When Canadian author W.P. Kinsella published Shoeless Joe in 1982, he never really intended for his novel to be interpreted as a ‘baseball book’. His script did contain some baseball, wrapped around father/son relationships and the magic of hopes and dreams, but the larger messages centered clearly on second chances and the undying need for redemption.
Director and screenwriter Phil Alden Robinson turned Shoeless Joe into the movie Field of Dreams in 1989, and he made it pretty clear why the main characters needed redeeming.
As a teenager, converted hippie-turned-farmer Ray Kinsella (same name as the book’s author but no real connection) had a tumultuous and rocky relationship with his baseball-loving father, including a refusal to ‘have a catch’. The two parted ways after bitter words were spoken, and the elder Kinsella died before any fence-mending occurred. Obviously, Ray yearned to take back the awful things he said, and his desire to make things right with his father played a pivotal role in his building what turned out to be a magical baseball field in the middle of his Iowa corn crop.
The elder Kinsella’s hero, legendary star Shoeless Joe Jackson, was banned from major league baseball in 1921 for his role in the infamous Black Sox scandal. Forced from the game he loved, Jackson spent the rest of his playing days traveling the country, playing in semi-pro leagues under assumed names. Jackson denied any wrongdoing until the day he died, and Robinson’s movie portrayal of Jackson clearly showed Joe dreaming of absolution and a second chance to play major league baseball.
Author Kinsella added Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham to the Shoeless Joe manuscript after stumbling across the small town doctor’s lifetime stats in a baseball encyclopedia. In the good doctor’s younger days, he played in only one major league baseball game but was left stranded in the on-deck circle.
He never got to bat.
Doc Graham spent the next 60 years of his life dreaming of that elusive second chance, longing for the opportunity to dig in at the plate and stare down a big-league pitcher.
Unlike the other characters in W.P. Kinsella’s story, however, the inclusion of Terence Mann is a bit more of a mystery. On the surface, Mann is a writer and a civil rights activist, with no obvious ties to baseball. In fact, in the novel Shoeless Joe, there’s no mention of Terence Mann at all.
What’s up with that? Where did Terence Mann come from?
The answer is actually quite interesting.
As a high school senior, W.P. Kinsella read Catcher in the Rye, the hugely-successful coming-of-age novel written by J.D. Salinger. Forever a fan thereafter, Kinsella would, years later, toy with the idea of including Salinger in one of his own novels.
The perfect opportunity presented itself around the 1980 time frame, when Kinsella began working on the manuscript that would evolve into Shoeless Joe. By that time, J.D. Salinger had become a recluse, living in fiercely-guarded seclusion in New Hampshire.
In his mind, Kinsella initiated a ‘what if’ scenario. What if he included Salinger in his redemptive, second chance-driven plot? Kinsella was inspired by the knowledge that Salinger, an admitted baseball fan, had at one time professed an overwhelming desire to play baseball at the Polo Grounds. Bringing the hermit-like Salinger out of seclusion and fulfilling his baseball dreams at the magical corn field in Iowa just might rekindle his dormant literary career. It was a creative writing idea that author Kinsella simply could not ignore.
Unfortunately, J.D. Salinger couldn’t ignore it, either. Upon discovering his fictional involvement in Kinsella’s newly-published novel, the livid Salinger made it known through lawyers that, although he didn’t have enough grounds for a lawsuit, any attempt to expand the story to television or the movies would be met with spirited legal opposition.
Movie producers were well aware of Salinger’s threats when it came time to transfer Kinsella’s story from the written page to the big screen. Wanting no part in a legal quagmire, producers decided to create a similarly-reclusive, baseball-loyal persona out of thin air. To differentiate from the original J.D. Salinger character, director Robinson created Terence Mann, a disillusioned African-American and Boston-based social activist. For good measure, this new character dreamed of playing baseball at Ebbets Field, not the Polo Grounds.
Phil Robinson’s character switch worked to perfection, with no discernible impact on the film’s storyline. Mann, played brilliantly in Field of Dreams by James Earl Jones, delivered at movie’s end one of the most eloquent and moving speeches ever captured on film. And, as W.P. Kinsella noted, movie executives surmised (correctly) that no more than 15% of cinema goers would have a clue who Salinger was, anyway.
In true Hollywood fashion, it all worked out in the end. J.D. Salinger stayed a recluse in New Hampshire until his death in 2010. The movie was nominated for an Oscar, and even after a quarter century, 65,000 people still trek yearly to see Ray Kinsella’s magical baseball field in Dyersville, Iowa.
Isn’t that how the Field of Dreams’ Terence Mann said it would be?
“Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”