Player Name: Graham, Moonlight
Position: Right field
First, Last Names: Archibald Wright Nicknames: Moonlight, Doc
Date of Birth: Nov. 12, 1877 Date and Place of Death: Aug. 25, 1965, Chisholm, MN
Burial: Calvary Cemetery, Rochester, MN
High School: Davidson High School, Charlotte, NC
College: University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC; University of Maryland-Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Bats: L Throws: R Height and Weight: 5-11, 170
Debut Year: 1905 Final Year: 1905 Years Played: 1
Team and Years: New York Giant, 1905
G AB H R RBI HR BA. OBP. SLG. WAR
1 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 0.0
Few baseball fans have ever heard of Johnny O’Connor, Henry Stein, Eddie Hunter, Terry Lyons or any of the other 43 non-pitchers who played in one major-league game but never got a chance to hit. They were in the big leagues just long enough for that proverbial cup of coffee. Their dreams merely patted them on their heads. All but one were quickly forgotten. Because of a mysterious nickname, that exception has achieved baseball immortality.
There’s no evidence that anyone ever actually called Archie Graham “Moonlight” while he was alive. If they didn’t refer to him by his first name, his teammates and sportswriters down in the minors likely called him Doc because that’s what Graham was, a medical doctor. That’s what the townspeople of Chisolm, Minnesota, where he practiced for almost 50 years, called him. The nickname appears in print once, soon after Graham reported to the majors. Where it came from is anyone’s guess. Some have speculated that Graham’s speed had something to do with it. The problem with that explanation, however, is that no standard dictionary suggests that “moonlight” was ever used as slang or in an idiom to describe someone who was fleet of foot. Others think his moonlighting as a doctor in the offseason was the genesis, but he was a licensed physician for only the last two years of his minor-league career.
Whatever the reason, it was “Moonlight” Graham that appeared in the Baseball Encyclopedia that W.P Kinsella received as a Christmas gift. It was Moonlight that caught the novelist’s eye. “I thought, ‘What a wonderful name. This is better than anything I could invent,’” Kinsella remembered decades later.[I]
A character of that name based on the real Graham appeared in Kinsella’s 1982 novel about Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Chicago White Sox star who was expelled from baseball after being suspected of helping throw the 1919 World Series. From the book came the hit movie Field of Dreams seven years later. That’s how it came to pass that an unknown player whose career line consists of a long string of zeros was portrayed by Burt Lancaster no less and grew into a baseball myth more than two decades after his death. There is now a Doc “Moonlight” Graham Festival every August in Chisholm. A Moonlight Graham Scholarship Fund provides college money to deserving high-school students. A biography was written about him and the Moonlight Graham Podcast features athletes who never made it. Moonlight Graham has become the surrogate for every ballplayer who was denied their chance at greatness.
The truth is more mundane. Graham had a few good years in the minor leagues, but there’s nothing in the numbers to suggest a budding superstar. Neither do we really know what he thought about his brief big-league showing or about his baseball or medical careers. There are no surviving letters, no quotes in newspapers. No one wrote about him until the movie was released after he died. That’s one of the problems with post-mortem fame, especially for someone who toiled quietly in the backwater along the Canadian border. Graham’s life, while he was living it, wasn’t considered remarkable enough for his contemporaries to record his thoughts or to preserve details about him. Speculation and myth-making filled the void.
None of that is to suggest that Graham’s life isn’t worth celebrating. He was a beloved town doctor, who got the people of Chisholm though flu epidemics and bouts with cholera. He birthed their babies, comforted their dying. His pioneering research on childhood hypertension was respected by his peers.
There is every indication that once his playing days were over, Dr. Archie Graham never looked back. The mythological figure hints of that in the movie. When asked about his short big-league career, Lancaster’s Graham famously says, “If I‘d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.”
Alexander and Katherine Graham were probably satisfied enough that their second child, Archibald Wright, born in 1877 had become a respected doctor after trying his hand at baseball. Education was important to the Grahams. Alexander had been the captain of the baseball team at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill before the Civil War. He fought with the 3rd North Carolina Regiment and was captured at the Battle of Bentonville in North Carolina in 1865. He attended Columbia University after the war and became a lawyer. Alexander went home to Fayetteville, where he worked tirelessly to establish a public-school system, serving as its first superintendent.
