The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

April 2, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN- Baseball, Broadway are linked

MORGANTOWN — It is, to be sure, the most magical day of the year, this day we all celebrated Monday, the true opening day of the baseball season.

There are any number of ways to show this, even in an era where baseball has been bypassed across the nation by the National Football League as the great American game, but I prefer to do it by going back almost 30 years into a sports writing career that was built upon the game of baseball.

It was 1985, mid-January, when the most wonderful sports editor I ever worked with sent me to New York City for a crossover story aimed at showing just what baseball meant in this land of ours. The subject of my search was a wonderful actor, a man who was appearing in the Broadway play “Glengarry Glen Ross,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama in which he had earned a Tony Award.

That role may be forgotten now across our land, but the actor is not, for he is Joe Mantegna, whose current presence is as a featured character on “Criminal Minds,” a show in which he portrays FBI Special Agent Joe Rossi.

What brought this itinerant baseball writer there in the dead of winter was that we had heard that Mantegna had a shrine within his dressing room dedicated to his beloved Chicago Cubs, with whom he had suffered as a youth and offered him the backdrop for the play he would author in 1977 about the famed bleachers in Wrigley Field called “Bleacher Bums” after the faithful who reside there.

The article became more meaningful this year as the Pirates opened their season with those Cubs on Monday, and so here is what I encountered as I walked into that dressing room, as I put it into the article.

One wall is a shrine to the Cubs. There is a New York Daily News sports page proclaiming the Cubs champions of the National League East. There are baseball cards and pictures, including one of Mel Hall as a Cub.

Forget that Hall was traded to the Cleveland Indians. To Mantegna, once a Cub, always a Cub.

And finally, third baseman Ron Cey dominates the wall in a full-color, personally autographed post.

“Ron Cey was at Macy’s signing posters when the Cubs were in town,” Mantegna said. “Between plays on Wednesday I went over there and got him to sign one for me.”

A Tony Award winner standing in line at Macy’s department store for Ron Cey’s autograph. Perhaps no other way can the connection between baseball and Broadway be so graphically illustrated.

See, this baseball thing and its ties to Broadway isn’t a one-man love affair concerning Mantegna, as I came to find out.

If you go back almost 60 years you find out that Douglass Wallop III, a graduate of the University of Maryland, wrote an innocent little book in 1954 entitled “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.”

It became “Damn Yankees” on Broadway and ran for more than three years, winning a Tony Award.

It was the story of Joe Hardy, who sold his soul to the devil so he could play for the Washington Senators and help them beat the New York Yankees.

Beating the Yankees was the dream in 1954, only it turned out to be the Cleveland Indians who did it, ending a string of five consecutive World Championships.

“I’d spent my life, starting as a 5- or 6-year-old in old Griffith Stadium in Washington,” Wallop said. “I can remember going to games in a Boy Scout uniform and getting into the bleachers for a dime. I’m old enough that I saw Walter Johnson pitch his last game and I saw Ty Cobb at the end of his career. I was what you would call a frustrated Senator fan.”

One day, in 1953, Wallop noticed his wife had left “Faust” sheet music on the family piano.

“Something just came together in my head,” he said.

Three months later the book was complete and even before it was published it was being clamored over by those wanting to buy the rights to put it on Broadway.

Mantegna’s story isn’t much different from Wallop’s. He would go to the Cubs games rather than Washington Senator games as a youth, and as a 12-year-old he might not have seen Walter Johnson pitch but he saw Glen Hobby win 16 games, and if there was no Ty Cobb there was a skinny shortstop named Ernie Banks who hit 45 home runs that year on his way to an MVP season.

He tells the story of going to the games with his father and gazing through a hole in a rickety wood wall, catching bits and pieces of the game. As the writer Joe Posnansky recently repeated the tale, “Joe would look up at his father, see the wonder in his face, hear the passion in his voice. And he would think: ‘Dad, who gives a hoot? Let’s go get a hot dog.’”

Knowing his dedication to the game of baseball, although that, too, is part of the baseball experience. However, in this case it is likely a story told in jest, for when I spoke with him the Cubs and baseball were closer to a religious experience than a sporting event and that is what led him to write his play “Bleacher Bums.” This is how I tried to explain it then.

One day, as he sat in the bleachers, a thought crossed Joe Mantegna’s mind.

“I’m sitting there and I got to thinking, ‘What’s going on here in the bleachers is more interesting than what’s going on down on the field.’ Then I thought, ‘How come there are 35,000 people here and you can’t get 2,000 into the theater?’”

