Double Play

Billy Crystal's one-man Broadway show, 700 Sundays, is both an intimate memoir of growing up in the '50s and '60s--and a lesson in how sports unites us all
January 10, 2005

The most popular play now on Broadway is a superb piece of sportswriting. Billy Crystal's one-man show, 700 Sundays, is the story of a kid from Long Island and his relationship with his baseball-loving father, Jack. You'll laugh, you'll cry--you'll get Billy's oral history as an infielder on scholarship at a college (Marshall) that did not have a baseball team, in a state (West Virginia) where Crystal was, in his memory, the only Jew.

Crystal is drawing men to the theater in droves--the show is sold out for the remainder of its three-month run--because much of his material was culled from fields, gyms and locker rooms. At an SRO matinee I saw last week with my mother and father, the stranger to my right, I learned at intermission, once worked as a gardener for Bart Giamatti, the former baseball commissioner.

As a kid, my father got me reading The New Yorker by pointing me toward pieces that ran under the heading "The Sporting Scene." Crystal employs a similar trick, using his sporting life subversively, to create intimacy with his audience. Crystal, a true fan, understands that sports embodies life's joys and sorrows. He gets that sports comfort people. (In When Harry Met Sally his character goes to a Giants football game with a friend and pours out his heart about his wife's leaving him, interrupting himself to do the wave.) When the Red Sox finally beat the Yankees, when Dale Earnhardt died, when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, strangers spoke and Earth, for a couple revolutions, anyway, was a friendlier place.

Crystal tells about trying out for his Long Beach, Long Island, high school basketball team as a junior. His father had just died, collapsing after nailing a spare in his weekly bowling game. When Billy flopped at his tryout, the coach asked about things at home, and when he found out, he kept the little guard when he could have cut him. "It remains the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me," Crystal says.

One of Crystal's best scenes has George W. Bush at Yankee Stadium for Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, seven weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. Crystal praises the honorary called strike the President threw from the Stadium mound. But later, when Bush is sitting with Crystal, Regis Philbin and Henry Kissinger, the actor grows tired of the overly chatty President's incessant interruptions: "Billy C., Billy C., Billy C.!" Crystal is left wondering if 911 might also be Bush's SAT score. The Diamondbacks beat the Yankees that year, four games to three. Yep, in one series, the Yankees lost four times. Crystal remembers his elderly mother's response: "Well, that'll never happen again." For a punchline, he just shrugs. In the last row of the Broadhurst Theater's upper deck, Bart's old gardener and I cracked up.

The name-dropping in 700 Sundays is always purposeful. Crystal mentions Lew Alcindor to tell us that his Long Beach team had to play Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High, which was even better than Power Memorial, Alcindor's Manhattan school. All the while, behind Crystal, blown up big, is a yellowed sports-page clipping about the mismatch. If you want to create a bond with a theater full of strangers, play your personal highlight tape but include some bloopers. Along the way you'll define who you were and who you are. When Crystal, who is 57, mocks today's steroid users and basketball brawlers, he's standing up for his era, and for little guys everywhere.

Crystal has been down the sports road before: In old bits he did a dead-on Ali and Cosell, and he played an NBA referee in Forget Paris. This time he's telling a father-son love story shot on location at Yankee Stadium, backed by a jazz score. Crystal shows the Super 8 footage his father, a jazz impresario, shot at the Stadium in 1953, at Crystal's first game, in seats that belonged to Louis Armstrong. Suddenly a young Mickey Mantle fills the frame. (Nearly a half-century later Crystal directed 61*, about Roger Maris's and Mantle's epic 1961 season.) When Jack Crystal dies, an aunt asks, "Who's going to take Billy to the baseball games now?"

Crystal's father played baseball for St. John's in the '30s, and he taught Billy how to hit the curve on Sunday afternoons, all summer long, in the crisp "World Series weather," right through the first flurries of December. Crystal figures he had 700 good Sundays with his father.

At the end of the show my own father and mother and everybody else stood for a curtain call. The scrappy little utility man popped out from his stage Long Beach home to suggest that we all savor our Sundays before there were none left. As the house lights came up, I tried to hide my eyes from my parents, but they know my moves too well.

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