From Ruth to Yogi to Jeter: 'Bronx Bombers' Connects Yankees Generations

Jerry MilaniContributor IDecember 19, 2013

Keith Nobbs, Bill Dawes, and Francois Battiste of "Bronx Bombers"
Keith Nobbs, Bill Dawes, and Francois Battiste of "Bronx Bombers"Photo Credit: Walter McBride

In 1984, the Yankees changed their informal slogan from "Billy's Back" (because, of course, Billy Martin was no longer the manager) to "The Biggest Hit Show in New York."

Turns out they were 30 years ahead of their time.

On Feb. 6 (Babe Ruth's birthday, by the way), the play "Bronx Bombers" opens on Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre. Many of the most pivotal Yankees in history are portrayed, from Ruth to Joe DiMaggio to Yogi Berra to Mickey Mantle, right up to Derek Jeter, with a few others in between, including Martin, in an attempt to bring those generations together.

Producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, who brought sports and Broadway together in "Lombardi" and "Magic/Bird" in recent years, think the time is right for a dramatic portrayal of the iconic franchise.

"'Lombardi' was about leadership and 'Magic/Bird' was about competition," Kirmser explained at a media opportunity this week at The Palm Restaurant in New York. "In 'Bronx Bombers,' we will be looking at the concept of team. The Yankees are the greatest team ever. But what made them the greatest team? Through these players, we can develop that."

Choosing which, and how many, players to include is a common challenge, confined to the conventions of a theatrical production. "Lombardi" focused on the title character and just a few others, including Packers stalwarts Paul Hornung, Dave Robinson and Jim Taylor. But "Bronx Bombers" is covering almost a century.

"This play spans the time from Ruth to Jeter," added Kimser. "There's Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, connecting that time in between."

"Yogi Berra is key," added Ponturo. "He met Babe Ruth in his rookie season and has a relationship with Jeter."

As with any portrayal of actual people, there's a fine line between imitation (Billy Crystal's Mantle with Oklahoma drawl, for example) and accurate portrayal. Kirmser and Ponturo were looking for the latter.

"When on stage, we want to feel like we have the presence of Yogi," Ponturo said, referring to Peter Scolari, who portrays the all-time great. "There are few athletic moves, although a couple of times the actors who have to do those really pull them off."

The versatile Bill Dawes, who plays both Munson and Mantle, and Francois Battiste (Jackson/Howard) both grew up as baseball fans, particularly Battiste, who confesses to a lifetime love of the Cubs. Both went to school on their characters with as much detail as possible.

"I read and watched everything of Reggie and Elston that I could," Chicago-native Battiste said.  "Reggie, I read his autobiography. Elston didn't have an autobiography, but his wife had written a book that gave a lot of insight. There's much more out there on Reggie, not so much on Elston, but I tried to learn as much as I can."

Dawes has a similarly disparate duo in Munson and Mantle, two of the most revered Yankees ever (just check out how many No. 7 and No. 15 jerseys are worn by fans at any given game, decades after the two played), and took to the library and Internet for study.

"For Munson, there's not that much there. I think I saw an old commercial for Lectric Shave that he did, and a few interviews and that's it," said Dawes, who also appeared in "Lombardi" as Hornung. "There are subtle differences in their accents, Munson from the Midwest and Mantle from Oklahoma. But I didn't try to mimic their voice, I want to capture their characters, illuminate them."

Central to the idea of team is that of family. Kirmser noted that the inclusion of Carmen Berra, Yogi's wife of more than 60 years (the couple is practically royalty), adds that dimension.

"Yogi and Carmen, that tight family unit, is critical," she said. "In explaining what it means to be a team, it's the idea of family, of showing up for each other. Yogi and Carmen exemplify that."

Far from a sepia-toned look at only the best moments in the team's history, "Bronx Bombers," according to Ponturo, will delve into the franchise's many dramatic moments, on the field and off.

"We look at the relationship between Mantle and DiMaggio, between Munson and Jackson," he said. "We want to show how they interacted. We look to be authentic."

Jerry Milani is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand unless noted.