Branch Review Society Hill Playhouse – World Premiere - A Home Run

The official press release’s description of BRANCH:

“In this fascinating look at a pivotal moment in sports history, Branch Rickey, the president and part owner of the 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers, addresses a group of people in the Ebbets Field conference room, and relates the story of how baseball’s major league color barrier was broken with the hiring of Jackie Robinson in 1947.”

We had the inestimable privilege of reviewing the World Premiere of Branch: A Baseball Legend, at the Society Hill Playhouse Red Room Cabaret on Friday, February 3, 2012. Written by local playwright Walt Vail, the one-man play features Branch Rickey, major league baseball’s most visionary executive. The work is most assuredly a home run, sailing well out of the cozy confines of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the setting of the play.

Branch is brought to life by the supremely talented actor Steve Hatzai. The play is 80 minutes long, with no intermission, with Hatzai the only actor on stage. He has the opportunity for dialogue, with several phone calls and the occasional off-stage sound effect, but he spends the entire play on stage and addressing the audience. It is an incredible performance, as it is not easy to recall 80 minutes worth of dialogue without a break of any kind!

Hatzai is masterful at creating the suspension of disbelief, the element most vital to any theatrical experience. The entire play is spent with a shattered “fourth wall”- i.e., the audience is addressed in the second person, by the actor on stage. When you sit at the tables, you genuinely feel that you are among the Brooklyn Dodgers staffers, assembled to hear the unfiltered, highly candid thoughts of the 69-year-old team president and 25% owner of the ballclub, on a night at the exact midpoint of the 20th-century – 1950.

Being lifetime baseball aficionados, we were eager for the opportunity to see Branch Rickey brought to life on stage. And thanks to the skill of Hatzai’s performance and the power of Vail’s script, Rickey is miraculously resurrected, 90 miles south and over six decades later.

The set design is fantastic. Rickey holds court at a podium with the classic “Brooklyn Dodgers” blue-and-white baseball emblazoned upon it. But he also putters around his period desk, with an unlit cigar, a Dodgers pennant, a photograph of Ebbets Field, and an old rotary-dial phone, from which he takes phone calls from business associates.

We highly recommend the play, regardless of whether you’re a baseball fan. It’s a piece of 20th-century history brought to life by an extraordinarily talented actor and a gifted playwright, illuminating the life of one of the greatest luminaries in American sports history. Even if you don’t like sports at all, you’ll find it highly worthwhile.

Hat Tip to the Flyin’ Hawaiian and the Shane Victorino Foundation

Phillies All-Star outfielder Shane Victorino was the recipient of MLB’s Branch Rickey Award, given in recognition of his charitable work off the field. In light of the award, the Shane Victorino Foundation has donated an autographed ball for a raffle prize at the Society Hill Playhouse, with the proceeds going to the charitable works of the Foundation, especially in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Nicetown, where Victorino donated $1 million to renovate the Boys and Girls Club. You can buy a raffle ticket, if you attend, and you need not be present to win.

Rickey’s Background

Branch Rickey is best remembered by baseball fans, as the Dodgers executive who shepherded Jackie Robinson into the major leagues. One of the strengths of Vail’s script is that he contextualizes this decision by Rickey. The integration of baseball was the capstone of Rickey’s career, not the beginning of it. Ironically, Rickey spent much more of his career in St. Louis. First, he played for (and managed) the St. Louis Browns (the AL franchise, which eventually became the Baltimore Orioles). Subsequently, he joined the NL franchise, the Cardinals - which he assembled into a powerhouse. Overall, Rickey spent far more time in St. Louis, than he did in Brooklyn, where he reigned for only seven years as president (and most significantly) part owner. Vail accurately notes this fact in the script.

Rickey’s decades of experience in St. Louis laid the foundation for Robinson’s entry in Brooklyn. As Rickey explains to the audience, when he was initially in the Cardinals’ front office, black fans were not even permitted to sit in the main grandstand at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis to see the Cardinals and Browns. They were confined to the less desirable, outfield pavilion seating. When there were only 16 teams, St. Louis was the southernmost city - and accordingly, the one in which black players would meet the most resistance.

Naturally, St. Louis would have been a poor choice to attempt the integration experiment – and not simply because of its geographical location. Rickey wasn’t part of the ownership there. And Rickey recognized that if he wanted to attempt to introduce black players, he could only do so if he - at least partially - owned the ballclub. In other words, the experiment could only be successful, if Rickey could do it without needing to ask permission from anyone. As part owner, he would be relatively insulated from the inevitable backlash from fellow owners, the media, fans, and players, both on his own club and other clubs. Brooklyn’s northern location also made it more hospitable to the experiment.

Rickey the Intellectual

Rickey was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967, after his death two years earlier. But we believe that he likely would have been - and deserved to be - inducted, even without his signature achievement of integrating baseball. His contributions and legacy in other areas of the sport remain to this day.

Rickey was a college graduate at the turn of the 20th century – i.e., at a time when higher education was not widespread. He also made a career in a sport in which college graduates were seldom seen. His most notable achievement in St. Louis was his creation of the role of general manager – the first in baseball history – and as GM, he invented the concept of the farm system.

Rickey recognized that it would be cheaper for the Cardinals to deal exclusively with certain minor league teams, than to engage in bidding wars with other major league clubs, for the rights to sign minor league stars. It was copied by everyone else, eventually – and that alone might have gotten him into the Hall of Fame. But he also devised the first spring training camp, hired the first statistician, and promoted the use of batting helmets and pitching machines.

And that’s the Rickey that’s on stage at the Society Hill Playhouse Red Room Cabaret. He’s forever thinking, ruminating, attempting to find new solutions to intractable problems. Bespectacled and bow-tied, Hatzai portrays Rickey as the archetype of the middle-American college professor, committed to ideas and with thoughtful considerations about not just wins and losses, but right and wrong. He reminisces with the audience about his “Six-Step Plan” for the introduction of Robinson to the Dodgers – which took place over three years.

It should be noted that Rickey – like everyone else in baseball – was motivated to win games and make money. As Hatzai notes in the play, with enthusiasm - "I want to win games and to win pennants!"

He frankly acknowledged that one motive for integrating the Dodgers, was his recognition that the first team to integrate would benefit, by signing the best black players. But self-interest was not the primary motivation. He had already won quite a bit, with both the Cardinals and Dodgers. He was already in his 60s, when he decided to sign Robinson. The most important motivations were altruism and idealism. He likely would have attempted it sooner, if he had had sufficient influence for it to succeed.

All in all, it’s a tremendous night at the theater. Go see it!

Branch Review - If You Go to the Society Hill Playhouse

The Society Hill Playhouse is located at 507 South 8th Street, which is to say, on 8th Street, between Lombard and South Streets. Branch is staged in the Society Hill Playhouse Red Room Cabaret, as opposed to the Main Stage. The Red Room Cabaret is a black-box theatre, which is very intimate, and the seating is with tables and chairs. There is no reserved seating, so be sure to get there early to select your table.

BRANCH, directed by Barry Brait, is scheduled for a limited run:

Performance dates and times: February 3rd - 26th

Fridays: 7:00 p.m.

Saturdays: 8:00 p.m.

Sundays: 3:00 p.m.

Ticket Price: $25.00

For further information, contact the Society Hill Playhouse Box Office at 215.923.0210. Information can also be found on The Society Hill Playhouse website, SocietyHillPlayhouse.org.


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