Monday, March 11, 2013

The Strangest Baseball Team in History-Part One

Really now, the strangest team in history?  It seems a rather extravagant claim.  And I will readily admit that the competition is stiff.  I for instance am rather fond of the tales of American whaling ship crews having pickup games on Antarctic ice flows.

But I put the claim forward nonetheless.  I believe the strangest baseball team in history was fielded by the players of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the summer of 1959. So how exactly did a bunch of  notable British actors, and a couple of blacklisted Americans, find their way onto a ball diamond?

In all such enterprises there must be an initial idea.  Probably in this case it came from Canada.  You see at the 1958 Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival a comedy act was performed called The Shakespearean Baseball Game.

This was a bit of doggerel put on by Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster.  They did a dramatic reading in the style of the Bard strung together a little like Casey at the Bat. A sample:

Umpire 1  Hark! The players come. To our 
 appointed places shall we go, you at first 
 and I behind the plate. This game  
depends on how you make your call.  
Farewell! until you hear me cry “Play ball!

It is not great art, but over the winter may have traveled across the Atlantic to Stratford on Avon, home of the Shakespeare Memorial Theater (they became the Royal Shakespeare Company later in 1959).

But an idea is not enough, you must also have means to carry it out. And by luck the cast of the summer productions had several Americans and one rather remarkable British player.

Roy Dotrice was a former POW.  He fled the German occupation of his native Guernsey Island in a small boat, arriving in southern England in time to sign up for the RAF.  Nobody knew, or perhaps cared, that he was only 16 at the time.  He was later shot down and captured, spending two year in a variety of camps.  As he was at times held with American and Canadian prisoners he learned baseball.  He in fact became a rather proficient pitcher.  He also participated in camp theatrical productions, all too often drawing female parts due to his youth!

Mr. Dotrice has given several interviews over the years describing baseball with the Royal Shakespeareans...

From the Philidelphia Enquirer in 1988:

Unequaled in British baseball annals, the strapping lads from the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon went on to an undefeated baseball season in 1959 by crushing heavy competition from U.S. air bases in the Midlands with superb pitching, graceful fielding and power hitting.
The skills of those dashing Stratford men clad in loose white blouses and black tights still send shivers up and down Roy Dotrice's back. "We had a
dream team," says Dotrice, the team's curve-ball pitcher and the manager, still savoring the victories. A dream team "with Paul Robeson (Othello) on first base, Sam Wanamaker (Iago) on second, Laurence Olivier (Coriolanus) on third and Peter O'Toole (Shylock) at shortstop. Albert Finney (a utility player) used to catch for me while Charles Laughton (King Lear) was the plate umpire. When Laughton said, 'Strike three, you're out!' nobody argued."

And from another interview published in Drama-Logue in 1989:
 They played the officers at the American Air Force bases in the area, who would “deck the whole place up, like a real ball park, with beer and hot dog stands. They’d all appear in real baseball gear. We didn’t have any of that. We used to come out onto the field in black tights and HAMLET blouses, wearing pumps, and I remember all the ladies saying, ‘Oh my God, never mind the baseball, just look at those legs!’” Out of 11 games, the actors won 10 and one was a draw.
Quite the story actually.  An assortment of leading men from the world of English Theater taking to the field in Elizabethan costume and besting the Americans at their National Pastime.  But how likely is it to have actually happened?

Well, the camps at which Mr. Dotrice were held, especially Stalag Luft III and Luft IV were indeed places where Americans and Brits were confined together, and where there were very active baseball programs.

And Paul Robeson was a former Rutgers varsity catcher.

But for more tangible evidence consider the following from the Stratford Herald, June 19th, 1959.

Baseball and Barbeque for the actors
The American style comment, "We sure had ourselves a ball" was being made by many members of the Memorial Theatre Company on Monday morning. The ‘ball’ they were talking about was in fact a base-ball match, followed by a reception at the USAF base at Fairford Gloucestershire. The background story to this delightful social gathering goes back to the dark days of the war. It all started in 1942, when Roy Dotrice, now one of the Memorial Theatre Company, was shot down over France. Mr Dotrice found himself as a prisoner of war, along with a number of Americans, who introduced him to their National game. Now in its 100th season, Roy Dotrice has brought interest in the game to Stratford, and last Sunday, the newly formed 'Stratford Globetrotters' travelled to Fairford in order to do battle with the USAF team, 'The Fairford Lay abouts.'

