Friday, May 14, 2010

"Johnny Baseball"

A new show in Boston looks at one of the central reasons the Red Sox didn't win a World Serious for 86 years.

“Johnny Baseball’’ traces the Curse back to 1919 and the collision of three lives: rookie player Johnny O’Brien, his idol Babe Ruth, and Daisy, the object of his affection. The play’s action moves back and forth among three time periods: the early days of Johnny and Daisy’s romance; 1948, when a talented young black player tries out at Fenway Park for team owner Tom Yawkey and general manager Joe Cronin; and Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, when David Ortiz hits a two-run walkoff homer in the 12th inning to save the Sox from elimination, and the Curse begins to lift. The voice you hear calling the plays during the show? None other than Sean McDonough. The musical mixes spry tunes composed by Reale’s brother Robert with provocative social history, which makes it an ideal project for ART artistic director Diane Paulus, whose mission is to create populist theater with integrity.

“This is exactly the kind of show we should be doing,’’ says Paulus, who was, serendipitously, attached to “Johnny Baseball’’ as a freelance director before she was hired to run the ART. “Part of what we do in theater is keep our stories alive and keep our history present. And so much of what I’ve been interested in this year has been kind of enlarging what we call the [theatrical] experience.’’

To that end the ART, which has already this season staged an immersive production of “Macbeth’’ in an empty schoolhouse and a reimagined “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ as a disco romp, is turning the area around Cambridge’s Loeb Drama Center into a mini-Yawkey Way with hot dog vendors, popcorn, and beer that — hold onto your caps — will be allowed in the theater. Paulus hopes their love of the game will lure neophytes who would otherwise be more inclined to spend the evening at a sports venue than in a playhouse.

But some wonder if Paulus and the company are prepared for the responses the show may elicit. Glenn Stout, sportswriter and editor and coauthor of “Red Sox Century,’’ has a long list of concerns.

“What worries me more than anything is I hope it doesn’t trivialize a subject I don’t think should be trivialized,’’ Stout says. “Racism is a dangerous, complicated subject, and I’m not sure a commercial musical is the right way to explore it. I assume it has a happy ending? A story that makes it seem like it’s over now? That’s a real concern. I’m not saying today’s Red Sox are the same as in the past, but racism is still an important element in all professional sports. And I think some members of Red Sox Nation are going to be angry the subject is broached at all.’’

Now, the Yankees weren't much better when it came to integrating the team and I don't know too many historians of baseball who don't think it affected the team's declining fortunes in the 1960s. It sounds like the defenders of "Yawkey Way" are still working for the Sox and still in denial.

Among the latter is Dick Bresciani, Red Sox vice president and team historian, who responds to a question about how racism is documented in the Sox archives with exasperation.

“I don’t think there’s any way we’ve dealt with it in the official annals. Who can say what is racism? We don’t believe we had racism,’’ Bresciani says. “You can’t judge people who are deceased by their beliefs. You can’t judge them by what you read or hear. That’s not factual.’’

One fact is that the Red Sox had a chance to sign Jackie Robinson when he tried out at Fenway in 1945. But the team passed, and Robinson went on to break the major league color barrier two years later and become a superstar with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Another fact is that Tommy Harper, who played for the Sox in the early 1970s and returned for several stints on the team’s coaching staff, successfully sued the Red Sox for firing him in 1985 after he complained in the media about the club allowing segregated festivities during spring training in Florida. Harper — now a minor league consultant for the Sox who is being inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame this year — believes that a refresher is in order.

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7:10 AM  

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