Theater hits for the fences with baseball

May 24, 2012

I know of a couple of plays about Roller Derby; in fact there’s one playing in Chicago now (The Jammer, presented by Pine Box Theatre at the Athenaeum through July 1). I can name several excellent plays about boxing or boxers, such as Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight and Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope. And there is Kristofer Diaz’s remarkable wrestling play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, so vibrantly brought to award-winning life by Victory Gardens Theater both in Chicago and New York.

That's pretty much it when it comes to the intersection between sports and theater, except for baseball. You can fit all the other sports plays in a thimble compared to the vast dramatic literature about baseball, not to mention the treasury of baseball literature beyond theater.

Why is that? What is it about baseball that fascinates authors to a degree unchallenged by other sports? Can anyone name one play—good or otherwise—about tennis or swimming? There are some good plays about football (meaning soccer) and rugby, but they’re not American. For an all-American sports play, hey-hey, it’s gotta’ be b-ball. Once upon a time baseball could lay sole claim to being “the National Pastime.” That’s long ago and far away, yet new plays and musicals still are being written about baseball.

A lot of philosophical and sociological explanations can be offered, from the multi-cultural make-up of the typical professional baseball team to the sport’s deep roots in America’s genesis. Yet every professional sports team these days is multi-cultural and the history of baseball in America isn’t as long as the history of boxing or horse racing.

Perhaps it has something to do with the mano y mano aspects of the game, the classic confrontation of pitcher against hitter, of defender on the mound vs. attacker at the plate. A professional quarterback is protected by muscleheads while a coach calls the plays most of the time. Basketball and hockey rely on team defense and offensive cooperation. But the pitcher is by himself, all alone, with only a catcher to suggest strategy which the pitcher may accept or reject. Once the ol’ spheroid leaves his gnarled fingers, it’s about the pitcher’s skill and cunning vs. the batter’s skill and strength. The baseball pitcher is the only player in pro sports who may be intentionally isolated during the game when his teammates sense that he’s “in the zone.” Running backs don’t go into the zone, nor forwards (in all the sports that have them).

True, boxing is mano y mano as well, but it’s a different vibe in which each participant is defender and attacker at the same time, relying on well-honed instinct and split-second response more than strategy. Sorry, “keep away from his left jab and wear him down with body blows” may be effective, but it’s pretty primitive as strategy.

Another aspect of baseball that attracts authors is the egalitarian nature of the game. Every batter gets three ups and the same potential number of strikes and balls. And beyond professional ball, you can play the game anywhere. You can’t ski just anywhere or score a birdie on a four-par dogleg just anywhere. And while we’re stopped at skiing and golf, you don’t need a five-figure checking account to indulge in baseball and ya’ never did.

A final aspect of baseball that attracts dramatists is its use as a metaphor for hope, faith and loyalty among teammates and, more especially, among fans. A long-suffering and dedicated fan is the hero of the classic musical Damn Yankees. And the die-hard supporter is a the heart of one of the very best baseball plays, Bleacher Bums, written in Chicago by members of the original Organic Theater Company as a paean to our beloved perpetual also-rans, the Cubs. This was back when dedicated fans could populate the Wrigley Fields bleachers for $2 with no reserved seats. As specific as it is to the Cubbies, Bleacher Bums became a huge hit in other cities as well as Chicago, sometimes running for years, sounding some universal chord of undying hope and loyalty (as well as being a helluva good time).

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I could fill this article with a list of baseball plays and nothing else, I really could. Consider The Old Timers’ Game by Pulitzer Prize dramatist Lee Blessing, a baseball savant who can quote you stats for pitchers from the 1950s. Consider the work of Chicago-bred dramatist Rebecca Gilman, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball. Think about Eric Simonson’s stage adaptation of the great baseball novel, Bang the Drum Slowly, now on stage at Raven Theatre. Don’t forget the 2003 Tony Award winning Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg, who took the multi-cultural baseball metaphor a step further, populating his fictional Big League team not only with white, Latino, Asian and black players but also a gay superstar slugger who comes out of the closet at the height of the pennant race, eliciting the hatred of the team’s ace pitcher, who is both racist and homophobic.

Speaking of racism, once all-pervasive in Big League ball, perhaps you saw Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting earlier this season at Lookingglass Theatre, a play by Ed Schmidt about how the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the Major League color bar with Jackie Robinson in 1947. Over a decade ago, there was a musical about the same piece of baseball history, The First. There’s even more baseball history in The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy, by Allen Meyer and Michael Nowak, about the deaf star pitcher of early professional ball, another play which had its world premiere here. The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point about baseball and theater.

Sure, profession al baseball today has become as outrageously overpriced to attend as other sports, with outrageously overpriced beer and hotdogs and outrageously overpriced players. But even so, there’s something inherently and profoundly appealing about it, and a surprising aura of drama considering that there’s no limit as to how long a game can be. Baseball stretches from Yankee Stadium to the local sandlot; and maybe because it still stretches to the sandlot, baseball continues to be a field of dreams that holds our hearts.

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