Those who follow the fortunes of New York’s two baseball clubs these days are aware that the on-field leadership is more direct and quiet than bombastic and profane. The Yankees’ Joe Girardi and the Mets’ Terry Collins aren’t on anyone’s list of most flamboyant, and save for a little Bobby Valentine, New Yorkers would have to go back a few decades to find a skipper who was over the top and in your face when dealing with the media, players and others in the baseball world.
However a new play that began previews this past week at the Circle in the Square Theater helps bring us back to those days when “The Bronx Zoo” was alive and kicking. It is “Bronx Bombers,” the brainchild of co-producers Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser, and it tells the tale of Yankees gone by through the eyes of its greats, including one Alfred Manuel “Billy” Martin, Jr., whose four turbulent stints as Yankees manager helped fuel the baseball and branding dynasty that exists today.
One of those seminal moments took place in Boston in 1977, when Martin, his team in chaos, pulled star Reggie Jackson from the outfield during a nationally televised game, and ignited a fuse that became the tabloid story for the rest of the summer and brought to a head the changing of the guard in baseball, from a sport about team to one where the individual was more in focus. That moment encompasses the first part of the show, with another legendary Yankee, Yogi Berra (played by Peter Scolari), calling on Yankees greats of the past in the second act to help solve the ills of the club.
The role of bringing Martin back to life falls to a veteran who is no stranger to sports, or even plays with a sports theme. Keith Nobbs was born in Chicago but raised in New York, enjoying the New York sports scene, especially his beloved Knicks, as much as he had a passion for acting. Schooled at the legendary Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Nobbs has had roles in “The Back Donnelly’s,” “The Pacific,” “Phone Booth,” and other projects of stage and screen, but sports fans came to know him through his role as reporter Michael McCormack in “Lombardi.” So what’s it like to bring the mercurial Martin back to life in Gotham?
“It is a great challenge because people really know Billy for being this fiery manager when he was also someone trying to keep the traditions of baseball, a true team sport as Casey Stengel taught him, alive in a time where players like Reggie were asserting their individuality as superstars, and Billy had issues with that,” Nobbs said. “He was clearly a guy with no filter and someone who had his own demons, and that comes out in the play, but he also loved the game and the Yankees and was struggling to find balance in what he knew and what he was seeing happen on the field.”
Martin’s manic and confrontational personality comes out clearly in Nobbs’ portrayal, as Berra becomes the peacekeeper in the feud between the Yankees manager and his star right fielder (played by Francois Battiste, who has more than a passing resemblance to the slugger). The result is a look back into Yankees history that reminds people of how crazy those days were, as the team teetered on the brink of implosion, with Martin at the helm.
“It’s funny to look back at that time in the context of what we have today in terms of social media,” Nobbs added. “I can’t imagine how the Reggie-Billy confrontation could have been any more front and center than it was at the time, but maybe it would have been.”
Nobbs said his research into playing the role wasn’t that hard to do, as there is ample footage of the time as well as a host of books, including Martin’s own autobiography. “Plus my brother Craig is as big Yankees fan there is,” he added.
While the play centers around Berra and his work with the greats of the team throughout history to right the ship, the role that Nobbs as Martin plays to set the tone is essential to the story, and Nobbs added, part of the education that fans get when they come to see the show.
“In the end I hope people leave having understood how passionate Billy was about the team and the game of baseball,” he concluded. “He was as tormented and complex a character as there was during those glory days for the Yankees, and it was really his success on the field every time he came back which led the franchise back. He was the end of one era and was front and center into a new era in sports, and that didn’t always sit well with him. That conflict is what makes him so interesting, both as a character in the show and as a personality, and I hope that is reflected in what we do on stage.”
Could that type of personality play out today? “Tough to say, as I think not having a filter can get you into trouble,” Nobbs said. “Still he was a master tactician and everyone crazes success, so maybe he would have adjusted.”
No adjustment is needed on Nobbs’ performance though, a New York sports fan playing a dream role on Broadway.