Years ago, the patrician American writer George Plimpton proposed the Small Ball Theory about the literature of athletics: there is a correlation “between the standard of writing about a particular sport and the ball it utilises – the smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature”.
By that standard, it should come as no surprise that Bronx Bombers, written and directed by Eric Simonson, is the finest of his unofficial trilogy about the Big Three American Sports. Lombardi was about American football, Magic and Bird basketball, and the latest play baseball.
Not just baseball: the New York Yankees – the storied franchise which inspires unmatched fervour among its fans and delectable enmity among its enemies. The latter group should avoid Bronx Bombers at all costs. As for those with no affection for the game, the play offers an affecting first act and a hard-to-credit conclusion. It celebrates the team with a sugar-wrapped approach that occasionally can cause even a Yankees fan, of which I am one, to slide back into their seat and mumble: “Oh, brother.”
The play, which began life as a Primary Stages production off-Broadway and has now moved efficiently to Broadway’s Circle in the Square, has the potential to cause otherwise manly men to blubber. Given this tendency, thank the gods of sport that Simonson’s play showcases Reggie Jackson, and emit an even bigger un-Bronx cheer that Jackson is here played by Francois Battiste, whose amusing tough-guy performance acts as an astringent to the drama’s soppy side.
The evening begins with what happened after a Yankees/Red Sox game on June 18, 1977. The Yanks’ manager, Billy Martin, yanked his star outfielder, Reggie Jackson, from the game for showing insufficient hustle. In the dugout, sharp words were exchanged. Yogi Berra, the team’s Hall of Fame catcher in an earlier era and now a coach (portrayed by Peter Scolari), assembles Martin and Jackson in a hotel room and urges them to get along.
Yankees fans probably won’t care that the men do not arrive at a rapprochement. We know that the team went on to win the World Series that season, climaxing with Jackson hitting three home runs in the final game.
Unfortunately, Act Two descends into a surreal affair in which Berra imagines a midnight dinner for a pantheon of Yankee heroes past and present. When Lou Gehrig shook hands with Derek Jeter, I again said: “Oh, brother”. But I also had to suppress a sob.