Sportswriter Brett Friedlander Discusses The True Story of Field Of Dreams’ Doc Graham

Today, I’m hosting not just an interview — with Brett Friedlander, sportswriter for the Wilmington Star-News and co-author of Chasing Moonlight: The True Story of Field of Dreams’ Doc Graham — but also a guest interviewer: Kyle Semmel, a fellow writer and a big baseball fan to whom I’d passed along the book, figuring he’d enjoy.

Kyle chatted with the author about the genesis of the book, about the benefits of collaborating with another writer, and about Graham himself, and  I’m pleased to turn the program over to him now:

chasingmoonlightChasing Moonlight, by Brett Friedlander and Robert Reising, is the true story of Archibald Graham, a native North Carolinian and brother to former University of North Carolina President Frank Porter Graham. Known as “Moonlight” Graham during an all-too brief baseball career, he was a career minor leaguer until he got one chance to play for John McGraw’s New York Giants in 1905. That chance turned out to be one game, and he didn’t make it to bat. Sent back down to the minors shortly after, he never again spent time in a major league uniform. 

But Chasing Moonlight isn’t about a minor league baseball player. It’s the story of a remarkable  journeyman ballplayer turned renowned country doctor in a small northern Minnesota town, far from his North Carolina home — a man whose careers in baseball and medicine provided the inspiration for one of the characters in W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe and who was then immortalized by Burt Lancaster in that book’s film adaptation, Field of Dreams

Chasing Moonlight seeks to find the man behind those depictions, and early chapters from the book have already won a 2007 N.C. Press Association Award. 

Kyle Semmel: How did you and Robert Reising write this book? As co-authors, how did you determine who would write/research what?

Brett Friedlander, co-author of "Chasing Moonlight"

Brett Friedlander, co-author of the new biography "Chasing Moonlight"

Brett Friedlander: Since I am a sports writer by trade and Bob is a college professor, I did the bulk of the writing while he did a great deal of the research, though we both made contributions in both areas. The great thing about our partnership, however, is that we worked so well together. We made several trips to Minnesota together and spent many combined hours in the research libraries in Fayetteville, Chapel Hill, and Charlotte, as well. As for the writing, whenever either of us was finished with a chapter, it would be emailed to the other for any additions, subtractions or other revisions. The most cooperative effort came on the final chapter, which was written over the better part of two days together at the Fayetteville main branch library, where we bounced ideas off one another and wrote the conclusion as we went along.

This is a book whose genesis, you write, begins with W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe — which, of course, later became the popular film Field of Dreams. Because its subject is a career minor leaguer, it’s easy to see the book’s appeal for baseball fans. What considerations, if any, did you have for those readers who might not know Shoeless Joe or Field of Dreams

Not as much in the original draft. But thanks to the persuasion of a great editor, Steve Kirk of John F. Blair, we eventually included a lot more background and basic facts that were covered in the novel and movie into our text. I think these were important additions, because without the context of Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams, the significance of Graham’s accomplishments and the depth of his many sacrifices would have been lost on the reader. By going back and providing that context, I believe we broadened the appeal of this book to an audience beyond that of a typical “baseball book.” As is the case with Field of Dreams, baseball is only one aspect of Graham’s life story. It’s a hook, if you will, that leads you to a much more inspiring and complex subject.  

When reading the book, I was struck by a couple instances when you substitute the fictional Graham’s dialogue for the real Graham’s. Oddly, those passages seem very fitting to the person you portray in Chasing Moonlight. Can you talk about the difficulties you faced in discovering just who this remarkable, yet largely obscure man was? Here, I’m thinking especially of the gaps between the facts of his life and the fiction.

The most difficult aspect, by far, in researching and writing this biography is that virtually no records or writings remain pertaining directly to Graham. I remember going to Chisholm, Minnesota for the first time hoping to find some sort of journal or diary or even just a pile of notes he made during his 44 years as the town’s school doctor and being disappointed when I was told that they were all lost or thrown away either after Doc had died or a few years later when the school that housed his office was torn down. No one thought to keep any of that stuff because at the time, there didn’t seen a need. It was only after his death, when Kinsella stumbled across his name and decided to include him in Shoeless Joe, that Graham became famous and people outside of Chisholm began caring about him. That forced us to to rely on personal recollections of his friends and former patients to fill in the gaps of his story. What we couldn’t get from them, we had to find by going back through nearly five decades of newspapers archives in Chisholm, Hibbing and Duluth, Minnesota. Most of the quotes attributed to Graham in the book are from those sources. The others came from the fictional Graham created by Kinsella — who like Dr. Reising and myself, got a feel for Doc’s personality and characteristics through extensive interviews with the people of Chisholm. 

