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Damn Yankees

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Damn Yankees was a very successful Broadway musical of the 1950s, which was turned into a hit movie in 1958.

The musical is based on the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, written by Douglass Wallop in 1954. Wallop was a serious novelist, but also a devoted fans of the Washington Senators at a time when success was quite elusive for the franchise (the famous quip is "Washington: first in peace, first in war, last in the American League") and when the New York Yankees were coming off a record five consecutive World Series wins and would seemingly continue to win forever. Early in the 1954 season, Wallop came up with the idea of a Senators fan who makes a Faustian deal with the devil to help his favorite team finally win the pennant. The book was written in a matter of weeks, came out in mid-July, and was an immediate best-seller. While Wallop considered it a piece of lightweight tongue-in-cheek fantasy, it has in fact become an acclaimed classic of American comic literature and is still in print today. In contrast, Wallop's other serious novels are pretty much forgotten.

A high school cast of the musical.

The book came to the attention of Broadway producers Frederick Brisson, Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince, who were looking for a successor to the very successful musical The Pajama Game. Because the novel's title was too long for billboards, writers Richard Adler and Jerry Ross retitled the musical Damn Yankees, after a very current expression of dissatisfaction by fans of other teams over the Yanks' domination of the American League standings and the World Series. Another big name in Broadway annals, Bob Fosse, choreographed the danse sequences in the musical, integrating movements from a baseball game. The set included a re-creation of the dugouts and clubhouse at Griffith Stadium. The musical opened at the 46th Street Theater in New York, NY on May 5, 1955 and was an immediate hit, eventually totaling 1,019 productions in its first run, which lasted until October 12, 1957. The soundtrack became a best-selling record. The musical was turned into a movie directed by George Abbott, who had directed the Broadway musical, and Stanley Donen a veteran director of successful Broadway adaptations. It was released in 1958, itself becoming a hit.

An old playbill for the theater version.

Damn Yankees, like the novel on which it is based, is centered around Joe Boyd, a disgruntled middle-aged Senators fan from Chevy Chase, MD who occasionally yells at his television when the Nats lose yet another game. His recriminations are heard by Mr. Applegate, who is in fact the devil, who, seeing a potential bargain, offers to take Boyd's soul in exchange for a chance to help the Senators win the pennant. Boyd is transformed into the handsome and athletic Joe Hardy, "the Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.", a top slugging centerfielder who becomes a sensation and leads the lowly Senators to a late-season showdown for the pennant with the hated Yankees. There is, of course, an escape clause in Mr. Applegate's contract, and to ensure Boyd does not exercise it, he tries to hook him up with sultry temptress Lola. But in the end, with questions rising about who exactly this hitting sensation really is, Boyd pines for his wife Margaret, reneges on the deal, but still manages to make one last great play to get the Sens into the World Series; he then resumes his old identity, his soul saved. The story is supposed to take place during the 1958 season, with the Yankees in quest of their 9th consecutive pennant (not too far from what actually happened; New York won its 9th pennant in 10 years that season). Boyd/Hardy was played by Stephen Douglass on Broadway and Tab Hunter in the film; Lola by Gwen Verdon, who became a star because of the role, in both the musical and the movie; and Applegate by Ray Walston, who won a Tony Award, also in both. Some scenes from the movie were filmed in Los Angeles's Wrigley Field, with footage from an actual Yankees/Senators game played in 1957 interspersed. Camilo Pascual, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra can be recognized. Roy Sievers served as the swing double for Tab Hunter. Since Hardy swung left-handed and Sievers was a right hander, Sievers was outfitted in a mirror-image Nats uniform and the image was reversed in production.

After its first run on Broadway, the musical toured around the United States. It has been revived a number of times since, and is regularly staged by amateur and professional companies. The songs "What Lola Wants" and "Heart" are considered classics. There is periodically talk of doing a new film version. The movie is regularly cited among the 10 best baseball films of all-time.

The book You Gotta Have Wa derives its title from the refrain from "Heart".

[edit] Further Reading

  • Rob Edelman: "Damn Yankees: A Washington Fan's Fantasy", in Bob Brown, ed.: Monumental Baseball: The National Pastime in the National Capital Region, The National Pastime, SABR, Number 39, 2009, pp. 95-102.
  • Mark Pattison: "Joe Hardy", in Bob Brown, ed.: Monumental Baseball: The National Pastime in the National Capital Region, The National Pastime, SABR, Number 39, 2009, pp. 103-104
  • Douglass Wallop: The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, Norton, New York, NY, 1954.
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