Saturday afternoon, my muse and I went to the American Repertory Theater in Brattle Square, Cambridge, to see "Johnny Baseball," the ART's attempt to combine Boston baseball with Broadway showtunes ... and a social conscience, too. Based on the entertaining and thought-provoking show that followed, I would say the ART succeeded in its effort.
If you’re a Boston Red Sox fan, chances are you know that the club went a remarkable 86 years between World Series championships -- from 1918 to 2004 -- a dry spell attributed by some to owner Harry Frazee sending Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920. The lyrics of “Johnny Baseball” ask us whether the Curse was rooted in something more heinous.
The Red Sox were the last major-league team to integrate -- in 1959, over a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. They also passed up chances to integrate in 1945 (when Robinson participated in a dubious tryout for the Sox) and in later years, when future star Willie Mays played on a Boston minor-league team but was not picked up by the big club. This, “Johnny Baseball” argues, and not getting rid of Ruth, is the true source of shame for the Sox.
The play makes its case in the story of its three main characters: Johnny O’Brien, a white fictional Sox pitcher in the late nineteen-teens; Daisy Wyatt, an African-American nightclub singer; and Tim Wyatt O’Brien, their African-American son. All three characters experience the sting of racism in Boston -- most poignantly when Tim, a promising minor-league pitcher, and Mays participate in a sham tryout for the Red Sox … and Johnny shows his frustration at the team’s racism by punching GM Joe Cronin, who subsequently says that Tim will never pitch in the big leagues. This leads Tim to disown his father and place a curse on the Sox.
This revisiting of history, and the subsequent redemption for both Tim and the Sox, help us see America’s game of baseball as both a symptom of and cure for America’s sin of racism. By 2004, as a young Fenway fan tells an older Tim, the Sox are a team that reflects the diversity of the United States, with players who are white, Latin American and African-American. It is time to lift the Curse … which, as we all know, the Sox did that year.
History, of course, is much more nuanced. Although the Sox were the last to integrate, once they did, fans soon became familiar with a diverse constellation of stars, such as the Cuban pitcher Luis Tiant and the African-American right fielder Jim Rice in the 1970s. Yes, racial problems persisted, such as in the Winter Haven, Fla., spring training troubles, but the increasing diversification of their roster and coaching staff (Rice became a hitting coach after his playing days ended) shows that the Sox did try, however imperfectly, to redeem the sins of their prejudiced past.
We should also ask whether baseball’s present is as upbeat as the finale of the musical. Members of the media have noted a declining African-American participation in baseball in general, not only on the Red Sox. It would be sad to see the efforts of the Robinsons and Rices go in vain. And yet on this year’s Sox, the team has seen several African-American players play notable roles, such as Darnell McDonald and Bill Hall. In baseball, as well as on stage, the hard work of redemption and reconciliation evoked by “Johnny Baseball” continues.