Writer Lee Blessing Loads the Bases at the Lonny Chapman Theatre with COBB

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Through history, baseball has been regarded as both the most egalitarian and the most racist of the three major American sports.

(L-R) Daniel Sykes, Kent Butler, Bert Emmett Photo: Sherry Netherland

On the one hand, it’s hospitable to players of normal size and weight, as opposed to football and basketball, which actively seek freakish body types. When’s the last time you stood next to someone who is 6 feet, 5 inches tall, and weighs 350 pounds?

On the other hand, baseball has a reputation, perhaps undeserved, of being the sport that offered the strongest resistance to the inclusion of black players. This disparity helps to explain why Jackie Robinson is a famous American hero, while even dedicated sports fans don’t know who integrated the National Football League or the National Basketball Association.

In his play “Cobb,” currently at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood, author Lee Blessing offers an inventive series of scenes to demonstrate the damaging effect of segregation on the integrity of baseball in the 1920s and 1930s. He does this by posing a simple question: How can Ty Cobb call himself the greatest player who ever lived when he didn’t have the chance to compete with and against the best of the old Negro Leagues?

(L-R), Kent Butler, Daniel Sykes Photo: SherryNetherland

Though Cobb was a racist from Georgia, who had no moral qualms with baseball’s all-white policy, Blessing suggests that that question consumed him to the day he died — some 14 years after Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. By that point, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and other supremely talented black players had emerged as the game’s newest stars.

“Cobb” tells the life story of the Detroit Tigers center fielder, who played from 1905 to 1928, in one long act and four characters, three of whom represent the ballplayer at various stages. The fourth is Oscar Charleston (Jason Delane), an actual center fielder who played in the Negro Leagues from 1915 to 1945. Charleston appears on stage at the most inopportune times to confront Cobb with evidence that he was afraid to compete against black players – for fear of being shown up – and actively sought to keep them out of the majors.

Though the stage at the Chapman is designed to represent a stadium, “Cobb” is more contemplative than action-oriented; few scenes actually take place on the ball field. The only display of athletic prowess is when Daniel Sykes, who plays “The Peach,” the youngest of the three versions of the title character, slides across a corner of the stage, as if he was stealing a base.

(L-R), Kent Butler,Daniel Sykes, Bert Emmett Photo: Sherry Netherland

Aside from segregation, the other issue that Blessing treats at length is the shooting of Cobb’s father by his mother when their son was 18. Amanda Cobb saw a figure outside her bedroom and fired, killing her husband. According to the play, “the Peach” thought she killed him deliberately, to cover up an affair; “Ty,” the middle-aged character, has tried to come to terms with the acquittal on charges of involuntary manslaughter. “Mr. Cobb” – the aging guy — would prefer to forget that horrible night ever happened.

The text does not dwell on the psychological impact of the killing on Ty Cobb, but does suggest that it’s largely the cause of his violent temper.

As Mr. Cobb, Kent Butler handles introspection and bitterness – the two dominant moods of the aging ballplayer – with conviction. Butler’s voice, which sounds like a cross between that of a Southern gentleman and Walter Cronkite, adds an air of authority to his character’s musings. Sykes conveys the energy and ambition of the young Cobb, who has no doubt whatsoever that he’s destined for a great career in professional baseball.

Delane’s measured speech and steady gait render all the more devastating Oscar Charleston’s attacks on the mendacity and stupidity of baseball’s segregationist policies. Similarly, Gregg T. Daniel’s unobtrusive direction allows the case to proceed without unnecessary distractions and unwelcome asides.

“Cobb” is playing at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, through April 21. General admission tickets are $22; $17 for seniors and students. To purchase tickets, go online at www.thegrouprep.com  or call 818-763-5990. Please contact the theater for performance times.

Tom Waldman is co-author of “Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock and Roll From Southern California”, which had its second printing in 2009, and author of “the Best Guide to American Politics, “We All Want to Change the World: Rock and Politics From Elvis to Eminem” and “Not Much Left: The Decline of Liberalism in America”. He currently serves as Director of Media and Communications for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
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Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.

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