While Moonlight Graham was playing ball with the New York Giants and pursuing his medical degree, he’s described as a soft-spoken, almost genteel Southern gentleman. A year later, after Graham’s contract is sold to Scranton in the New York League and the Giants come to town for an exhibition game, this quiet man challenges one of the Giants speediest players, George Browne, to a footrace. This seems to me the most powerful moment in Graham’s baseball career; he’s at the height of his confidence and playing very well. But this brash move seems out of character for him. Do you think Graham was trying to prove his skills to Giants manager John McGraw, or to himself? 

While it is true that Graham did not often call attention to himself, something he learned at an early age from his parents and a trait he carried through most of his life, I think he understood that this occasion was different and called for bold action. By this time, Graham had come to the realization that, though his minor league career was flourishing, his chances of ever getting back to the majors and getting that elusive at bat were rapidly slipping away. In other words, desperate times call for desperate actions. While this episode was clearly out of character for Graham, the feeling is that this was one last-ditch effort (that failed) on his part to show McGraw that he was fast, aggressive and confident enough to play for his team.

Though a career in professional baseball was frowned upon by many — as you write — Graham continued to play the game. Did you find any information on what his family thought of his ballplaying career? especially since he continually interrupted his medical studies to pursue it?

There is really no record of how his parents felt about his continued flirtation with baseball, though there’s a very good chance they tried very hard to get him to give it up and concentrate on medicine. His siblings, however, probably encouraged him since they were all very close and frequently participated together in athletic endeavors during their youth. Frank, in particular, was likely the most supportive of Archie because he idolized his other brother and secretly dreamed of being good enough to follow in his footsteps. Instead, he went into coaching and then later, become a staunch advocate for college athletics during his time as president of UNC-Chapel Hill. 

Do you think Moonlight Graham’s pain at not getting another shot at the majors was mitigated by his success in the minors, particularly at Scranton?

Absolutely. He knew he had the talent to play at a higher level if only he would have been given the chance. The hope, no matter how faint, that he might eventually get that chance continued to drive him, at least until his final season, when he was persuaded to come back by the Scranton team owner because of his popularity with the fans there (and his potential for selling tickets).

Once Graham’s career as a ballplayer was over and he emerges as a doctor in northern Minnesota, he seems to have settled into a life as a beloved small-town eccentric. For all his quirks, Doc Graham was the very first physician to recognize the importance of taking children’s blood pressure, and his report on the matter garnered him widespread acclaim in the medical field. Was there any indication that Graham would have left Chisholm, Minnesota had a big league hospital come calling?

No, once Graham established himself in Chisholm, he became too entrenched in the community to go anywhere else — especially to a “big-league hospital” where the expectations and pressures would have been much greater than he preferred. I’m sure he had several opportunities to join his colleagues in the blood pressure study at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (his wife’s hometown), but he chose instead to stay in a place in which, as Kinsella put it, “the wind never blows so cold.” I think he loved the people and the pace of life in Chisholm too much to look elsewhere, the old big fish in a small pond concept. He also owned so many properties and had so many other things going on in Chisholm that at a certain point, it would have also made his life much to complicated to leave.

Much of Graham’s success was earned beyond North Carolina’s borders, but he was born and bred in the state, and the brother you mentioned earlier, Frank Porter Graham, earned fame in both the educational and political arenas. To what degree would you say Moonlight could be considered a North Carolina figure today?

Though he spent the majority of his adult life in Minnesota, I believe that he is still just as much a son of North Carolina because of the roots he grew here. For one thing, there is his family legacy. Not only did he spend his formative years in both Fayetteville and Charlotte, but because his father and brother made such significant names for themselves here, there will always be that connection. Furthermore, his success on the baseball diamond at UNC and with the record-setting 1902 Charlotte Hornets helped him carve out his own niche in our state’s history’s history books.

Note: Brett Friedlander will make several appearances in North Carolina over the next few weeks: Thursday, April 16, at the Fayetteville Barnes & Noble; Friday, April 17, at Wilmington’s Pomegranate Books; Wednesday, April 29, at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books; and Saturday, May 2, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop.

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0 thoughts on “Sportswriter Brett Friedlander Discusses The True Story of Field Of Dreams’ Doc Graham

  1. Pingback: Todd Johnson Sweeps Through North Carolina « Art & Literature

  2. Kyle

    I just read about the Angels’ pitcher, Nick Edenhart, who after pitching his FIRST big league game on Wednesday was killed by a drunken driver hours later. God, it’s always awful to read about someeone getting killed in such a way. A whole life (and career) ahead of him.