by Dave LaBelle
On the eve of the second MLB game to be held at Iowa’s Field of Dreams Movie Site, I am sharing with you a piece I wrote for the Dyersville Commercial on a wonderful ex-ball player, local legend, and longtime Ghost Player named Hank Lucas. In deference to readers outside Iowa, I added and subtracted some from the original story.
Ron “Hank” Lucas said he had never been on a bus or a plane or in a cab. And had never seen Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
That all changed in the spring of 1967 when, after being signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers, 18-year-old Lucas, from small-town Holy Cross (population about with a graduating class of 59), took a plane from Dubuque to Chicago, a bus to Wrigley field, another plane to Salt Lake City and a cab to Ogden, Utah (a city over 100,000) to join a minor league team coached by Tommy Lasorda.
Overnight, the small-town country boy found himself in a different world.
“Ogden was a rough place then,” said Lucas. “At that time Washington Street (the street where the Ben Lomond Hotel was located ) was supposed to lead the nation in killings. They told us, don’t go down there.”
Lucas soon learned that not only was a bustling Ogden different from quiet Holy Cross with a population of about 325, the game he played in Iowa was also far different from what the minor leagues played out west.
“It was an eye-opener for a small-town kid who played team ball all the time,” he said. “I was shocked. The pitchers didn’t even room together because they hated each other. So many individuals were out for themselves and not the team. It was dog eat dog.”
“I was homesick,” Lucas admitted. “I was ready to come back home. I was a big baby. I really was.”
But under the tutelage of his new manager, an ambitious Lasorda, even more competitive than himself, Lucas adjusted to his professional baseball life and Ogden’s beautiful Ben Lomond Park. The Ogden team went 41-25 to win the Pioneer League, and Lucas still cherishes his championship ring.
By the end of the season, Lucas was ready to return home to Iowa thinking he was hot (stuff).
In February 1968, he was excited about his second season. Scheduled to report to Vero Beach (the famous Dodgertown facility), he was determined to work two more weeks at his meat packing job, then take a week off to rest before reporting to camp in Florida. He had just turned 19 and was working the night shift. Then, a terrible auto accident, on his way to work, barely three miles from home, changed his life forever. It happened on Feb 2, Groundhog Day, he remembers.
“I guess my face hit the mirror and then went through the windshield,” he said. “It shattered my nose. My nose is half plastic, and took care of a lot of the teeth.”
Though Lucas eventually returned to pitching regionally (no longer with the Dodgers), hoping for another shot as a pro ballplayer. But that shot never came, and his dream of making the major leagues was over.
“It comes back and haunts you, not as much as it used to,” admits Lucas, thinking back to the accident and loss of opportunity. But the Iowa legend – who threw his first little league game when he was just 8 years old – never lost his love of baseball, and even after the accident, he continued to pitch until he was nearly 50.
All who know him say that Hank Lucas loves baseball and played to win. They also said he is a lot calmer now.
“When I went to that mound, the last thing I wanted to do was see my name in the paper. ‘L Lucas.’ I wanted a ‘W Lucas.’ It meant a lot to me. And if you can’t be that way, get out. There is nothing wrong with being competitive.”
His wife Diane, who has been by his side and watches almost every game or event Hank participates in, bristles a little at the characterization of her husband being overly competitive.
“I think ballplayers would say that,” she admits. “In baseball, he’s always a win no matter what kind of guy. But I don’t think people he grew up with and his friends would say that. He is kind and thoughtful and he puts family first.”
In fact, it was Diane who recognized her husband’s strengths in teaching young players and encouraging them not to quit during hard times, which prompted her to nudge Lucas to coach American Legion baseball.
“I have never seen a guy want to help a young player more than Hank,” said Marv Maiers, who has known Lucas since grade school and coached Legion baseball with him. “His major concern is to help young guys. The best way to say it is, ‘his bark is a lot worse than his bite.’ He’s one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet.”
