Bob Hertzel Columnist Times-West Virginian Fairmont, W.Va.
CNHI News Service
Friday, April 5, 2013 —
It is, to be sure, the most magical day of the year -- the 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.
So here is what I encountered as I walked into Mantegna’s dressing room.
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 fans 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.