It was certainly a day that many of us will remember for years to come. I joined members of the team and supporters gathered from actors and stage staff, and we set off on what proved to be a hilarious ride to Fairford. As we turned into the gates of the huge air base, we were greeted by a large sign which read, "Welcome Stratford' and in a few minutes we found ourselves in Little America. I will not attempt to describe the finer points of the dramatic game, because I just didn't understand what was going on. However, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and there can be no doubt that the Stratford team put up a most zealous performance. The team, 10 man strong, included such well-known figures as Sam Wanamaker, Albert Finney, Ian Holm, Edward De-Souza, Julian Glover, Dan Smith, Dave Thomas, Peter Mason, Bill Wheeler and of course Roy Dotrice. The most amusing part of the game came not from the players, but from the supporters of both sides, who cheered and jeered both teams with incredible wit. Stratford supporters, led by the glamorous Diana Rigg, had provided themselves with suitable slogans, which they chanted throughout the match, much to the delight of the American hosts. The slogans ranged from "Go, go, go, go, go, go ,go - wherefore art thou Romeo" to "Californian Peaches, Arizona Cactus - we play Yankees just from practice" and the crowd were set roaring by the inspired lines, "Stratford, Stratford go like hell - Alas poor Yorrick I knew him well." A great pity the victory went to the American team in the last few moments of the game, which they won by 3 points.

Among the cheering crowds were Charles Laughton and his wife, Elsa Lanchester, Mary Ure and Glen Byam Shaw, who joined with the rest in trying to cheer The Globetratters to victory. I suppose a whole book could be written on the 'asides' which we heard around us during the afternoon, but the best certainly goes to the American who remarked as a bearded John Jolley, the manager of the Memorial Theatre Company, lit a cigarette, "Careful boy, you'll start a bush fire !" Once the match was over, 'Glen's Men' as The Globetrotters styled themselves, chaired Mr Glen Byam Shaw back to The Officers Club where a reception had been arranged. Here was American hospitality at it's very best and we relaxed in the comfort of a most pleasant Wagon Wheel Bar. Soon a band struck up for dancing, but the high spot of the evening was yet to come in the form of a huge meal, cooked by the officers themselves. 

Just outside the main door of the club, a "Bar-B-Q" had been set up and we were soon sitting down to massive plates of spareribs, cooked over a smoke of hickory wood, which had been specially flown in from Kentucky. Most of us discovered that there is a very definite art in eating a sparerib, and one of my most lasting memories, is of Miss Elsa Lanchester teaching a number of us how to eat ribs the true American way. After the meal we repaired once more to the dance floor and I am pleased to report that I stole Edward De Souza's girlfriend, an enchanting 5 year old. This gay little spark was none other than Katie Nicholls, daughter of Anthony Nicholls, and we really showed them that we could dance. "I think we did very well," said this grave little elf, as we left the floor. "My sister is trying to dance as well, but she can't be expected to do as well as us - she's only a baby." We drove back in the half light of dusk, through the beautiful Cotswold villages, contented and at peace with the world. My little girlfriend sat on my knee and murmured: "That was a lovely party," and I think we all agreed it was quite a day.


This does appear to confirm most of the Dotrice account of Shakespearian baseball, but with a few caveats.

Various of the big names in theater, Olivier, Robeson, O'Toole, do not appear in this account.  But this appears to have been the Stratford's first game, and some of the other notables may have turned up for later ones.  I am able to confirm that all these gentlemen were indeed in the Shakespeare Memorial Theater during the summer of 1959.  Olivier's portrayal of Coriolanus that year was said to be one of the all time great performances.

Similarly, the account of wearing theatrical costumes might have happened later.  As it turns out there is an extant photograph of the June 19th game.  It is owned by Getty Images, who would like a rather large withdrawal from the Exchequer for its use.  But I suppose you might just happen to wander over to their catalog for a look.   Go ahead, I'll wait for you to get back.

As you can see, Sam Wannamaker is decked out in what appears to be cricket gear, and is wearing rather impractical looking shoes.  A certain lack of intensity might be inferred from this picture.  The sign behind Wannamaker reads SOFTBALL GAME for_____ with the rest cut off.  Was this a benefit of some sort?  I also note the casual attitude of the spectators and the fact that the catcher is not wearing a chest protector.  Indeed, this may have been more of a celebrity softball event than a serious undertaking.

And as to the tale of the Stratfords going undefeated?  The contemporary record as above, says otherwise.

But still a very fun story.  I imagine that the inaugural event was such a success on a social basis that it became a recurring activity, with members of new productions coming on board as the baseball and theater seasons progressed in tandem.

Come back Wednesday and I shall introduce you properly to the 1959 Stratfords.

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