In 1956, Mickey Mantle won the American League Triple Crown, Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series, and Whitey Ford led the major leagues in Earned Run Average. It was also the year of another World Series championship for the Bronx Bombers, further emphasizing the team’s dominance in the 20-year period after World War II.
The Yankees represented a source of drama beyond ballparks in 1956—Damn Yankees, based on Douglas Wallop’s novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, got a plethora of recognition in the form of Tony Awards for:
- Best Musical
- Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Ray Walston)
- Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Gwen Verdon)
- Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Russ Brown)
- Best Conductor and Musical Director (Hal Hastings)
- Best Choreography (Bob Fosse)
- Best Stage Technician (Harry Green)
Damn Yankees also got a nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Rae Allen).
Ray Walston played the Devil, also known as Applegate, in Damn Yankees. Convincing a hapless Washington Senators fan to sell his soul for the chance to lead the Senators to baseball glory made Applegate an epic character in popular culture. “Mr. Walston was satanic with a wry twist, underplaying a role that could have become villainous and singing wistfully about death and destruction in ‘Those Were the Good Old Days,'” wrote Mel Gussow in his 2001 obituary of Walston for the New York Times. Lewis Funke praised Walston in his analysis of Damn Yankees when the show débuted in 1955: “Authoritative and persuasive, he does not overdo a role that easily could become irritating in less expert hands.”
Gwen Verdon was a theater touchstone, winning four Tony Awards in her career. Married to legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, Vernon had abundant work as a guest star on television, including roles on Webster, Gimme a Break!, M*A*S*H, Fame, Dream On, The Equalizer, and Touched by an Angel. Verdon’s body of work in movies includes The Cotton Club and Cocoon.
Los Angeles Times Theater Writer Don Shirley quoted Times dance critic Lewis Segal in his 2000 obituary of the dancer: “Verdon was to Broadway dance what Ethel Merman was to Broadway song; an archetypal personality whose talents inspired the best from those who created works for her. More than anyone, Fosse continually mined her saucy yet vulnerable stage persona for new facets, using her as a living anthology of show-dance style.”
Shirley wrote, “Her dancing was characterized by her ability to make the most intricate technical choreography look spontaneous and almost carefree.”
Walston and Vernon reprised their roles for the 1958 movie version of Damn Yankees. Tab Hunter took on the role of Joe Hardy, a standout with the Senators, thanks to the machinations of Applegate. Stephen Douglass played the role on Broadway.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 18, 2016.