Mantegna went home and began working on a play about the Bleacher Bums he came to know and love at Wrigley Field.

“My hope was to capture something that transcended winning and losing, to capture a group of people who came together with something in common. You had all races, all kinds of people, bums and business executives earning $200,000 a year, and they were united in one thing.

“It just amazed me, no one ever talked about anything that happened outside the ballpark. The Cubs and baseball were the common denominator.”

In the play, each of the several comes to the game with a problem and by the time the game is over all their problems have been solved, leaving only the Cubs’ problem unresolved.

They lose again.

And that has not changed yet, the Cubs still being without a World Championship for 104 years and have not had a World Series played in their park since 1945, when Bill Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, was asked to leave a World Series game against the Detroit Tigers because his pet goat’s odor was bothering the fans.

Angered, he pronounced, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”

They haven’t, and it has come to be known as the Jinx of the Billy Goat, which just might make for Mantegna’s next Broadway play.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

1
Text Only
WVU Sports
  • ‘Cheating pays’ remark should draw attention

    When Bob Bowlsby, the outspoken commissioner of the Big 12, presented his opening-day picture of the future of college sports in Dallas for the annual media day gathering, his bleak comments were not unexpected.

    July 23, 2014

  • WVU, N.C. State to meet in football

    Following a trend of creating non-conference games against regional opponents, West Virginia University has reached agreement with North Carolina State to play a home-and-home football series in 2018 and 2019.

    July 23, 2014

  • WVU, Tennessee finalize 2018 meeting

    West Virginia University and Tennessee have finalized their season-opening, Sept. 1, 2018, meeting in Charlotte, N.C., at Bank of America Stadium.
    Both teams will receive $2.5 million for the game and have a chance to earn up to $3.2 million with ticket incentives.
    Each team will buy 12,500 tickets and set aside 2,000 of its allotment for students.
    The game, played on the home field of the Carolina Panthers of the NFL, is being put on by the Charlotte Sports Federation.

    July 23, 2014

  • Holgorsen’s program hits turning point

    You can almost sense, as you watch West Virginia University football coach Dana Holgorsen sit before the gathered Big 12 media contingent answering questions in the Omni Hotel in Arlington, Texas, that he senses his program has reached a turning point.

    July 23, 2014

  • Fleming, Billy.jpg WVU’s Fleming signs contract with Yankees

     Second baseman Billy Fleming of the West Virginia University baseball team has signed a professional contract with the New York Yankees, foregoing his upcoming senior season.
    “Ever since I was a little kid, it’s been my dream to play professional baseball,” Fleming said. “It is still surreal that I get to chase my dream, but I am ready to get after it. I loved my three years at WVU and want to thank all the coaches that made it possible for me to achieve my dream.”

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Big 12 Media Days Foo_time(1).jpg Trickett’s play key factor for Mountaineers’ success

     In the end, it comes down to the quarterback.
    Always has with Dana Holgorsen, always will.
    Quarterback is the offense with the West Virginia University coach. When he does well, the team wins – almost always.
    When he does poorly, the team doesn’t stand much of a chance.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Growing demands on college athletes concerns Wyant

    Fred Wyant, one of the greatest quarterbacks in West Virginia University’s history, has lashed out at today’s growing demands on college athletes.
    The 80-year-old Star City resident led the Mountaineers to a 30-4 record as the starter from 1952-1955. Percentage-wise, it’s clearly the best-ever record by a QB in school annals.
    Wyant, a member of the WVU Sports Hall of Fame, came here after graduating with honors from Weston High School. That’s where WVU coach Art “Pappy” Lewis signed him to a four-year scholarship.

    July 23, 2014

  • Holgorsen’s program hits turning point

    You can almost sense, as you watch West Virginia University football coach Dana Holgorsen sit before the gathered Big 12 media contingent answering questions in the Omni Hotel in Arlington, Texas, that he senses his program has reached a turning point.

    July 22, 2014

  • Growing demands on college athletes concerns Wyant

    Fred Wyant, one of the greatest quarterbacks in West Virginia University’s history, has lashed out at today’s growing demands on college athletes.

    July 22, 2014

  • WVU’s Fleming signs with Yankees

    Second baseman Billy Fleming of the West Virginia University baseball team has signed a professional contract with the New York Yankees, foregoing his upcoming senior season.

    July 22, 2014

Featured Ads
WVU Sports Highlights
NDN Sports
House Ads
NCAA Breaking News
NCAA Photos