DYERSVILLE, Iowa — It was my wife’s idea to come to this mythical cornfield.
Nancy has always loved the movie “Field of Dreams,” and when she discovered that we could stay overnight in the century-old farmhouse, play a game of catch under the lights and basically have the run of the place, I was sold.
But I was unprepared for the magic to come: taking batting practice as one of the movie’s original “Ghost Players” pitched to me; switching on the lights to see the ballfield spring to life; emerging out of the corn as Nancy took a video of me; eating brats and drinking beers on the tiny wooden bleachers along the first base line; watching “Field of Dreams” on DVD while lounging on a couch in the house where “Field of Dreams” was filmed.
For one June night, we had a slice of Iowa baseball heaven all to ourselves. For one night, we were Ray and Annie Kinsella.
We drove into Dyersville in the middle of a late-afternoon downpour, and, having forgotten to pack rain gear, we made a pit stop at the local Goodwill and spent $8.50 for two jackets. As it turned out, we didn’t really need them. The clouds parted just in time for an orange-and-pink sunset beyond the outfield corn.
Frank Dardis knows that corn well. The longtime semi-pro baseball player and coach grew up in Peosta, Iowa, a town of 1,500 about 15 miles east of Dyersville, population 4,200. Dardis is almost 66 now and he’s pitched so many innings in his life that he’s unable to straighten his left arm. It was Dardis, wearing an ancient baseball glove that a friend found in a New York City antique store, who lobbed pitches to me as I swung from the heels, trying to send the ball out to the corn. I never came close.
In the movie, Dardis is part of the troupe of locals who re-enact the role of the 1919 Chicago White Sox and emerge out of the corn to play baseball. He has a brief but memorable scene in the movie. Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) wrangles with his mercenary brother-in-law, Mark, who’s urging him to sell the failing farm. Mark is unable to see Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other ballplayers on the field. Indeed the oblivious Mark (Timothy Busfield) walks between the mound and home plate, just as the batter takes a hefty swing. The batter is Dardis, who gets upset, throws down his bat and has to be restrained from going after Mark.
“That’s my 15 seconds of fame,” Dardis said with a laugh. “I think that scene was a one-taker. But it was kind of scary. Busfield said to me, ‘Show me right where you are going to swing, because you better not hit me and I can’t flinch or anything.’ So he walked right through, I took a full swing and he never flinched. But I didn’t miss him by a whole lot.”
Dardis thinks he pulled off his part.
“That’s best-supporting-actor kind of stuff, right?” he said. “Or maybe best-supporting extra. They really should create that award.”
Dardis was working as the postmaster and city clerk in Peosta in 1988 when a crew was scouting for local baseball talent to appear in the movie. Dardis, 34 at the time, was raising three boys (Sean, 13, Egan, 9, and Brendan, two months), and his wife (Beth) was out of town on business for the summer. Although extras were paid $100 a day, and though he wanted to be in the movie, he didn’t think he could do it while taking care of his family.
“It was my mom, Mary Eileen Alice Dardis — good Irish name — who insisted,” Dardis recalled. “Thank God for my blessed mother. She called and said, ‘When are you going to get another chance to do something like this?’ So she helped with the kids and I got to be in a movie.”
“Field of Dreams” was released in 1989. It was a critical and box-office hit. As the late critic Roger Ebert wrote: “Movies are often so timid these days, so afraid to take flights of the imagination, that there is something grand and brave about a movie where a voice tells a farmer to build a baseball diamond so that Shoeless Joe Jackson can materialize out of the cornfield and hit a few fly balls. This is the kind of movie Frank Capra might have directed, and James Stewart might have starred in — a movie about dreams.”
Still, as beloved as the movie became, few suspected that the field it was filmed on would remain a tourist attraction more than three decades later. Within weeks of the movie’s release in the spring of 1989, people started arriving in Dyersville and knocking on the door of the farmhouse. That first year, more than 7,000 people dropped by. The next year, twice as many people showed up.
The crowds have thinned over the years, but there is still a steady stream of baseball romantics who drive down Lansing Road and smile as the farm site comes into view.
