Much has been written -- in his hometown paper and elsewhere -- in commemoration of Babe Ruth's centennial earlier this week, but one tidbit has received little press. In 1931, a 17-year-old woman named Jackie Mitchell struck out both the Babe and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game between the Chattanooga Lookouts and the New York Yankees.
The Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore has cleverly taken advantage of the centennial hoopla by producing the world premiere of a play about Mitchell, "Boys & Girls Together," by Michael Dale. And though Ruth turns out to be only a minor character, Dale's script is worthy in its own right, providing an intriguing look at one of baseball's lesser-known legends.
Narrated by Mitchell (played by Carol Oles with conviction and spunk), the production is largely a docudrama in which the playwright has taken the liberty of filling in the blanks. Though the result would probably feel more at home in Cooperstown than on Broadway, in its more dramatic moments, it plays like a cross between "A League of Their Own" and a feminist version of August Wilson's "Fences."
Here's an example of the type of connective tissue Dale uses. In the opening scene, young Mitchell's gym teacher (Parvin Farhoody) tells her that girls' muscles differ from boys'; they're more flexible and graceful. In the next scene, Mitchell's neighbor, who happens to be Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Dazzy Vance (Stephen P. Collins), explains that pitchers can't let themselves develop big muscles like the other players. Why not? Because they have to stay flexible and graceful, of course. Thus begin Mitchell's pitching lessons.
The play, which uses a large ensemble cast under the direction of Miriam Bazensky, traces Mitchell's career, starting with a job at a carnival that bills her as "the girl who throws like a man." When the owner (Bob Bardoff) of the Chattanooga Lookouts brings his starting lineup to the carnival, Mitchell easily strikes them out and is hired by the team -- making her the first woman to pitch in the minor leagues. The exhibition game against the Yankees is followed quickly by the baseball commissioner's outlawing women from the game.
Mitchell's determination to continue playing led her down some strange paths, the strangest being a stint with a team of bearded players called the House of David. After one of their games, she meets Josh Gibson (Doug Owens) and Satchel Paige (Brian Carlton), who are playing a Negro League game in the same stadium. The subsequent social-consciousness scene in which she, Paige and Gibson compare notes about discrimination is good, but too long and didactic. More effective -- because it forms a continuing thread in the narrative -- is a homophobia subplot concerning one of Mitchell's girlhood friends, a lesbian empathetically played by Joan Weber.
One of the most commendable aspects of the script, however, is that it leaves open the question of whether Mitchell legitimately struck out Ruth and Gehrig, or whether, as the Lookouts' owner insists, it was fixed by the Yankees -- a crass gimmick to sell tickets. Mitchell herself, who died in 1987, may not have known for sure, and since life is rarely as tidy as art, this open-endedness has the ring of truth.
Like Ken Burns and his "Baseball" documentary, Michael Dale probably intended "Boys & Girls Together" as a metaphor for something larger. But though the script touches on broad themes, it's primarily one woman's story -- a story that's not only engrossing, but, thanks to the Ruth centennial, is being told in the right place at the right time.
What: "Boys & Girls Together"
Where: Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore, 908 Washington Blvd.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through March 5
Call: (410) 727-1847