“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.” – Yogi Berra
When former Upper Iowa University baseball coach Mark Danker first entered the MLB Field of Dreams stadium in August 2021 he joined approximately 8,000 other baseball fans in basking in the remarkably surreal moment. Who would have ever thought that the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox would play an official MLB game amidst corn fields in rural Dyersville, Iowa? But for Danker, the experience was much more than seeing the game or even the prospect of returning to the set of the Hollywood movie he had played a role in over 30 years before. It was the culmination of a life dedicated to the game of baseball.
From playing catch with his father, and later with his own sons, to playing Little League, high school, college, town, and even semi- professional baseball in Australia; from coaching at various levels to his “ghostly” character in the “Field of Dreams” movie; Danker has always traveled where his baseball glove would take him.
“I guess baseball is the one thing in my life that I could never get enough of,” Danker said. “The thrill of competition, collecting baseball cards, copying the batting stance or pitching style of big leaguers, listening to Cardinal games on KMOX St. Louis radio, it all was a part of my life when I was young. Baseball has provided me an endless line of friendships and memories. As kids, we played all the sports in the backyards and driveways of our neighborhood. My best friends and closest neighbors were especially into baseball and whiffle ball. My dad was a baseball player and he’d catch while I practiced pitching. He’d come home from work and I’d meet him with the gloves. He’d never say no, but he would often joke that he wouldn’t have any trouble hitting off of me and I’d respond by telling him that I wouldn’t have any trouble knocking him on his …”
The Marengo, Iowa, native’s playing career included the community’s Little and Pony leagues, Iowa Valley High School, Waldorf College and Iowa State University. After his college graduation, he played in Australia for Queensland in the Australian Claxton Shield competition and with the Western Districts Baseball Club in the Greater Brisbane Baseball League, as well as town baseball for Red Top in the Iowa Valley League. Hired in January 1990, Danker spent 27 seasons in a UIU uniform, including the last 17 as the head baseball coach. Compiling a UIU record of 358 wins, he was named the 2008 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Coach of the Year.
If you build it, he will come
Danker’s brush with Hollywood stardom began after being told in 1988 of an advertisement for baseball players to be cast in a movie titled “Shoeless Joe” (renamed “Field of Dreams” shortly before its release). Danker soon found himself joining Red Top teammates Curt McWilliams and Mike Goad in hauling their gear to the audition in Dubuque, Iowa. The tryouts for the now movie classic mirrored those of real pro baseball teams. Former longtime University of Southern California head coach Rod Dedeaux and assistant coach Don Buford worked alongside Iowa casting director Sue Riedel in helping select 15 of the film’s iconic ghost players from over 100 people who auditioned.
As part of the tryout, the players hit, threw, and fielded. When done, they were told the players selected would be contacted by phone. Shortly after returning home, Danker received a call from Riedel asking him to report to the movie site. At the time, Danker was working his first “real” job with Amana Refrigeration. When he asked if he could take time off for the filming of the movie as it corresponded with the plant’s summer shutdown period, Danker was told he could not.
“So, I quit my job to be a 1920s era baseball player,” Danker laughed. “My dad wasn’t too happy with me. He was a baseball guy but wanted me to quit digging into his wallet.”
Following a week of practice in Dubuque, the newly cast ghost players arrived at the now famous Dyersville farm. Instantly, they were awestruck by the beauty of the newly created ball diamond. Overwhelmed with inspiration, they rapidly put the field to use. Almost as quickly, they were politely reminded by members of the film crew that they were on a Hollywood movie set and not a baseball field.
For over a month, the ghost players worked shifts of 12-or-more hours. Between scenes, they spent most of their time playing cards or throwing horseshoes. At night, they would sit on the porch of the farmhouse or lounge near the ball diamond. On one memorable occasion, Danker, dressed in New York Yankees catching gear, served as the “eyeline” for the actors playing the Kinsella family. During the scene there was some equipment problems, and when the actors were asked to stay close by, Danker and Costner sat alone on the porch and talked.
Danker admits that although he felt honored to be in a movie with the likes of Costner, Madigan, Burt Lancaster and James Earl Jones, he never thought it would inspire so many people and sustain such popularity for over three decades.
“There was a moment during the filming that another ghost player got the script from an actor and read it,” said Danker, now a development officer in UIU’s advancement office. “The player later came up to me and said, ‘Dank, this is going to be a great movie.’ My God, he was so right.”
Another Field of Dreams
Approximately a decade ago, Danker was told of the desire to build additional diamonds and allow people of all ages to play ball at the main “Field of Dreams” film site. When MLB announced in August 2019 that it was going to build a stadium and play an official game there, Danker came to realize how big the dreams had become. At the same time, the lifelong baseball fan was aware of the difficulty he could encounter in getting himself one of the only 8,000 available tickets.
After a one-year delay due to the coronavirus, the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees would finally face off against each other in a field that would be designed similarly to Chicago’s original Comiskey Park. To get tickets, Iowa residents registered for a lottery and if notified would be awarded the opportunity to purchase up to two tickets.
Understandably, Danker was extremely disappointed when he did not win the lottery. But then came a surprising phone call from his longtime friend, and UIU Associate Athletic Director for Sports Medicine Services, Matt Rueckert a week before the game. A nephew of Matt and his wife, Kelly, had won a chance to purchase two tickets but the nephew was not going to be able to attend. (Ironically, Matt also has an Iowa/Hollywood connection. He served as the athletic trainer in the film “The Final Season,” which was based on the true story of Norway High School’s final baseball season before its consolidation with Benton Community High School in Van Horne.)
“God bless Kelly,” said Danker. “She told Matt that she needed to make sure I had a ticket and was able to go with him. I had returned to the Field of Dreams many of times since the film with UIU baseball teams. Our coaching staffs thought it would be good karma and something the kids would never forget if we visited there after games we played in eastern Iowa. When I arrived at the Field of Dreams game this time it was even more amazing.”
Similar to the mystical entrance of the ghost players in the movie, those attending the MLB game followed a pathway through the cornfield from the parking lot to the stadium. The right field wall even featured windows showing the cornfield outside the stadium.
In addition to the smiles that seemed to fill the faces of everyone in attendance, Danker will never forget walking onto the field and talking with Mike Goad and other formerer ghost players. In addition, he cherished the opportunity to attend the game alongside Rueckert and reminisce with others like Sue Riedel, retired Red Top manager Fritz Kinzenbaw and his son Mickey, who played baseball for Danker at UIU.
“Since my childhood, if I was asked where I would go if I could travel anywhere in time,
I’d say that my wish would be to go back and see Babe Ruth play,” Danker said “My desire during the entire ‘Field of Dreams’ experience was to be one of those 1920s baseball players. Hollywood and MLB had made the place so beautiful and, I guess somewhat selfishly, I know I’m forever linked to one of Iowa’s greatest treasures.”
Everyone who attended the game or watched it on television, will long remember the perfect setting and Hollywood-like ending. White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson hit a walk-off homerun to clinch the 9-8 victory. For Danker, it was also about the game of baseball itself, and the people who made an impact on his life because of it.
“I didn’t care who won the game,” Danker said. “Baseball has such a rich history that when you walk into a stadium you need to look around, talk with people, smell the grass, appreciate the setting, soak it all in. Personally, I think that the overwhelming feeling at the Field of Dreams stadium was that of remembering my dad, ‘Iowa pride,’ and what the sport means to so many people. For me, baseball is life. It teaches you how to deal with adversity on a daily basis, then you get up and try again the next day.”