Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Beating the Damn Yankees in Living Color

Play ball! I’m glad the Washington (D.C) Nationals are in the 2019 World Series, given that they beat my home team, the L.A. Dodgers, to advance into the National League finals. There’s also the fact that this team, which until 2005 was known as the Montreal Expos, had never before won a pennant. It’s a shame, though, that when the Nationals come to bat this evening, their opponents will be the Houston Astros, not the New York Yankees. The Yankees did come close to making it into the World Series, until the Astros defeated them in game six with a walk-on homerun. I have nothing against the Astros, but the Nationals versus the Yankees would certainly have been poetic justice.

You see, once upon a time there was another D.C. baseball team, the Washington Senators. They were American Leaguers, and year after year their success was stymied by the presence in the league of the formidable New York Yankees. That was the era (circa the 1950s) when the Yankees—the best team money could buy—seemed impossible to beat. So Senators fans annually ate their hearts out. Author Douglass Wallopp, born and bred in Washington, D.C., took matters into his own hands in 1954, publishing a little novel called The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. The cover image, which showed a pin-striped Yankee player being hoisted on a pitchfork by a demonic-looking creature, hinted at the novel’s imaginative take on this classic baseball rivalry. Borrowing from Faust and the whole “deal with the devil” meme, the novel establishes that a middle-aged diehard Senators fan makes a pact with the mysterious Mr.  Applegate that turns him into a handsome young baseball phenomenon, one capable of singlehandedly winning the pennant for the Senators.

If this novel sounds familiar, it’s because it was quickly turned into a hit 1955 Broadway musical, Damn Yankees. The role of the demonic Mr. Applegate was played by Ray Walston, but what most people remembered was the female lead, a temptress named Lola who shows up to keep the newly-minted Major Leaguer Joe Hardy from straying from his satanic pact. I’ve discovered that the stage role was offered to Hollywood’s Mitzi Gaynor and  to French ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire (whom I remember from the first big movie I ever saw, Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye). But it ended up being played by a redheaded dancer, Gwen Verdon. When she met the show’s choreographer, Bob Fosse, sparks flew, both onstage and off. They married in 1960, and their lives and careers were intertwined from that time forward.

Of course the Broadway hit about baseball quickly became a movie. Most of the stage cast was retained, so that little boys (and big ones too) could watch in astonishment as Verdon strutted her stuff with “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets.” Ray Walston, who up to that point had been mostly a stage actor, went on to have a long movie and TV career, ending up as “My Favorite Martian” before passing away two years later in 2001. The one big change from the stage company was that the leading-man part went to Hollywood hunk Tab Hunter, who did no harm in his key role. I should also mention that one of the smaller roles, that of an enthusiastic female fan, was played on both stage and screen by Jean Stapleton, the future Edith Bunker.

I know the cinematic Damn Yankees very well indeed. When it first aired regularly on television, my parents had just purchased a color TV set. Wow! Copper-curled Lola and handsome blond Joe made color TV essential.

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