At a time when college-educated women were a rarity in North Carolina, Katherine had a degree from Peace College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The Grahams sent each of their nine children to college, another rarity. One son became a lawyer. A daughter was a college professor. Frank Porter became president of the University of North Carolina and then a United States senator.
Alexander moved the family to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1888 to become the city’s school superintendent. A firm believer in physical fitness, he expected all his children to complete a daily exercise program. Archie grew up to be best athlete in the family. He played baseball and football on Charlotte sandlots and then at Davidson High School, where he developed an interest in science and medicine.
Like his father, Graham played baseball at UNC, making the varsity team during his sophomore year in 1898. He was the center fielder and leadoff hitter for the next three seasons.
Graham remained in Chapel Hill for two years after his graduation in 1901 to take courses for medical school. He played minor-league baseball in the summers, probably to earn extra money.
Always an exceptionally fast runner, he bulked up to about 170 pounds when he entered the University of Maryland’s medical school in Baltimore in 1903. He was the school’s halfback on the football team each fall and the centerfielder each spring. Lax rules allowed him to continue in the minor leagues in the summers.
The New York Giants bought Graham’s contract in September 1904 from Manchester, New Hampshire, after he hit .272 that season in the New England League. Graham joined the Giants after graduating from medical school the following May. “He is fast on his feet and a strong hitter,” The New York Evening World reported. “(Manager John) McGraw believes he has in Graham a great find.”[II]
The same newspaper a couple of weeks later used the name that would open the door to fame. The new player, the World reported, “is known as ‘Moonlight’ because he’s supposed to be as fast as a flash.”[III] Before Field of Dreams was released, this is the only reference to Graham and the nickname that appears in online archives that include millions of newspaper pages from every state dating back to the 1860s.
Graham made his debut about a month later, on June 29, against Brooklyn at the Superbas’ Washington Park. McGraw sent the rookie in to play right field in the eighth inning of a lopsided game the Giants would win 11-1. He was in the on-deck circle getting ready to bat when the Giants’ last out was recorded in the top of the ninth.
He went back to bench until July 5 when he was sold to the Scranton Miners of the New York State League. This may have been what’s now called a rehab assignment. The New York Times noted that Graham was “unavailable” to play while with the Giants. That could have meant that a lingering injury, maybe from his football days at Maryland, prevented him from playing. The Miners had an informal working agreement with the Giants and would have sold Graham back to New York when he was healthy enough to play.[IV]
Graham probably killed any hope of returning to the Giants, though, when he skipped the last five games of the Miners’ season to take post-graduate medical courses in Baltimore. The team was more than 15 games out of first, but that wouldn’t have made a difference to McGraw, who demanded loyalty and dedication from players. Though newspapers reported that Graham, who hit .288 in Scranton, would get another chance with the Giants, McGraw left him off the reserve list for the 1906 season. Though he reported to spring training, it was clear that Graham wasn’t going to make the team. He remained with Scranton.
Eddie Ashenbach, a career minor leaguer who managed the Miners that season, remembered a fast, scrappy player. “Graham was not much of a batsman but was chain lightning on the bases and in the outfield,” Ashenbach wrote in his memoirs. “He had some scruples about playing Sunday baseball, his father having strictly forbidden him to play on the Sabbath.”[V]
Ashenbach couldn’t afford having one of his player sit out Sunday doubleheaders, especially on a club playing for a pennant. Graham agreed to play by his middle name Wright. “He was quite a fighter while in the game and his aggressiveness once led him into a fracas on a bright Sunday at Scranton when he and the umpire indulged in a battle of fisticuffs in the middle of the diamond,” Ashenbach wrote. “On another Sunday at Syracuse, Graham, alias Wright, had a glorious day at the bat. Out of four times up, he hit out a home run, two three-base-hits and a single. He was very much pleased at his big day’s work, and after the fourth time at bat he rushed wildly up to the press-box saying to the reporters, “Look here, boys, my name is not Wright today, it’s Graham.” Four hits killed off the alias.”[VI]
It’s important to note that the manager never once referred to his outfielder as “Moonlight.”
