Shortly after basking in the glow of writing about New Haven’s first win of the season against 15 losses, I went to the Hall of Fame for a weekend to relax and do a bit of research. I’ve had a few weeks off from work, been distracted by summer, and the plight of the Elm Citys has gotten away from me a bit.
I’ve also had another happy distraction. I’ve also started directing Our Town by Thornton Wilder, a play I love dearly, for New Haven Theater Company. The performances will take place at the end of September. Here is a piece I wrote about Wilder, a Yale man and a Hamden resident buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery.
It turns out that baseball plays a reasonably significant role in the play, which mostly takes place around the turn of the 19th century. Take this bit of Act Two dialogue between Si Crowell, a young paperboy, and Howie Newsome, a milkman.
“Howie: Anything in the papers I ought to know?
Si: Nothing much, except we are losing the best baseball pitcher Grover’s Corners ever had – George Gibbs.
Howie: Reckon he is. Could hit and run bases too.
Si: I don’t see how he could give up a thing like that just to get married? Would you Howie?
Howie: Can’t tell Si. Never had no talent that way.”
True to life, a old cop named Constable Warren, comes around to inform the duo that players may have been a bit better back in the good old days. “Back in ’84 Si we had a player, Si – even George Gibbs couldn’t touch him. Name of Hank Todd. Went down to Maine and became a parson. Wonderful ballplayer,” Warren said.
George, one of the young lovers at the center of the story, is smitten with the game, forgetting to do chores for his mother because he’s always at practice, not focusing too much on his school work, and walking the streets of Grover’s Corners throwing fly balls to himself. He’s a bit of a small town jock, and he likes the attention his skills bring him. The actor playing George and I discussed how intrinsic ballplaying is to understanding the character.
Emily, his would be sweetheart, finds herself concerned that George’s success on the diamond and his tiny slice of small town fame, has made him a smaller, more self-centered person, not the boy she liked growing up. The duo would reach a poignant and true understanding of each other.
Tonight, as the cast was taking press photos, one of the actors and I started lobbing a baseball around. He tried to show me how to throw a curve differently, and I tossed him a non-moving knuckleball (meaning it was just an exceedingly slow, straight pitch.) He told me that he really wanted to play shortstop as a kid, even though he was left-handed. I liked that.
There have been two things in my life, important to me at very different times, that have consistently challenged me – baseball and theatre. John Malkovich once said that when one works in the theatre you have to be comfortable chasing ghosts you never really catch. One could say the same thing about playing baseball.
The fictional events of Our Town take place about 40 years after the Elm Citys’ single season of existence in 1875. It isn’t a big leap to imagine someone like George stepping on to a National Association roster for a day. Maybe Sullivan or Evans, two of the unknown men who played a couple of days for the Elm Citys because of injuries to their regulars, were like George, small town heroes who would go back to their girls or their jobs, baseball as just a brief interlude in their lives. Maybe they didn’t realize how important those few days playing ball would be, that people would be trying to write about it over a century later.