Story at a glance

  • The New York Yankees will play the Chicago White Sox at Iowa’s fabled Field of Dreams in August 2020.
  • Many fans, and the players, are excited about the historic game, but experts wonder how the nostalgia play will be received by younger fans.
  • Baseball’s long-term future is less certain as cultural interests shift.

If you build it, well, fans of the classic baseball movie “Field of Dreams” know what happens next.

So, in a ballpark version of life imitating art, Major League Baseball is coming to Iowa next year. The New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox are slated to play a regular-season game at the “Field of Dreams” movie set in rural Dyersville, Iowa.

The game, scheduled for Aug. 13, 2020, is the state’s first chance to host big-league baseball.

It’s also a home run shot at the national spotlight for the movie set tourist attraction, an emerald antique diamond carved out of a cornfield by Universal Pictures for the 1989 film.

On screen, it’s the evocative backdrop for the sentimental exploits of baseball-obsessed dreamer Ray Kinsella, a hippie-turned-farmer who hears voices in the corn that inspire him to build a baseball field as a way to connect with his father, once emotionally distant and now dead.

In real life, the field was left behind after filming. Originally owned by two neighboring families, the site became a grassroots tourist stop that started with nothing more than a makeshift souvenir stand before evolving into a corporately owned attraction that drew more than 100,000 guests in 2018.

Such attention is rarely garnered by Dyersville’s other visitor magnet, the National Farm Toy Museum.

For baseball, steeped in nostalgia, the “Field of Dreams” game is an inspired marketing move. Yet it’s worth wondering how traditionalist Kinsella would feel about the sport’s new wrinkles such as video challenges of disputed umpire calls.

Despite such innovations, baseball long ago surrendered the national pastime status that it held uncontested from the eras of Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle. That title now undoubtedly belongs to the NFL, a faster, more violent game better suited to TV coverage.

On top of that, the old game also is challenged by soccer, one of many diversions that vie for the attention of younger athletes and potential fans.

Against competition from e-sports and soccer moms, can a solitary ball game in a cornfield tie together threads of the sport’s rich history with fans tracking action with smartphones instead of scorecards?

Will people come?

Based on initial reaction from fans and players, the outlook is positive. To borrow another line from the movie, it seems that people will come. Or they’d like to, at least.

Mark Eilers, a lifelong White Sox fan and season ticketholder, would eagerly make the 2 1/2-hour drive to the Iowa game on U.S. Highway 61 from his home in Kewanee, Ill., he said.

If he can score tickets, that is.

“The biggest joke around here is, ‘Hey, anybody got a spare $5,000 for a seat?’ ” says Eilers, 63, who manages a school cafeteria as well as the restaurant and lounge at the venerable Flemish American Club in Kewanee. “I’m afraid they are going to make it only for the wealthy.”

Nevertheless, he has a plan.

“I’m a season ticketholder, so I’m hoping I might have dibs on a seat,” he said. “We’re going to upgrade next year and I’m going to ask them when we make our payment if there’s even a remote chance at a ticket. I would be interested.”

Like Kinsella, Eilers learned to love baseball on a farm, where he grew up listening to games on the radio in the 1960s in his hometown of Hooppole, Ill.

“On our tractors we had a big transistor radio and we’d get broadcasts of the White Sox, [Chicago] Cubs and [St. Louis] Cardinals. When someone hit a home run, we’d put a finger up — one, two or three fingers. In order, it was one finger for the White Sox, two for the Cubs and three for the Cardinals. I became obsessed with it.”

Eilers has “boxes and boxes” of memorabilia, including treasures handed down from his father, he said.

“I’ve never thrown a program away from a White Sox game,” he said. “They’re just fun to look at. In 1971, it was a quarter for a hot dog and it was 50 cent beers. It was incredible. I have a 1959 photo of the White Sox and I was only 3 years old, so that was something from my dad.”

A “unique experience”

Plans for the game also have been enthusiastically received by players, said Bob Nightengale, veteran baseball columnist for USA Today.

“The players believe it will be such a unique experience, and will always be able to tell their kids and grandkids every time the ‘Field of Dreams’ movie comes on that they played on that same field,” Nightengale said. “They also love the fact it’s only a short trip from Chicago, and can still stay at their own hotel before making the venture.”

Although players won’t be staying in town, the game is expected to generate a flood of customers for businesses in Dyersville, a town with a population of just over 4,000 residents.

Shops and popular restaurants such as Country Junction and Chad’s Pizza are eagerly awaiting the influx, said Roman Weinberg, director of operations for Go the Distance Baseball LLC, the company that owns the movie-set attraction.

“The phones have been nonstop,” Weinberg said. “It has put the national spotlight on Dyersville and the Field of Dreams like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Initial work has started on construction of a temporary 8,000-seat stadium at the attraction, Weinberg said. It will be modeled on Chicago’s bygone Comiskey Park, with windows in an outfield wall offering a view of the cornfield. The Field of Dreams welcomed a record 115,000 visitors in 2018 and, bolstered by the nationally televised game, expects to double that attendance in 2020, Weinberg said.

“It’s all a testament to everything the movie represents,” he said, “how many lives it has touched, how timeless it is.”

The game’s nostalgia became evident to filmmaker Lynn Novick during her work with director Ken Burns on the landmark 1994 documentary “Baseball” and its 2010 sequel, “Baseball: The Tenth Inning.” The original project debuted in the shadow of the strike-shortened 1994 baseball season, a fact that the filmmakers feared would torpedo public interest.

“In fact, just the opposite was the case,” Novick said. “It made people nostalgic for a bygone era and it helped people remember why they loved the game. That speaks to the game’s hold on the heartstrings of the people who love it.”

Will younger fans connect?

At the same time, among younger fans who might lift the sport’s future popularity, it’s unlikely that the Field of Dreams game will have much impact, said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. 

“When I was kid growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, we played baseball,” Thompson said. “Every neighborhood had a park with kids playing baseball. That’s not so much the case now. You’re more likely to find kids playing soccer, if they’re playing anything. You’re also more likely if find them all looking at cellphones, looking at those screens.”

If anything, the Iowa game is likely to renew interest in “Field of Dreams,” Thompson said. It’s a film that he expects is unknown to many students in his college classes.

“It really was a beautiful movie, exquisitely executed,” he said, “but you’ve got to be of a certain age to probably even have seen this movie.”

Baseball’s connection to a potential younger audience is even more tenuous, Thompson said.

“It’s more of the 19th Century than 20th, much less the 21st,” he said. “It’s not nearly as relevant anymore as a contemporary sport for contestants, but baseball still works pretty well as fiction and part of that is the fact is that it’s so nostalgic.”

“It has this patina of being old fashioned, which is a blessing and curse,” Thompson said. “I’d rather watch a movie about baseball than watch a baseball game, and I don’t think I’m alone in that respect.”

Published on Nov 14, 2019