BALTIMORE — In the stuffy fourth-floor attic of a historic Baltimore college building, amid abandoned furniture and dusty filing cabinets, Larry Pitrof discovered a treasure.
The treasure is not worth millions. But it’s a fascinating relic and a historical bridge between facts, lore and baseball.
Archibald “Moonlight” Graham played two innings from right field in a major league baseball game in 1905 and had no at-bats. It was the span of his big league career, a forgettable footnote in baseball history.
Then, years after his death, author WP Kinsella included Graham in his 1982 novel “Shoeless Joe,” which became the inspiration for the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams.” The film that immortalized the phrase “If you build it, it will come,” and which is adored by American fathers and sons, propelled Graham into folk hero status.
But Graham is no fairy tale. He spent most of his life as a doctor and attended medical school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore in the early 1900s.
Pitrof is the executive director of the medical school alumni association. He is also a baseball fanatic who has long been intrigued by Graham.
Every few months, for one reason or another, he visited the fourth floor of the school’s Gray Hall, a 182-year-old building less than three blocks from Oriole Park in Camden Yards. Each time, he would walk past a few cabinets, and each time, for 28 years, he would half stop and half wonder if something from Graham’s past was inside.
After Major League Baseball played its first “Field of Dreams” game on Aug. 12 next to the Iowa filming location, Pitrof — on a hunch there might be a trace of Graham — decided to throw a peek into the cupboards. There, in a pile of documents dating from 1812 to 1916, he found a dozen letters between the school’s dean and an Archie Graham, one of the most humble legends in baseball history.
“There was this tingling feeling,” Pitrof said.
The Graham records span from 1903 to 1905, the years Graham attended medical school in Baltimore while pursuing his baseball career during the summers. They include Graham’s enrollment cards and correspondence with the school.
Writing from Scranton, Pa. — where he played in the minor leagues after his MLB appearance with the New York Giants — Graham noted he was enclosing $30, which he owed the institution. In a letter, he asked for a recommendation. In another, he asked if there was “a chance for me to get into Bay View” in a training position, likely referring to the current Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center east of town.
Prior to this discovery, there were only a handful—as few as five or six—known Graham signatures. In the letters, Pitrof found four others.
Graham became a beloved doctor, as shown in the film. He also made essential contributions to medical research. It was his 1945 study that prompted pediatricians to start regularly monitoring children’s blood pressure.
There’s a bounce in Pitrof’s step and a thrill in his voice when he talks about Graham, who some are calling a “cult figure”.
“No”, Pitrof protests. “He was a role model.”
“Everyone had this chance that got away”
Jonathan Algard created an eBay account in 2000 in search of a historic needle in a haystack.
A baseball autograph collector who works at a foundry in Pennsylvania, Algard had a distant goal of landing a Graham signing. He took a meticulous approach, purchasing yearbooks from a high school in Chisholm, Minnesota, where Graham lived as an adult. He hoped that Graham, a school doctor, would have signed one for a student.
Dozens of yearbooks and 17 years of research, Algard found it: a 1943 yearbook Graham signed for a graduate before the young man headed into World War II.
Algard, 52, has been collecting autographs since he was 5, and his collection numbers in the thousands. He estimates he has six autographs from Hank Aaron. But he never got as far as he did for an autograph from Graham.
“The character himself in the movie, I don’t know, I think everyone can relate to, in some way,” he said, trying to explain his fascination and that of others. for Graham. “Everyone had that chance that got away.”
It is unclear why Graham’s nickname was “Moonlight”. His medical school yearbook notes that he enjoyed “midnight” walks and it has also been suggested that this is because he “worked in the moonlight” as a doctor. But articles at the time dubbed him “Deerfoot” for his supreme speed and “Dr. Graham”, because of his medical history. He was an exceptional minor league player and a fan favorite.
And yet, he only had one solitary MLB appearance – 117 years ago last week – entering the circle on the deck once, but never knocking. He was then a doctor for more than half a century, until his death at the age of 88.
“Field of Dreams,” a reflection on the relationship between a father and son, stars Kevin Costner as an Iowa farmer who plows his corn to build a diamond for the ghosts of baseball’s past. Graham is portrayed as both a young baseball player and, later in life, a beloved pediatrician. When Costner’s character calls it a “tragedy” that Graham never achieved his dream of beating the big leagues, the fictional Graham replied, “Son, if I had only been a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.”
The film takes artistic liberties, such as portraying Graham as living his whole life in Chisholm, making no mention of his origins in North Carolina or his attendance at medical school in Baltimore.
But, like in the movie, Graham’s legacy is celebrated in real life. Chisholm High School awarded a scholarship in his honor for 20 years after the film’s release. The city’s baseball field bears his name, as does a festival held each August.
Graham’s pioneering research on blood pressure in children was “fundamental,” says Pitrof. And after the doctor’s death in 1965, a US representative from Minnesota inserted his obituary – which called Graham “a champion of the underdog” for his generosity to children – in the Congressional Record.
“They didn’t embellish this man’s character,” Pitrof said of the film.
Four signings with niche value
Letters between Graham and the dean of the University of Maryland medical school sat in the firm, likely for decades. Although they have only recently been preserved, they remain in good condition. They are easy to read and detail practical matters: Graham sending a certification from an old school (the University of North Carolina), Graham requesting an academic catalog for a friend, and the dean writing that he is “very happy to see that you have done so well” academically.
“It’s a real glimpse into his life,” said Tara Wink, librarian and archivist of the school’s historical collections.
One letter is signed, “Your friend, Archie W. Graham,” while another has a pressed “AW Graham.” Two registration cards are signed “Archibald Wright Graham”.
A 1963 check signed by Graham sold for $3,000 in 2008, but signatures from the most relevant period of a historical figure’s life are worth more, making newly discovered letters worth more. Yet their value is, like Graham’s story itself, niche.
“You can credibly say that signatures cost a few thousand dollars, and you can certainly say that they are tens of thousands of dollars,” said David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions in Exton, Pa. specializes in vintage sports memorabilia.
A modern day moonlight
Mark Hamilton reacts to the news of the discovery like many others do: “It’s so cool.”
Like Graham, Hamilton had a brief major league career and, like Graham, he became a doctor. Hamilton is a Baltimore native who attended Friends School before moving at the age of 12. He played for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 and hoped to return to the big leagues, but an injury sidelined him in 2013.
When major league opportunities dwindled, he heeded his father’s advice: “Baseball is a young man’s game. You can be a doctor forever.” Around the age of 30, like Graham, he retired from baseball and devoted himself to medicine full time. He graduated from medical school in 2020 and is an interventional radiology resident at Northwell Health in New York.
During his brief MLB career, he landed 12 hits.
“I certainly didn’t expect my last major league stick to be my last major league stick,” he said last week. “I thought I would probably be called back.”
In the film, Graham retires from baseball after appearing in the major league. In reality, he played three more years in the minors, probably hoping for another big league shot.
His film expresses a sentiment similar to Hamilton’s: “At the time, I thought, ‘Well, there will be other days. I didn’t realize that was the only day.’
Pitrof said the letters will likely remain in the archives of the school’s historical collections department; the tiered system has one of the oldest medical schools in the country, as well as the first dental school in the world.
But he said if other organizations — the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian Institution, for example — sought to post the correspondence, the alumni association would consider such a request.
“That’s ancient history,” Pitrof said. “It’s a big deal that this was discovered, and it’s bigger than us.”
If the correspondence is exposed, it is likely to attract visitors. People will come.
“If they ever exposed them,” said Algard, who still occasionally flips through his Graham-signed yearbook. “I’ll probably go see them.
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