After Nancy and I spent a peaceful night in the master bedroom of the farmhouse built in 1906, we awoke to a bright, sunny day. Baseball pilgrims were already waiting outside for tour guide Teresa Murray to unveil some secrets of “Field of Dreams.” For example, she revealed that the well-irrigated corn had grown too tall for the opening scene in which Costner walks through the field and hears the voice whisper, “Build it and he will come.” Costner looked so short amid the corn, in fact, that the crew built a foot-high wooden platform for him to walk on as the camera rolled.
Dradis never dreamed that his role as one of the Ghost Players would take him around the country and around the world, but that’s what happened.
It began one Sunday afternoon when Keith Rahe, who was living in a nearby farmhouse with some college friends, decided, on a lark, to dress up like ballplayers and emerge from the corn. When they appeared, a little girl yelled, “Mommy, it’s the ghost players!”
The story was reported in the local paper, and hundreds of visitors appeared the next weekend and for weekends after, all waiting for the 1919 White Sox to walk out of the corn.
“Keith and the guys were sitting at home the next week and the people at the field called them up and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do that again?’ ” Dardis recalled. “Keith said, ‘No, we just wanted to see what it was like. It was fun and everything, but it was kind of a one-timer.’
“But the owners of the field said, ‘Would you please reconsider? Because there are 200 people waiting here, thinking that Ghost Players are coming out of the corn. They are not leaving.’ ”
So Rahe formed the Ghost Players, who developed a comedy routine similar to that of the Harlem Globetrotters. Over time, the troupe performed at charity events, held youth clinics and even traveled overseas to military bases.
“I’ve been to over 50 countries,” Dradis said. “The U.S. military booked us really heavy in the 1990s. For the biggest tour we ever did, we started in California and then went to Hawaii for a week with our wives. Then the Ghost Players continued island hopping all the way across the Pacific and we ended up in South Korea. It was a six-week tour. It’s been the craziest baseball story you have ever seen.”
Former St. Louis Cardinals star shortstop Ozzie Smith, who often comes to Dyersville on Labor Day to take part in Hall of Fame day, invited the Ghost Players to St. Louis for his retirement party in 1996.
“It was at this theater in St. Louis and it was one of the best gigs we ever did,” Dardis said. “We came out on the stage and came out through the fog and the crowd went crazy.”
For years, Paul Sherrman, another Ghost Player, who played the catcher in Dardis’ big movie scene, has gathered used baseball equipment from around Iowa and shipped it to Puerto Rico in conjunction with the Roberto Clemente Foundation.
“I’m amazed at what the movie and this place has created,” Dardis mused. “It is magical. Don’t think for a minute that it’s not. You know, you could end up with James Earl Jones out in the corn. He never came back out.”
With that, Dardis left Nancy and me to continue exploring the “Field of Dreams” movie site on our own. We found the spot on the top bleacher where Costner carved “Ray Loves Annie” into the wood. We excitedly noted exactly where certain scenes were filmed. We sat on the porch swing and gazed out at a perfectly imperfect ballfield that has a noticeable slope from right field to center.
Far beyond left field, across the corn, we could see the construction site where the ballfield for the Field of Dreams game between the Cardinals and the Chicago White Sox is scheduled to take place on Aug. 13. The Yankees were originally scheduled to play the White Sox but the coronavirus pandemic altered those plans.
The new park — designed to pay homage to Chicago’s Comiskey Park — will be large enough to seat 8,000 fans, but it’s still to be determined whether any fans will be able to attend. The field will stay intact and Go The Distance Baseball, the company that operates the movie site, will consider other potential uses for it.
With or without fans, the game will likely be a big hit on television. Baseball, history and nostalgia mix well, especially during these trying times. Fans will no doubt flock to Dyersville again.
Currently, no garish billboards alert drivers to turn off the main highway; only a few signs point the way to the farm. Who knows if that will change? I hope not.
Sons and daughters have brought their fathers’ old gloves and left them in this Iowa cornfield. Wedding vows have been exchanged here and families have scattered ashes of deceased relatives.
Nancy and I will always have this memory of staying in a simple farmhouse, overlooking a modest baseball diamond, carved out of a cornfield to create the set for a classic American movie.
Field of Dreams, indeed.