Johnny Baseball Combines Red Sox History, Comedy in Musical Form


Jun 24, 2010

Johnny Baseball Combines Red Sox History, Comedy in Musical Form CAMBRIDGE — Musicals and Red Sox fans don’t mix — until Johnny Baseball is taken into account.

The Diane Paulus-directed production, currently in an extended run at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Mass., offers a taste of 2004’s Yawkey Way juxtaposed with the Boston of the early to mid-1900s. The story chronicles the life of the fictional Johnny O’Brien, a Boston native who snags a tryout with the Red Sox in 1919 and promptly joins Babe Ruth, Wally Schang and more in the quest for another championship — which won’t, of course, come until 2004.

A parallel storyline and refrain chronicles the second half of Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series against New York.

The opening number features a makeshift grandstand, complete with an authentic-looking Fenway Park sign, an authentically green scoreboard and some authentic Boston fans — the ubiquitous late-20s male fan who won’t marry his girlfriend until the Red Sox break The Curse, the elderly life-long devotee who wants to see a championship before he dies, the fifth-grade super fan who can rattle off the Baseball Reference page of any player from the Babe Ruth era forward and even the loud blond who drinks too much and talks too loud in a pahk-the-cah accent (some necessary comic relief, offered by a hilarious Carly Jibson).

The authenticity of the Fenway experience on that particular night is constantly reflected in the tiny details, from the P.A. announcements ("Attention: Tanyon Sturtze on to pitch for New York"), to the "Make History or We’re History" sign in the grandstand, to the rally caps, to the heckling (when Mark Bellhorn strikes out in the latter innings, one cast member stands and yells, "If I had a dollar for every time you strike out, I’d be sitting down there," pointing, presumably, to the loge boxes).

But while the 2004 sidebar provides some good memories and some good laughs for the packed house, it also provides some much-needed levity to accompany a storyline that reminds Boston fans of the ugly truth about their beloved franchise — that the Red Sox were the very last team to sign an African American player, that they passed up on Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, that it wasn’t until 12 years after Robinson’s debut in the majors that the Red Sox finally signed their first black player.

The real story follows the fictional O’Brien (Colin Donnell), a 19-year-old flame-thrower who quickly becomes known as Johnny Baseball after he no-hits the Detroit Tigers within the first couple weeks of his debut. But after he falls in love with an African American bar singer named Daisy Wyatt (Stephanie Umoh), the team issues O’Brien an ultimatum: lose the girlfriend or lose your contract.

When Johnny chooses love over baseball, the team brass makes another offer — this time, to Daisy. They will send her to New York to perform in a Vaudeville Show if she stays out of Johnny’s life, an offer she ultimately accepts.  Twenty-eight years later, when Daisy reenters Johnny’s life and introduces him to the son he never knew he had — a son with an even better fastball than his father’s — and asks Johnny to help him get a tryout with the Red Sox, the drama begins and the dark history of this franchise unfolds.

"It's exciting to tell the story, but it's also jarring to realize that we look at it as something that happened so long ago. But it wasn't so long ago," said cast member Alan H. Green.

Green, who played his high school ball in Texas just 20 years ago, recalls the extra measures taken to ensure safety when integrated schools traveled for games.

"Because we were a mixed-race high school, we had a police escort to [other] communities [for games]," he said.

Though the critical action of Johnny Baseball takes place in 1948, the racism that permeated the state back then is far from dead and buried, even now. The Red Sox may have made strides, but the pain that persisted for so long is still raw.

"As exciting and celebratory as [this play] is, I’m reminded that this is still happening," Green said.

Dorchester native and writer Howard Bryant, on hand to promote his book, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, would not have been surprised if his book — and Johnny Baseball, for that matter – had been received poorly by the city of Boston.

"Baseball fans want a happy ending," he said, "and this wasn’t a happy ending."

Bryant’s book was rejected by 15 publishers before he finally found one that would bite because of the subject matter.

"So many people were unwilling to talk about a subject everyone knows about," he said.

The subject, of course, is incredibly painful for a fan base that is so passionate about — and so accepting of — this franchise. Boston fans often consider themselves part of the team, and when being a part of that team involves being associated with such deep-seated racism, it’s not something many of them want to face. Ever.

"After reading the script, my first question was, how are white people in Boston going to receive this?" Green said. "It suggests the 'curse' is because Boston was the last team to integrate."

The wounds, evidently, are far from healed. An African American war veteran in attendance at Tuesday’s performance said that although the Red Sox have made strides toward integration, toward acceptance, the franchise hasn’t been forgiven.

"I don’t go to their games," he said. "The Red Sox haven’t changed at all. … I arranged for [a group of war veterans] to go to the game, but I did not go."

Reliving the magic of the journey to the 2004 World Series is fun. There’s an entire musical number devoted to bargaining with God for a win over New York, there are a multitude of priceless one-liners delivered by a hilariously self-obsessed Babe Ruth (Burke Moses), there’s even a typical pink-hatting Johnny Damon lover who later reveals her misery over an undeniable obsession with Mariano Rivera.

But there are other parts of the history of this franchise that are worth reliving, too — although they certainly don’t feel as comfortable.

"Baseball and sports are kind of a metaphor for life," said cast member Charles Turner. "In a play like this — we lived through a lot, but it makes you investigate it further. You tap into history again.

"We've made great strides, but this play makes you feel the pain of what Jackie, what Willie went through. … You go through a lot, but it makes you strive that much more."

Tickets for Johnny Baseball can be purchased here.

Photo Courtesy of Marcus Stern and the American Repertory Theater

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