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Who is the Moonlight Graham of the Pirates?

Brett Barnett

Image retrieved from Sporting News/Gordon Company

We’ve heard of a player having a cup of coffee in the bigs, which is when a player only plays one game. But then there’s a whiff of coffee, which is a phrase I’ve just decided to coin, when a player appears in a game, but fails to log an at bat.

Most people know Moonlight Graham from the 1989 film Field of Dreams. What some people may not know is that Graham was a real baseball player, now famous for having played one game but never recording an at bat.

I was left with the question, who is the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Moonlight Graham?

If you look up Graham on Baseball Reference, you’ll be greeted by a lot of zeros. The only tally under Graham’s batting line is (1) game. Other than that, not much doing. In 1905, Graham appeared in one game for the New York Giants.

On a June 29 afternoon at Washington Park III in Brooklyn, New York, the Giants squared off against the Superbas, the former of course becoming the San Francisco Giants, the latter cycling through a series of names before finally settling on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

By the fourth inning, the Giants had taken a commanding lead – a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, eventually going on to win the game, 11-1. In a game that took fewer than two hours, Christy Mathewson got the win.

It was just another game. The Giants would go on to finish 105-48, winning the National League and ultimately, the World Series, as well. The Superbas weren’t quite as good – actually, they were terrible, finishing dead last in the National League, limping to a record of 48-104.

In a game that included three future Hall of Famers, there was a player that made his way onto the field for the first time… and the last. And it was that player who would arguably be much more known to layman than some of those HOFers, like Mathewson, Joe McGinnity, and John McGraw.

In the ninth inning of a decided game, Graham was to replace right fielder George Browne, waiting for an at bat in the on-deck circle as Claude Elliott flied out. Graham never got his at bat. He took over in right field in the bottom of the inning, but the ball was never hit to him.

In Field of Dreams, part of the allure for many is the story surrounding Graham in his pursuit of his first at bat. He took his place on that Iowa baseball field and was able to step up to the plate. He hit a sacrifice fly. Even in fiction, Graham never got an at bat.

So which Pirate most closely matches Graham’s story?

There were more candidates than I thought there was going to be. In Pirates’ history in particular, there have been nine players that played in one game and didn’t receive an at bat. However, of those nine, three of them played elsewhere and may have received only one at bat but played in more than one game. Others got more than one at bat.

That dwindles the list to six. To narrow that down, I took a look at each of their specific logs, trying to determine the situation in which they appeared. We’ll start with Arch Reilly.

Reilly is listed as a third baseman. On June 1, 1917, he made an appearance in a game the Pirates lost to the Phillies, 9-1. Serving as a defensive replacement for pinch hitter Carson Bigbee, Reilly fielded three innings for the Pirates, but never got an at bat or plate appearance. He registered a putout. That doesn’t fit our Graham narrative. Let’s move along.

Sam Brenegan was a catcher out of Wisconsin. On April 24, 1914, Brenegan got his chance with the Pirates, although a brief one. In a game the Pirates lost to the St. Louis Cardinals at Forbes Field, 8-1, Brenegan, like Reilly, served as a defensive replacement for a pinch hitter. Brenegan got two innings of field time, but no at bats and no plate appearances, although he was responsible for a passed ball. This isn’t the one, either. On to the next one.

Bill Batsch didn’t spend any time in the field. In fact, Baseball Reference simply lists him as a “pinch hitter.” On September 9, 1916, Batsch pinch hit for pitcher Erv Kantlehner. He didn’t register an at bat but was credited with a plate appearance. He walked. That’s already better than Graham, in my opinion, even though he didn’t make a defensive appearance. We should try again.

The most recent entry on the list is Gary Hargis, who made a brief appearance for the 1979 Pirates. In a September 29 afternoon game, the Pirates were locked in a battle with the Chicago Cubs, a game that would last 13 innings, which ultimately saw a Chicago victory, 7-6.

Hargis served as a pinch runner for shortstop Tim Foli in the bottom of the 13th inning. Dave Parker then singled, allowing Hargis to advance to second. Then, after a Willie Stargell strikeout, Hargis ended his career as left-on-base. But that still seems better than Graham’s tale. At least Hargis was a baserunner in a close, extra innings game.

That was the penultimate game of the season, and after the Pirates lost, led the Montreal Expos by only one game. They won the next day and secured a National League East win, beating Montreal by two games. The Pirates, of course, went on to win the World Series.

For the fifth entry, we have another pinch runner appearance. On July 25, 1914, Ralph Shafer pinch ran for pinch hitter Ham Hyatt in a game the Pirates lost to the Giants, 4-2. Because of the nature of the records, there’s no indication of what happened next and just how short Shafer’s appearance actually was, but still, he got to run the bases in some capacity. This also doesn’t quite fit the Graham narrative.

Our sixth and final entry comes from left fielder, Cy Neighbors.

Cecil “Cy” Neighbors was born in Fayetteville, Missouri, on September 23, 1880. Neighbors played 14 seasons in the minors, stretching from 1905 to 1920. Early on in that stint is when Neighbors got his shot at the major leagues.

At West Side Grounds, the former home of the Cubs, the Pittsburgh Baseball Club was in town for an early season matchup. It was a short, one hour and 28-minute affair on April 29, 1908. Honus Wagner played in the game, a game the Pirates won, 2-1, and went 1-for-4.

Neighbors served as a defensive replacement for Paddy O’Connor, who pinch hit for Fred Clarke. Presumably, Neighbors played in the bottom of the ninth inning, meaning he was on the field for the win. He did not record an at bat. He did not record a plate appearance. That was the final time Neighbors was in the major leagues. He was promptly back in the American Association, going on to play 122 games that year for the Kansas City Blues.

Neighbors seems to be the closest fit to Graham the Pirates have ever had. I might even argue his story is more “tragic,” because he spent more time in the minor leagues than Graham, who spent eight seasons in the minors.

But there was something in that April 29 box score that I found more interesting than anything in the Graham story. As I said, Neighbors didn’t have an at bat or a plate appearance, but he did have an RBI. How could that be? Most likely a scorekeeping error in which the keeper accidentally tallied a run batted in attributed to Neighbors.

That means if you peruse the box score, under the Pirates’ batting totals, an RBI is attributed to Neighbors. Additionally, the final RBI tallies read like this: “Cy Neighbors (0); Paddy O’Connor (1).” If you’re familiar with this portion of a box score, then you’ll know that at the end of the team’s totals, there’s a list style compilation of the relevant stats from the game. Normally, players are only listed here if they actually contributed something. Thanks to the erroneous assignment of an RBI to Neighbors, he is listed as having both contributed and not contributed an RBI.

Schrödinger’s RBI?

Moonlight Graham’s story might be more well-known, but Neighbors’ story is much more interesting.