Graham was practicing medicine by 1907, when he received his Pennsylvania license. He opened an office in Scranton and saw patients in the offseason during his final two years in the minors. He intended to make Scranton his home when he retired from baseball after the 1908 season but a chronic respiratory condition forced him to look for a cleaner, drier air.
Soon after his retirement, Graham accepted a residency at a Chicago hospital. He was attending a medical conference at the end of 1908 in Rochester, Minnesota, when he saw an ad in the local paper for a doctor in Chisholm. He wired his resignation to Chicago and boarded a train.
The mining town, 70 miles from the Canadian border in Minnesota’s Iron Range, was the last stop on the line. Connected by rail to Duluth and with plenty of mining work nearby, Chisholm had boomed since its incorporation in 1901. About 6,000 people lived there when Graham got off the train. He didn’t know any of them as walked the streets of a town that smelled of burnt wood. A forest fire several months earlier had destroyed a significant portion of Chisholm. The fire was so bad that many residents had sought refuge in Longyear Lake at the edge of town.
Walking past construction crews rebuilding whole blocks of town, Graham found the hospital and announced himself as Chisholm’s new doctor. He would remain for 57 years.
“When he first came here, he was regarded as something of a quack,” Veda Ponikvar, the founder of The Chisholm Free Press and Tribune, told a reporter in 1994.[VII]
Graham soon became the trusted physician to the immigrant miners and their families who had come to America from Croatia, Serbia and other eastern European countries. He became a familiar sight, walking around town in his black, flowing overcoat, its pockets filled with fruits that he’d give to kids that he met. He’d go to local high school games, tending the needs of the injured and treating the home team to a bag of oranges or a crate of apples. He was, they said, “the friendliest man in Chisholm.”[VIII]
For years, people all over the county sent Graham used eyeglasses. Every Saturday, the children of Chisholm could go to Doc Graham’s office for a free eye exam and a pair of glasses. “And there were times when children could not afford eyeglasses or milk or clothing,” Ponikvar wrote. “Yet, no child was ever denied these essentials because in the background there was always Dr. Graham. Without any fanfare or publicity, the glasses or the milk or the ticket to the ballgame found their way into the child’s pocket.”[IX]
Graham over the years conducted numerous studies on the effects of hypertension in children. He presented his finding in 1941 at a conference at the Mayo Clinic. Two doctors at the conference joined with Graham, and their combined research showed that kids could get high blood pressure, contrary to the then prevailing theory.
Kinsella, who interviewed dozens of townspeople to learn about Graham, was relieved that his subject had such a sterling reputation. “I mean, what I was afraid of, was that this was going to be a guy who sat in the American Legion bar and bragged about playing in the major leagues for 40 years,” the author said.[X]
Graham, who was also the physician for city schools since 1911, was elected to the school board in 1963. In failing health, he retired two years later. He was dead within a month.
Bob McDonald, Chisholm High School’s basketball coach for 50 years, noted that baseball was important to Graham but it was nothing compared to being the town’s doctor. “That’s the big item you see,” he said. “In baseball, you kind of help yourself and you entertain. Athletics are like that, you entertain people. But he comforted people.”[XI]
 Washington Park, between Third and Fourth avenues on First Street in Park Slope, opened in 1898 and was the second Brooklyn ballpark. It closed in 1912 when Ebbets Field was completed. Part of the clubhouse wall still stands on Third Avenue as a wall for a Con Edison yard. It’s likely the oldest remnant of a major-league ballpark still in existence. (“Washington Park.” Ballparks.com. https://ballparks.com/baseball/national/washin.htm.)
[I] Olberman, Keith. “’Moonlight Graham Remembered.” Countdown with Keith Olberman. NBC News, 2013. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/8423741.
[II] Keenan, Jimmy. “Moonlight Graham.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/moonlight-graham/.
[V] Shieber, Tom. “A Glimpse of Moonlight.” National Baseball Hall of Fame, https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/short-stops/a-glimpse-of-moonlight.
[VII] Betts, Jack. “Doctor Moonlight.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, October 23, 1994.