By Michael Swanger
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of “Field of Dreams,” an iconic movie that has left an indelible print on our state as witnessed by the countless fans who have made their pilgrimage to Dyersville, Iowa, to visit the movie’s idyllic site, and such memorable lines as “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa” and “If you build it, they will come” that have entered our lexicon and our hearts.
Over the years, “Field of Dreams” has inspired games of catch between fathers and sons; reminded modern baseball fans of the game’s history and aesthetics; and moved grown men to tears when its protagonist, Ray Kinsella, asks his ghostly father, John Kinsella, “Hey, Dad, you wanna have a catch?”
None of that might have been possible were it not for W.P. Kinsella’s soulful 1982 novel, “Shoeless Joe,” which “Field of Dreams” was based upon.
I was reminded of that while playing catch with my son at the movie site one picture-perfect Sunday in July. It’s beauty, like good art, is inspiring if you are willing to receive it.
That day, I met fans from as far away as Australia and Japan who shared their stories about the movie and novel. Here’s mine.
Shortly after I graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in English, I was afforded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to chauffeur Kinsella from Cedar Falls to Iowa City. His books were reaching mass audiences thanks to the success of “Field of Dreams” and he was among a star-studded group of writers including Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff and Gay Talese who were participating in the International Conference of the Short Story in English sponsored by UNI and the University of Iowa.
No other writer, though, piqued my curiosity more than Kinsella. A well-worn, paperback copy of “Shoeless Joe” was a companion of mine in college and it led me to “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy,” “Box Socials,” “The Thrill of the Grass” and other works by Kinsella.
So you can imagine my astonishment when the head of UNI’s English department asked me to drive Kinsella the following morning to Iowa City where he would speak at his alma mater.
“Just don’t talk too much about baseball,” she warned me, knowing that would be an exercise in futility.
When morning arrived and I pulled up in my early ‘80s Nissan (similar to the one Ray Kinsella drove in “Shoeless Joe”) donning a replica 1917 White Sox cap (like the one Joe Jackson wore), Kinsella smiled and nodded approvingly.
There are no photos from my day with Kinsella, but it remains vivid in my mind.
Kinsella was dressed and looked like a modern day Mark Twain and didn’t talk much, at first. Jet-lagged, he took a cat nap while I drove in silence. When he awoke, he rubbed his eyes and apologized for snoozing. Instinctively, I did the same, which made him laugh, and the ice was broken.
I kept my promise to not talk about baseball until he brought up the subject somewhere near Cedar Rapids. He told me that he didn’t follow the game as much as people thought he might and that he was pleased with the way “Field of Dreams” treated his novel.
The irony of riding with an Iowan who adored baseball, writing and his novels wasn’t lost on him as he shared some encouraging words.
When we arrived in Iowa City, he invited me to lunch at Pearson’s Drug Store. We sat at an old-time counter and enjoyed sandwiches and conversation.
As he exited the car, after I drove him to his destination, he asked me what was in the bag in the backseat.
“A few of your novels,” I answered.
Graciously, Kinsella offered to sign them, thanked me for the ride and wished me luck. In my copy of “Shoeless Joe,” he inscribed the words “Go the distance.”
That’s good advice for anyone who has seen “Field of Dreams” but hasn’t visited Dyersville, or played a game of catch of late, or read Kinsella’s novels.
Thanks for reading.