“Johnny Baseball” Hits a Home Run, Continues Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Winning Streak [Berkshire on Stage]
Review by Larry Murray
The first baseball musical was Damn Yankees. I saw it in 1955, the year that Jackie Robinson – America’s first African American player – led my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers to the World Championship, I had no idea that a later musical would explore that world.
Robinson was the first to break the color line back in 1947 following WWII. As for the Boston Red Sox, to their great shame, they would be the last team in Major League Baseball to field a black player, allowing racism to cloud their better judgement for decades. Finally they signed Pumpsie Green in 1959, long after Damn Yankees had run its 1,018 performances and the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. The big difference between the two musicals – both of which revolve around the temptations of a woman – is that while Joe Hardy sold his soul to the Devil in Damn Yankees, Johnny O’Brien sells it instead to the Red Sox in Johnny Baseball.
First seen in a Diane Paulus production at the American Repertory Theatre in 2010, Red Sox fans loved the music and lyrics by the brothers Robert and Willie Reale. Especially well received were the scenes of the fans lamenting the long drought in world championships, as they sang songs such as “86 Years” and “The Ballad of Johnny O’Brien.” But others were not as enchanted with the unforgiving facts about the racism that fueled bad Red Sox decisions which led to so many years of major league irrelevance. Johnny Baseball posits that it was not the “curse of the Bambino” that prevented them from coming out on top for more than half a century, that selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees had absolutely nothing to do with it, it was their intractable racism which kept them from the pennant year after year.