By Don Leavitt
Damn Yankees was a true collaboration. Following the huge success of their previous work together, three professionals decided to repeat the success by sticking to a now proven formula. In the earlier production, George Abbott, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross had taken a novel entitled 7 1/2 Cents, and with the help of its author, Richard Bissell, turned it into a Broadway musical called The Pajama Game. By joining up with author Douglass Wallop, Abbott, Adler and Ross hoped the new musical would be as big a hit as The Pajama Game had been.
They weren’t disappointed. Based on Wallop’s novel, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, Damn Yankees opened in New York on May 5, 1955, to pronounced success. After 1,019 performances, the original production closed October 12, 1957. It was immediately followed by a national tour and a film version from Warner Bros. in 1958. In 1994, the play was revived on Broadway in a production that featured comedy legend Jerry Lewis in a leading role.
The premise of Wallop’s novel was simple. There was a time when the Yankees won the baseball pennant almost every year. From 1949 to 1958, the Bronx team won the American League pennant nine times. While it seemed the Yankees couldn’t lose, it seemed the Washington Senators couldn’t win. The Senators, a team that disappeared from the American League in 1960, were usually terrible. To win against the Yankees, especially in a pennant race, the Senators would have needed supernatural help. And that is what Wallop gave them: a fan willing to sell his soul to the devil to see his favorite team beat the Yankees.
It sounded like a promising story: romance, intrigue, souls in peril, and America’s favorite pastime, baseball. But absolutely no one believed the show would be a success. For nearly sixty years, playwrights and producers had tried to turn the national sport into Broadway theatre, but they invariably failed. No play on Broadway about baseball had been a success. Damn Yankees was not only a tremendous success for the four collaborators, but it also broke a long standing jinx against baseball plays on Broadway.
Douglass Wallop was a devoted and frustrated fan of his hometown team, the Senators. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1920, Wallop graduated from the University of Maryland and began a career as a journalist. Because of his exceptional skill at short-hand, he was commissioned in 1948 to record General Dwight Eisenhower’s memoirs from the general’s dictation. His own first novel was published in 1953, and was soon followed by a second novel, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which he wrote as a personal protest to the poor record of the Senators. After helping write the musical version of his baseball novel, Wallop wrote until his death in 1985, completing nine more novels; each novel was written in shorthand, never on a typewriter.
Nicknamed “the old Master” by his comrades on Broadway, George Abbott was a true showman. He began his career as an actor, and between 1913 and 1934 he appeared in several productions. He later became famous as a playwright, director, and producer, contributing in some way to nearly a hundred Broadway productions. His name can be found in the credits of some of Broadway’s biggest shows, including On Your Toes (1934), Pal Joey (1940), Sweet Charity (1942), and Damn Yankees (1955 and 1994). The winner of a Pulitzer prize in 1960 and several Tony awards, Abbott returned at age 106 to oversee the revival of Damn Yankees in 1994. He died a year later at age 107.
Richard Adler was born in New York in 1921. He graduated from the University of North Carolina, where he studied playwriting; served in the navy during world War II; and, after a brief career in marketing, quit to devote himself exclusively to song-writing. He teamed with Jerry Ross, and the two wrote music for several productions of stage, television, and film before making their fortunes with their two biggest hits, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. Adler also composed several orchestral numbers; his 1980 symphonic composition, “Yellowstone Overture,” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Jerry Ross died unexpectedly at age 30, shortly after achieving his greatest success with The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. Born Jerold Rosenberg in 1926, Ross made a name for himself as an actor and singer by age thirteen. In his late teens, he turned to song writing, and had considerable success before meeting Richard Adler and forming their famous team. For his achievements, Ross won two Tony awards, the Drama Critics Award, and the Antoinette Perry Award. By the time of his death, Jerry Ross had scored with two huge Broadway hits, and had written more than 250 popular American songs.