Jewish BB Players: BB’s other Greenberg: the Jewish “Moonlight” Graham

By Bill Simons

The official registry of the game lists two players named Greenberg who played Major League Baseball. One of them was, of course, Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg. The other major league Greenberg was Adam, the Jewish “Moonlight” Graham.

Archie “Moonlight” Graham was an actual person. He spent a few weeks sitting on the bench of the New York Giants, appearing in his one and only MLB game on June 29, 1905. Graham registered no put outs, assists or errors, and, to his great disappointment, never got a major league at-bat and soon returned to the minors. 

Graham’s speed, as well as his second job “moonlighting” as a doctor, may have provided the genesis for the sobriquet “Moonlight.” Intrigued by the nickname Moonlight and the elusive quest for an MLB at-bat, creative writer W.P. Kinsella burnished Graham’s story in the 1982 novel “Shoeless Joe,” which was subsequently adapted for the screen as “Field of Dreams” (1989). 

The movie “Field of Dreams” transformed the fictionalized Moonlight Graham into an iconic figure in American popular culture. In “Field of Dreams,” Graham, who is near the end of his life, is made young again and transported to an Iowa cornfield converted into a baseball diamond where ghostly major leaguers play ball. Graham finally gets his long-denied plate appearance, connecting for a fly ball to right field. The ball is caught for an out, but it knocks in a run and counts as a sacrifice. Graham’s posthumous attainment of a long-denied goal stirred something deep in the American culture related to quest and redemption. 

A hundred years later, almost to the day of the real Moonlight Graham’s two innings of play, Adam Greenberg, a Chicago Cubs rookie fresh from the minors, strode to the plate as a pinch hitter in the top of the ninth inning for his MLB debut at Florida’s Dolphins Stadium, home of the Marlins, on Saturday July 9, 2005. Like Moonlight Graham, Greenberg was compact, dark-haired, grew up in a substantial family, possessed notable speed, graduated from the University of North Carolina, batted left, played the outfield and shared the initials AG. 

With his parents in attendance, Greenberg felt great excitement as he waited for the first pitch from Florida Marlins pitcher Valerio de los Santos. That pitch, traveling 92 miles an hour, smashed into the rookie’s skull. It felt, Greenberg later recalled, as though “my head exploded.” Greenberg left the game, which the Cubs won 8-2. Although the physiological and psychological impact of the injury took time to fully manifest itself, concussion, double vision, headaches, vertigo, dizziness, nausea and erosion of batting skills followed. Adam’s father, Mark, watched his son’s difficulty tying shoes and worried not about Adam’s baseball future, but about the quality of his life.

It appeared that de los Santos’ pitch had ended Greenberg’s MLB career, with a plate appearance short of an official at-bat. No other player in baseball history had his major league career end with a single pitch on a debut plate appearance. From 2006-08, Greenberg labored in the minors with disappointing results, as well as all or parts of five seasons (2008-11; 2013) with the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League. He continued to do well in the field and on the base paths, but struggled offensively.

There is a Jewish component to the story. Greenberg points out, “When you hear my last name, you know I’m Jewish.” The son of Jewish parents, he was bar mitzvahed at Reform Temple Beth Tikvah (Madison, CT), attended Jewish summer camps, developed a taste for gefilte fish and other ethnic foods, and never played baseball on Yom Kippur. “Proud to be a Jew,” he joined Team Israel Team for the 2012 World Baseball Classic.

By 2012, however, the time had come to accept that he would never get his official MLB at-bat. Then film-maker Matt Liston produced an impactful advocacy video, “One At-Bat,” spurring a petition drive that garnered approximately 27,000 signatures, called for MLB to grant Greenberg the at-bat denied by the 2005 beaning. Improbably, the Miami Marlins, the team whose pitcher had beaned Greenberg in 2005, signed him to a one-day contract for Tuesday, October 2, 2012. Jeffrey Loria, the controversial owner of the Marlins and a landsman, had taken a special interest in Greenberg. 

October 2 came to the Miami ballpark, and the Marlins’ manager, Ozzie Guillen, had Greenberg pinch hit to lead off the bottom of the sixth inning against the New York Mets. Greenberg came to the plate to face Mets knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey. At age 37, Dickey had improbably emerged as baseball’s premier pitcher after years of grappling with depression. Dickey struck Greenberg out on three straight pitches, high and fast knuckleballs. Greenberg took the first pitch and swung, without making contact, at the next two. However, Dickey treated Greenberg with respect as did players on both teams, and the fans, many holding encouraging signs, gave Greenberg tremendous ovations both before and after his at-bat. Then, Guillen pulled Greenberg from the lineup, leaving him to sit on the dugout bench for the remainder of the game. Dickey reflected, “I think the story far transcends the result of the at-bat.” Greenberg savored his at-bat, declaring it a moment that “will last for an eternity… It was magical… You could just feel the genuine support. It was awesome.”

Greenberg pursued other endeavors in the years that followed his MLB at-bat – an attempt to continue playing professional baseball, entrepreneurial promotion of a substance to lessen joint discomfort, motivational presentations to Jewish groups and a campaign that nearly resulted in election to the Connecticut state legislature. His Marlins at-bat, however, holds place of pride. 

In “Field of Dreams,” Moonlight Graham spoke for Greenberg and millions of other strivers of the quest for an at-bat: “I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big-league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for.”

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.