The Double Play's the Thing

[Summer Guide] The sweet science and the ol' ballgame dominate the theater's sports-themed lineup

Type in the phrase “famous sports plays” on Google, and you’re going to get the following: the Immaculate Reception (Franco Harris’ non-catch in the 1972 NFL divisional playoffs), the Catch (Willie Mays’ backwards grab in deep centerfield in the 1954 World Series or Dwight Clark’s equally memorable snag of a Joe Montana pass to win the 1982 NFC Championship); the Hand of God (Argentine Diego Maradona’s illegal goal in the 1986 World Cup).

Finding famous plays that happened during a sporting event is easy; finding famous plays about sports is much harder.

To no one’s surprise, the two sports that lend themselves to the best sportswriting—baseball and boxing—are also the most explored by dramatists. Even in the context of a world-championship bout or World Series game, the big narratives of these stories can be reduced to sheer drama through a simple, primal conflict: man against man, whether it’s two fighters squaring off against each other in the ring, or a batter digging in at home plate as a pitcher stares him down from the mound.

Swingin' for the Fences
Henry DiRocco/SCR
Swingin' for the Fences
What the hell? Damn Yankees  returns this summer
Nina Welch
What the hell? Damn Yankees returns this summer

No list of baseball-themed plays can fail to mention Damn Yankees, the 1952 musical that co-opted the Faust legend and transplanted it to 1950s America, when the New York Yankees dominated major-league baseball like no team before or since.

The theatricalized version of Douglass Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, the comedic tale of Joe Boyd, a middle-aged fan of the hapless Washington Senators who agrees to sell his soul to the mysterious Mr. Applegate in return for his transformation into Joe Hardy, a slugger par excellence, tapped into middle-age fantasies of faded youth as well as the enchantment that baseball held over the American popular consciousness in the 1950s.

The Saddleback Civic Light Opera will return from a two-year hiatus with a production of Damn Yankees this summer, July 16 to Aug. 1 (www.saddleack.edu/arts), but that’s not the only OC connection with this show. In 1995, Jerry Lewis starred as Applegate in a nationally touring production at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. His arrival came with all the superstar freight that old legends of show biz always brought with them on a big tour (think Carol Channing in Hello Dolly!). And Lewis played to the crowd: About halfway through the second act, he wandered onstage and proceeded to unravel a 20-minute bit that had absolutely nothing to do with the show. It was a crazy, chaotic train wreck—and absolutely brilliant.

Another baseball-oriented play with a local connection is Richard Dresser’s Rounding Third, which the Laguna Playhouse produced in 2003. A tale of two polar-opposite men who coach a Little League team, the play meshed the best elements of The Odd Couple with The Bad News Bears.

While that was an entertaining piece, Bleacher Bums qualifies as a truly great baseball comedy. Written in 1977 by members of the Organic Theater Co., which included Dennis Franz and Joe Mantegna, the “nine-inning play” takes place in the bleachers of Wrigley Field and follows the eternal hopes and perennial disillusionments of eight Chicago Cubs fans. Like most sports-oriented plays, the piece becomes less about the Cubbies than the relationships among the people who gather every day to watch them.

One baseball play with serious dramatic implications is Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2003. It centers on a mixed-race Major League Baseball player on an East Coast team who decides to come out of the closet. There was historical precedent, as former Dodger Glenn Burke came out shortly after his playing career ended in the 1970s. Greenberg’s play gained added resonance in New York through a most serendipitous occurrence: A few months before its Off-Broadway opening in 2002, New York Mets player Mike Piazza publicly disavowed rumors that he was gay.

Other plays in which baseball plays a significant factor include August Wilson’s Fences, about a former Negro League baseball star (which ran at South Coast Repertory earlier this year);Keith Reddin’s one-act Throwin’ Smoke, about the travails of a minor-league baseball team; UC Riverside professor Rickerby HindsBlackballin’, which explores race and sports in America; and Lee Blessing’s Cobb, which featured three actors playing the legendary Ty Cobb at various points in his life.

Time will tell if the latest baseball play, Johnny Baseball, will make the cut of great baseball plays. It’s a new musical about the Boston Red Sox currently on the boards at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As far as great plays about the “sweet science,” the list begins with Howard Sackler’s 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Great White Hope, about Jack Johnson and his Caucasian rivals. Like many of the plays mentioned here, it would ultimately be turned into a film. As was another pugilistic gem, Clifford Odets’ 1937 Golden Boy, about a man who must choose between his dream of being a violinist or the quick payday of boxing. Odets was one of the more serious dramatists to turn his attention to sports, and this play was far less about boxing than it was a not-so-veiled critique on materialism.

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