Opera and Baseball

By Tim Wiles

Cooperstown is home not just to the Hall of Fame, but also to several other “big league” tourist attractions, including the 37-year-old Glimmerglass Festival, which presents opera and musical theatre at the north end of Otsego Lake.

The latest collaboration between Glimmerglass and the Hall of Fame is a short musical program called “Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience,” being presented Thursdays in the Bullpen Theatre here at The Hall – with the final show on Aug. 23 at 2 p.m.

“Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience,” being presented Thursdays in the Bullpen Theatre here at The Hall – with the final show on Aug. 23 at 2 p.m. (Milo Stewart, Jr./NBHOF Library)

The program consists of seven songs with a baseball theme, sung wonderfully by four of the Festival’s African-American singers. Unifying the songs is a script which sketches the outline of African-American baseball history, beginning in 1865 and running right up into the present day.

The Singers include baritone Amos Nomnabo, from Queensland, South Africa; tenor Chase Taylor, from Durham, N.C.; bass baritone Phillip Gay of Beaumont, Texas; and baritones Allan Washington, of Indianapolis, and Thomas Cannon, of New Orleans, who take the same part in alternate weeks. Each is costumed in a baseball uniform with “Hall of Fame” emblazoned across the front. They are ably accompanied on piano by Coach Accompanist Katherine Kozak of Cleveland, Ohio.

The show was developed by Debra Dickinson of Houston, Acting and Movement Instructor for the Young Artists Program at Glimmerglass, and Dennis Robinson, one of the Young Artists Stage Directors and an Assistant Director for “Lost In the Stars,” an opera by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson which deals with apartheid in South Africa. The baseball music program deals with our own history of legal and enforced segregation in baseball’s Negro Leagues.

As sad as that history can be, the program itself is exuberant and joyful, as these gifted singers take us through seven songs, each preceded by just enough commentary to set the scene. Dickinson and Robinson began early this summer by visiting the Hall’s Library, reviewing the hundreds of pieces of sheet music in the collection and selecting those which fit their story musically and/or thematically. After five weeks of practice, the show debuted just after Hall of Fame Weekend.

The first three songs, “Brother Noah Gave Out Checks For Rain, (1907), “Pickaninny Rose,” (1924), and “Little Puff of Smoke—Good Night,” (1910) represent the reconstruction era, when portrayals of Black culture were often cartoonish and stereotypical. Despite that potential handicap, the music is delivered with style and grace. The last song was one of several written by Guy Harris “Doc” White, a multitalented pitcher for the White Sox and Phillies from 1901-13.

The next two songs deal with the integration era, which began in 1947, with the debut of Jackie Robinson. The group delivers a brilliant version of “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit that Ball,” the 1949 song by Count Basie and Buddy Johnson. The next piece is “Move over Babe, Here Comes Henry,” written in 1974 by legendary baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell. Phillip Gay then goes into an a cappella version of the National Anthem, which brings the fans to their feet and brings goosebumps to them as well – later in the song his compatriots join in.

The 20-minute program concludes with “Heart,” by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, from the 1955 musical “Damn Yankees.”

Make sure to join us in the Bullpen Theater next Thursday!

Tim Wiles is the director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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