Lucas shares a letter from the mother of a boy he coached in Little League, telling how much he meant to the young man who died recently.
In 1988, as luck, or fate would have it, Hank Lucas’ life took another unexpected turn when he auditioned for and was cast in the movie Field of Dreams, which became one of the most beloved and popular baseball movies of all time.
Soon after the movie’s success and the growing popularity of the movie site, local baseball lover, Keith Rahe, assembled a group he called Ghost Players which eventually traveled the world entertaining people. Lucas was one of the earliest players to join the group in 1990, and being on the Ghost Team extended his baseball career by as much as 30 years, Lucas said. Rahe said, “Hank has been with us since 1990 and was one of the first guys from the movie that came onboard. He’s just an amazing individual and has a heart of gold.”
Though a little reluctant to talk about it, Lucas feels there is definitely something special (as in real ghosts or divine intervention) going on with the Ghost Players, the movie and the Field of Dreams. “They will be thinking I am drinking too much again,” he laughs. “Sometimes you wonder if there is or not. Being in the movie and all that stuff – and coming out of the corn as many times as we done – you are standing in the corn waiting for the song to come on and it makes you wonder,” his voice falling to a reverent whisper.
Lucas, now 73, cherishes the role and recognizes how lucky he is.
“Every time I start dressing, and I put my socks on, I say a little prayer. Because two of my buddies were born with muscle diseases. And baseball was their love and they never got to play Little League. Never, ever got to do this. Now they are both dead. God almighty, that means a lot to me.”
How good was Hank Luca
“He was the finest the state of Iowa had back then in the 60s,” assured 74-year-old Al Steffen, who started as a Ghost player a year after Lucas. “That is why he got drafted by the Dodgers.”
“If Hank would be honest, nobody did very good against him,” assured Maiers. “If you were going to get a hit, he made a mistake. When he was on his game, there weren’t many hits.” Then addressing Lucas’ competitive spirit, Maiers said, “He was conveniently wild, effectively wild. He will tell you, ‘I own the inner half of the plate.’ If you lay out over the plate, there was a price to pay.”
He knows because Lucas hit him.
Lucas said, “The other guys are going to say ‘he was a mean sonofabitch when you played against him.’ But I was going to win. I wanted to see ‘W’ not ‘L’ next to my name in the paper. That meant a lot to me.”
From high school star to playing professional baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers, to changing so many young lives through coaching and teaching, to his role in the Field of Dreams movie, to his induction into the Dubuque County Baseball Hall of Fame, to becoming an international goodwill ambassador and bringing joy to millions as a Ghost player — Lucas agrees he has lived “A blessed life.”
And though he said he never considered his life to be similar to the movie’s Archie “Moonlight” Graham played by Burt Lancaster, there are similarities.
Like Graham, Lucas only batted once in his professional career, flying out to deep left field. And also like the beloved “Doc Graham,” Lucas’ life after his brief professional career has likely been more meaningful than if he had made the majors, though he might not agree.
When suggested he is likely more famous for being in the movie and traveling the globe as a Ghost Player than he might have been as a professional ball player, he quipped, “That’s what kind of ticks you off a little bit. Oh, you were in the movie. Hey, you son of a gun, I played minor league ball for the Dodgers, damn it. It was more important, it’s what I wanted to do in life.”
That said, he is grateful and at peace with his life.
When it was intimated in the movie that Graham’s lost opportunity was a tragedy, the great response by Graham was, “If I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes… now that would have been a tragedy,” might ring true for Lucas as well.
“I never tell anybody this, but if I had made it to the major leagues, I wouldn’t be married to Diane,” Lucas said of his wife of 45 years, his voice softening to a whisper. “I would have missed Diane. I thought I was in love a couple of times, but nothing like this.”
Few lives turn out the way we think when we are young. Sometimes what appears to be a tragedy turns out to be a blessing. And sometimes one dream gives way to a different, sometimes better dream.