When my brother, playwright Eric Simonson, was hired to write Lombardi, it made perfect sense. Growing up in Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers were inescapable, as much a part of the state's cultural DNA as cheese and supper clubs. His latest, Bronx Bombers, about the New York Yankees, seemed less of a natural fit. So I asked him a few questions about the play, due to open in September at Off-Broadway's Primary Stages.
We grew up in Wisconsin with the Milwaukee Brewers. When do you first recall becoming aware of the Yankees as a team?
Eric Simonson: Probably shortly after I started watching the Brewers. I went to their very first game at County Stadium when I was ten. They had just moved from Seattle, where they were the Pilots, and I started becoming interested in Major League Baseball. Interest in the Yankees followed, because, you know, they were the team to beat.
With Lombardi, your experience with the subject was clear. How did you go about finding an entry point to the Yankees story?
ES: There are so many great characters in Yankee lore — pretty much the richest group you could hope for. The trouble was trying to figure out who among the immortals will make the cut. I think it's actually an asset that I didn't grow up a Yankees fan. I get a better perspective that way. The play opens with a particular episode in 1977 involving Yogi Berra, Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson. Of all the possible famous chapters in Yankee history, why did you choose that one?
ES: Well, it's one of the most dramatic incidents in baseball — Billy Martin pulling Reggie Jackson in the middle of an inning. As a playwright you look for moments like that, that have a potential to unfold as explosive dramas. And those individuals are, of course, great character studies, but their relationship is also extremely dynamic and volatile, and it says a lot about teams and stars. I also love the era. The 1970's in New York is a time of change and flux.
Yogi Berra functions as your protagonist. Why him, of all Yankees?
ES: Yogi's great. Everyone knows him. Everyone's familiar with the Yogi-isms, which are fun. But more than anything, he's the face of the Yankees — to me anyway — and he has been for years. The play is in some ways about who the Yankees are and what they may become. Yogi's perfect for that.
Yogi Berra's wife is also a character, the only female character. Did you feel a need to include a woman in this story so dominated by men?
ES: I like to get all sides of the story, so yeah, that's part of it. But I also like looking at the couple dynamic in plays. I did that with Lombardi and the character of Marie. She and Vince had a very contentious relationship. Carmen and Yogi Berra's relationship is completely different, but no less compelling. They're very different people, yet inseparable. A team within a team.