Saturday, June 26, 2010

Say it ain't so, Joe: Dan Shaughnessy and dramatic license

Now I'm no fan of Johnny Baseball, but I couldn't help but feel a little twinge of sympathy for it when I read the complaints from Dan Shaughnessy (at left) about it in the Boston Globe.

Shaughnessy is a long-time sportswriter at the daily, and thus a long-time observer of the Red Sox, and so I was interested in his perspective on the musical (which posits that racism, not Babe Ruth, was at the root of the team's long inability to win the World Series). For the record, Shaughnessy also has his own theory about the same period, and even his own book - The Curse of the Bambino, which some construe Johnny Baseball as debunking. Still, Shaughnessy's response to the show as entertainment was positive - although he also wrote:

". . . 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.

Shaughnessy seems to feel this is a smear on Cronin (who was a player for, and then a manager of, the Sox). He sighs that "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."

But does Shaughnessy have a valid point, or is he merely quibbling? It's true that Mays never tried out at Fenway - he was, instead, passed over by Red Sox scouts; but the A.R.T. says so in a program note, which reads: “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.’’ Shaughnessy cites book writer Richard Dresser as admitting: "“We knew it was one of the liberties one takes to make things clear in a dramatic story . . . 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.’’

Shaughnessy's response? "Sorry. That's not ok."

Dresser's excuse, I admit, is a little weaselly. On the other hand, Shaughnessy's point would be much stronger if he could say that if Cronin had indeed been at that fictional Mays tryout, he would have signed him - or at least fought Tom Yawkey's bigotry and tried to sign him.

But that also seems unlikely. In fact, in his article Shaughnessy plays a little narrative sleight-of-hand of his own. For Joe Cronin was manager of the Sox during that notorious "sham" tryout of Jackie Robinson in 1945 - a scene in which another Globe writer (Clif Keane) later claimed there were shouts of "Get those niggers off the field!" There's also the unflattering fact that as long as Cronin remained manager, the Sox remained white as the driven snow; in fact, it was just months after he retired that the Sox hired their first black player (they were the last major league team to do so). Coincidence?

I don't know. But why doesn't Shaughnessy make those points clear? I'm likewise not sure. He's on firmer ground, though, when he notes that the Sox were still only a few years behind the times - the first major league team integrated in 1947, the Sox, in 1959. That still leaves about 74 years of "the Curse" unaccounted for.

Which leads me to a longer, deeper critique of the silly Johnny Baseball than I really want to write - but it looks like I'm going to have to. Right now I'll simply say - since when was racism wrong because it prevented you from winning the World Series? Are those really the values of Red Sox Nation?

Actually, don't answer that. I don't want to know.