Dan Shaughnessy

Musical a hit but score an error on facts

Alan H. Green, as Willie Mays, and Charl Brown, as Tim Wyatt, help make musical “Johnny Baseball’’ a hit, mostly. Alan H. Green, as Willie Mays, and Charl Brown, as Tim Wyatt, help make musical “Johnny Baseball’’ a hit, mostly. (Marcus Stern)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / June 26, 2010

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Perhaps you saw “The Great Debaters’’ after the movie was released in 2007. Based on a true story, the film traced the inspiring journey of a debate team at predominately black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in the 1930s. Coached by a visionary teacher, the students overcome major obstacles and wind up coming to Cambridge to take on and beat mighty Harvard.

Great stuff. But I was dismayed when I learned that in real life, Wiley actually bested the University of Southern California. Not Harvard.

I was reminded of this recently when I took in “Johnny Baseball,’’ a musical extended through July 11 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Here, too, the creators took liberties with the facts, seeking a perfect story rather than a true one.

“Johnny Baseball’’ is a fun-filled, breezy show that sends you into the streets with a bounce in your step. It ably demonstrates the century-old love affair between this region and its baseball team, but the take-home message is serious and uncomfortable: The Red Sox, for the majority of the 20th century, was a racist organization. The Sox were the last major league team to integrate their roster, with Pumpsie Green in 1959. The team didn’t win for 86 years and deserved bad luck because owner Tom Yawkey and his minions did not want black ballplayers.

And this, of course, is the real curse of the Red Sox. It was never about Babe Ruth and the Curse of the Bambino. It was really the Curse of Jackie Robinson.

OK, here’s the self-indulgent part of this critique. I wrote “The Curse of the Bambino’’ in 1990. The book chronicled all the rotten, frustrating things that happened to the Red Sox after they sold the Babe to the Yankees in 1920.

The book included a couple of thousand words on the institutional racism that was an integral component of the Sox identity during the Thomas Yawkey years (Yawkey bought the team in 1934 and died in 1976).

There was nothing scientific or serious about the Curse of the Bambino. It was simple superstition over substance. The Sox sold Ruth and never won again.

Now we have a legion of Al Gore-like know-it-alls, scolding us with the inconvienent truths regarding the real reason the Sox didn’t win: It’s because they didn’t sign Jackie Robinson after his Fenway tryout in 1945. It’s because they passed on Willie Mays when he was scouted while playing for the Birmingham Black Barons. It’s because Yawkey hired a bunch of racists.

All of the above is true. But no one can really say why the Sox didn’t win for 86 years. A curse can’t be quantified or compared. That’s what makes it a curse. If you want to believe it’s Ruth, you believe. If you want to believe it’s racism, you believe (though the Curse of Jackie doesn’t explain the Sox not winning from 1920 to 1947 when every team was all-white). Most likely, it was Boston’s lack of a good closer, and slow-footed Sox teams that were built to bash at Fenway, then fizzled on the road. The Sox didn’t win because they weren’t good enough.

“Johnny Baseball’’ is a terrific show. Much of it is true to baseball. Actor Burke Moses does a hilarious impersonation of Babe Ruth’s 1920s high-speed newsreel home-run trot. Batters choke up appropriately, like batters of that era. None of the ballplayer/actors has the awkward motion of Anthony Perkins trying to play Jimmy Piersall in “Fear Strikes Out.’’ The writers (Richard Dresser, Willie Reale) playfully poke fun at Worcester. The estimable Janet Marie Smith (the Sox architect who recently rebuilt Fenway) is cited in the credits, which explains why the Fenway colors and set ring true. The Greek chorus of Sox fans singing “Eighty-Six Years’’ (with lyrics asking “Why does God hate us?’’) is hilarious.

But I walked out of the theater bothered by the unnecessary blending of fact and fiction. I fear that most of the ART patrons now believe that Mays tried out for the Red Sox at Fenway in 1948 and was sent packing by a racist general manager named Joe Cronin.

It never happened. Robinson and two other black players did try out at Fenway in 1945. It was a sham. That episode is mentioned in “Johnny Baseball,’’ but the scene we see has Mays at Fenway in 1948, and a posse of Yawkey’s drunken “baseball men’’ turning him away.

Mays, one of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived, was scouted by the Red Sox when he played for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1949. The Sox passed, and ultimately the New York Giants signed him. Cronin did not sign Mays, but he never saw him try out at Fenway. Cronin passed away in 1984 and can’t defend himself, and family members who still live in New England are saddled with this unflattering portrait.

“Johnny Baseball’’ also gives us Yawkey as a bloated bigot, ice cubes forever clinking in his tumbler of vodka. If everything we see in “Johnny Baseball’’ really happened, Yawkey’s name should be erased from the Hall of Fame, from Yawkey Way (connecting Brookline Avenue and Boylston Street, it used to be Jersey Street), and from the Dana-Farber buildings. You would not allow your son to play “Yawkey League’’ baseball.

The “Johnny Baseball’’ playbill features an author’s note that states, “Willie Mays did not try out at Fenway Park in 1948 or ever. . . . For dramatic purposes we have Willie Mays trying out at Fenway Park in 1948.’’

Reached by phone yesterday, Dresser explained that the writing team wanted to put the play’s fictional character Tim Wyatt, an aspiring ballplayer, in a scene with Mays. “We knew it was one of the liberties one takes to make things clear in a dramatic story,’’ he said. “We felt that the truth of the situation was that the Red Sox passed on Willie Mays. That was the larger point we wanted to make. We compressed those things in the service of telling the story.’’

Sorry. That’s not OK.

There was institutional racism at Fenway Park. The Red Sox did bring Jackie Robinson to Fenway for a sham of a tryout in 1945. And the Sox were the last major league team to field a black player.

That should be enough. Just like beating USC in debate should be enough.

It doesn’t always have to be Harvard.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at

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