has been playing on Ray's field, but stops to save Ray's daughter, who has fallen out of the stands and is choking. "Moonlight" steps right up to the edge of the playing area, the point where the dirt meets gravel, a line that runs from the small bleacher seats to what would normally be the grandstands for thousands of spectators. Up until now, the movie has depicted this grandstand line as something the ghost players can't cross. Shoeless Joe stops at this line when talking with Ray and his family, and throughout the movie we never see any other players cross it--until Moonlight Graham does.

As Moonlight crosses that line, he returns to being his older self, Doc Graham. This is a magical, surreal moment--the first time in the movie that we see "time travel" happen right before our eyes. This moment redefines reality. Ray's brother-in-law now sees the players and accepts that what seemed like a fantasy is actually real. Fittingly, this sudden shift in reality all happens in foul territory, an ambiguous zone that is in and out of play at that same time. "Moonlight" switches to Doc Graham in full daylight, but, like baseball itself, he still carries a bit of moonlight inside him.

That's baseball. Like a moon that you can see in the daytime, it keeps going even when it seems like it's over.

Flckr, Neal Simpson, "Daytime Moon in Pecan Treetops," CC BY-ND 2.0


CitizenJMAC said...

Baseball and the moon were at odds for the first half of baseball's life -- most games being played during the day and sometimes being postponed when the field became too dark.

The standardization of lights in all the parks brought baseball nearer to the moon, and also made it much more profitable--now families could attend games (and TV viewers could tune in) after work, which had a big impact on attendance revenue. Now night games are much more common than day games, although certain stadiums (Wrigley for instance) do still schedule more day games for nostalgia's sake.

Personally, I think there's something special about watching baseball in the afternoon, but I get my fix every Arizona March during Spring Training.

Peter Wogan said...

Thanks for the excellent comments, Citizen JMAC! I didn't know this about Wrigely, for example...or that you go to Arizona every year. You ARE a true baseball fan!

So as I'm sure you know, too, Shoeless Joe makes a negative comment about the lights in the movie: "What's with the lights?" he says to Ray, and then when Ray says it was the idea of the owners, he scoffs, "Owners." That comment does serve the movie's point, it seems, of showing the passage of time and changes to baseball, the very ones you've noted. But I still like to think that even Shoeless Joe would end up liking the night lights (if not playing under them). After all, he even waxes poetic about "brass spittoons" in the hotel lobby! (I always say, Nothing like spitting indoors in a fancy bucket--that's good living.:))
Thanks again for the posts.

Anonymous said...

The moon is not only seen at night, a fact noticed more often under summer's clear skies. Baseball's relationship to the moon is not necessarily limited to night or darkness.

This view of the moon and baseball makes particular sense in the context of baseball as a pastime. With so much down-time between moments of action, you can notice things like the moon.

Peter Wogan said...

Thanks for the comments!

I agree with you, and that's a good point about the down-time in baseball allowing for reflection on these things. I do especially love it when the moon shows itself during the daytime. Even more than the nighttime moon, the daytime moon gives that feeling of things being flipped around. Last week the moon was hanging in the sky in the morning, and I just wanted to take a photo every time I looked at it! But I don't know that I could ever do better than that Flickr shot of the moon at PGE Park, so I never did take any photos. I've never met anyone who specifically uses the term "baseball moon," but I'd still like to think that the baseball-moon connection has been crystallized in speech.

Thanks again for the comments.