In the stuffy fourth-floor attic of a historic Baltimore academic building, amid discarded furniture and dusty filing cabinets, Larry Pitrof discovered treasure.
The trove isn’t worth millions. But it’s a fascinating relic and a historic bridge between fact, lore and baseball.
Archibald “Moonlight” Graham played two innings of right field in a major league baseball game in 1905 and had zero at-bats. That was the extent of his big league career, a forgettable footnote in baseball history.
Then, years after his death, author W.P. Kinsella included Graham in his 1982 novel “Shoeless Joe,” which became the inspiration for the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.” The film that immortalized the phrase, “If you build it, he will come,” and which is beloved by American fathers and sons, launched Graham into folk hero status.
But Graham is no tall tale. He spent most of his life as a doctor and attended the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore in the early 1900s.
Pitrof is the medical school alumni association’s executive director. He’s also a baseball fanatic who’s long been intrigued by Graham.
Every few months, for one reason or another, he’s visited the fourth floor of the school’s Gray Hall, a 182-year-old building less than three blocks from Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Each time, he’d pass a few cabinets, and each time, for 28 years, he’d half-pause and half-wonder if anything from Graham’s past was inside.
After Major League Baseball played its first “Field of Dreams” game on Aug. 12 next to the filming location in Iowa, Pitrof — on a hunch there might be some trace of Graham — decided to peek in the cabinets. There, within a stack of documents dating from 1812 to 1916, he found a dozen letters between the school’s dean and one Archie Graham, one of baseball history’s most unassuming legends.
“There was that tingling feeling,” Pitrof said.
The Graham documents span 1903 to 1905, the years Graham attended medical school in Baltimore while continuing his baseball career in the summers. They include Graham’s matriculation cards and correspondence with the school.
Writing from Scranton, Pennsylvania — 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 to the institution. In one letter, he sought a recommendation. In another, he asked whether there was “any chance for me to get into Bay View” in a training position, likely referencing the current Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center east of the city.
Before this discovery, there were only a handful — as few as five or six — known Graham signatures. In the letters, Pitrof found four more.
Graham went on to become an adored doctor, as depicted in the movie. He also made essential contributions to medical research. It was his 1945 study that prompted pediatricians to begin regularly monitoring blood pressure in children.
There’s a bounce in Pitrof’s step and a thrill in his voice when he discusses Graham, who some categorize as a “cult figure.”
“No,” Pitrof protests. “He was a role model.”
‘Everybody had that chance that got away’
Jonathan Algard created an eBay account in 2000 in pursuit of a historic needle in a haystack.
A baseball autograph collector who works in a foundry in Pennsylvania, Algard had the remote goal of landing a Graham signature. He took a meticulous approach, purchasing yearbooks from a high school in Chisholm, Minnesota, where Graham lived as an adult. He hoped Graham, a school physician, might have signed one for a student.
Dozens of yearbooks and 17 years into his search, Algard found it: a 1943 yearbook Graham signed for a graduate before the young man headed to World War II.
Algard, 52, has been collecting autographs since he was 5 years old, and his collection numbers in the thousands. He estimates he has six Hank Aaron autographs. But he’s never gone to the lengths he did for a Graham autograph.
“The character itself in the movie, I don’t know, I think everybody can relate to, in a way,” he said, trying to explain his and others’ fascination with Graham. “Everybody had that chance that got away.”
It’s unknown why Graham’s moniker was “Moonlight.” His medical school yearbook notes he enjoyed “midnight” walks and it’s also been suggested it’s because he “moonlighted” as a doctor. But articles at the time dubbed him “Deerfoot” for his supreme speed and “Dr. Graham,” because of his medical background. He was an exceptional minor league player and a fan favorite.
And yet, he had only the solitary MLB appearance — 117 years ago last week — stepping into the on-deck circle once, but never batting. He later served as a doctor for more than half a century, until his death at 88.
“Field of Dreams,” a reflection on the relationship between a father and son, stars Kevin Costner as an Iowa farmer who plows over his corn to build a diamond for ghosts of baseball’s past. Graham is depicted both as a young ballplayer and, later in life, as a cherished pediatrician. When Costner’s character calls it a “tragedy” that Graham never realized his dream of batting in the big leagues, the fictionalized Graham replied: “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.”
The movie takes artistic liberties, such as portraying Graham as living his whole life in Chisholm, making no mention of his origins in North Carolina nor of him attending medical school in Baltimore.
But, as in the movie, Graham’s legacy is celebrated in real life. The high school in Chisholm awarded a scholarship in his honor for 20 years after the film’s release. The baseball field in the town is named for him, as is a festival held each August.
Graham’s pioneering research into blood pressure in children was “seminal,” Pitrof says. And after the doctor died in 1965, a U.S. representative from Minnesota inserted his obituary — which called Graham a “champion of the oppressed” for his generosity to children — into the Congressional Record.
“They did not embellish this man’s character,” Pitrof said of the movie.
Four signatures with a niche value
Letters between Graham and the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s dean sat in the cabinet, likely for decades. Despite not being preserved until recently, they remain in good condition. They are easy to read and detail practical matters: Graham sending a certification from a former school (the University of North Carolina), Graham requesting an academic catalog for a friend, and the dean writing that he is “very glad to see that you have done so well” academically.
“It’s a real glimpse into his life,” said Tara Wink, the school’s historical collections librarian and archivist.
One letter is signed, “Your friend, Archie W. Graham,” while another has a squeezed-in “A.W. Graham.” Two matriculation cards are signed “Archibald Wright Graham.”
A 1963 check signed by Graham sold for $3,000 in 2008, but signatures from the most germane period in a historical figure’s life are more valuable, making it possible the recently discovered letters are worth more. Still, their value is, like Graham’s story itself, niche.
“You could credibly make the argument that the signatures are a few thousands of dollars, and you could certainly make the argument that they’re tens of thousands of dollars,” said David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions in Exton, Pennsylvania, which specializes in vintage sports memorabilia.
A modern-day Moonlight
Mark Hamilton reacts to news of the discovery the way many others do: “That’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 away at age 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 some advice from his father: “Baseball is a young man’s game. You can be a doctor forever.” Around the age of 30, he, like Graham, retired from baseball and pursued medicine full time. He graduated from medical school in 2020 and is an interventional radiology resident at Northwell Health in New York City.
During his brief MLB career, he notched 12 hits.
“I definitely didn’t expect my final major league bat to be my final major league bat,” he said last week. “I thought I’d probably get called back up.”
In the film, Graham retires from baseball after his major league appearance. In reality, he played three more years in the minors, likely hoping for another shot at the big leagues.
His movie self expresses a sentiment similar to that of Hamilton: “Back then, I thought, ‘Well, there will be other days. I didn’t realize that was the only day.”
‘This is history’
Pitrof said the letters will likely stay in an archive at the school’s Historical Collections Department; the storied system boasts one of the oldest medical schools in the country, as well as the world’s first dental school.
But he said if other organizations — the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian Institution, for example — sought to display the correspondence, the alumni association would consider such a request.
“This is history,” Pitrof said. “This is a big deal that this was uncovered, and it’s bigger than us.”
If the correspondence is exhibited, it’s likely to attract visitors. People will come.
“If they ever put them on display,” said Algard, who still flips through his Graham-signed yearbook on occasion. “I will probably go see them.”