Sports Collectors Digest: Douglass Wallop

By Marty Appel

I noticed recently that a new version of Damn Yankees was back on the stage in New York. It’s a terrific play that never seems to grow tired, and it gets revived every 15 years or so and finds new audiences.

In the ‘90s, when I was doing PR for Topps, I was involved in a special relationship with the version of the show out at the time, the one which starred Victor Garber as “Applegate” (the devil), and later Jerry Lewis, making his Broadway debut. We did a set of trading cards for the cast, which were sold in the theater for $5 a pack, and they were quite a hit, apart from being so unique at a Broadway souvenir stand. When Jerry Lewis joined the cast, we did an additional card, provided free to those who bought the pack. Jerry loved his bubble gum card, and when he would tour with the show after its Broadway run, he would occasionally call me to see if he could get more cards. It was an absolute kick to hear his voice on the phone.

One day I had a conversation with him about the origins of the play. He did know that its first version had opened on Broadway in 1955, starring Gwen Verdon, Ray Walston, and Stephen Douglass as Joe Hardy. (He thought it was Tab Hunter, who played Hardy in the film version in 1958).

He did not know that the play was based on a book called “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.”

Yes, the most successful baseball play first began as a book. It was written by a genuine Washington Senators fan, bemoaning the annual ritual of seeing the Yankees win. Borrowing on a classic German tale about someone selling his soul to the devil in exchange for an immediate favor (only to regret it deeply when the time to move on had arrived), Douglass Wallop began to create the story of Joe Boyd, a middle-aged fan, dreaming that he be given youth and strength, show up at the Senators clubhouse, and lead them to glory as Joe Hardy, a phenom out of Hannibal, Mo.

John Douglass Wallop was indeed a terrific baseball fan, and he did love his Senators, sad though they were.

“It is likely that Joe Hardy was based on my grandfather,” wrote Mark Gauvreau Judge in his 2003 book, “Damn Senators,” a book largely about Joe Judge, who played for Washington from 1915-1932, (lifetime .298 hitter), and was first baseman for their only pennant winning season in 1924. “As a young man in the late 1940s,” he wrote, “Douglass Wallop dated Joe Judge’s daughter, my Aunt Dorothy. She recalls that Wallop ‘was steeped in Senators history,’ spending hours at the house in Chevy Chase exchanging stories with Joe. While she doesn’t think Joe Judge was the actual model for Joe Hardy, my father always felt differently; he thought that there could be no question about it.

“In the movie, Joe Hardy lives in Chevy Chase. As the story begins, we see him sitting in his living room and talking back to the Senators, ghostly figures on his flickering television screen, grousing about their lousy fielding and giving them tips on how to play the game – indeed, doing what Joe Judge was doing when Wallop used to come over to the house.”

Wallop had not written baseball to this point, despite his budding career as a journalist and novelist. When he was 28, shortly after World War II, he took dictation from General Eisenhower who was writing “Crusade in Europe.” Wallop had graduated from the University of Maryland and gone to work for UPI, AP and NBC. He wrote one novel before “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,” a book called “Night Light.”

W.W. Norton published “The Year…” in 1954, with a cover drawn by legendary sports cartoonist Willard Mullin, but it was set in 1958. By then, in reality, the Yankees had won every pennant from 1949-58 except for ’54, the year the book was issued. The Senators of course, had won nothing, their last pennant coming in 1933.

The book was well received and optioned for a play almost at once. Wallop had a hand in doing the script along with theater legend George Abbot, with music and lyrics crafted by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. It was Bob Fosse’s first Broadway hit as a choreographer, and it ran for 1,019 performances.

It went from book (1954) to play (1955) to movie (1958) with remarkable speed, and soon everyone knew the story and could sing the music, including “(You Gotta Have) Heart!” which the 1969 champion Mets would perform on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The story of selling one’s soul to the devil was indeed an old German tale, and it was part of our cultural awareness in the 20th century through a 1926 silent film, “Faust,” and then a story by Stephen Vincent Benet in 1937, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Benet’s inspiration had been Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” written a century before.

Carrying the successful association with “Damn Yankees” back into the world of fiction, Wallop continued to produce novels (he wrote 13 in all), but none revisited the baseball theme. But in 1969, pro baseball’s centennial, Norton published his “Baseball: An Informal History,” a 263-page journey through the game’s origins to modern times. It was a light book, compared to the more serious histories being produced by Harold Seymour and David Voigt, but engaging and entertaining. The book jacket says, “Privately, he is a {baseball} addict. He knows Christy Mathewson as well as Dennis McLain, Napoleon Lajoie as well as Maury Wills, Bill Veeck, Ty Cobb, a double steal and the double deal. His private addition is now a public blessing.”

In narrating the game’s history, Wallop speaks of the Yankees’ success by stating, “It is tempting to note that the New York Yankees dynasty dominated baseball for the better part of four decades, reserve clause or no, and it is also worth observing that wealth alone does not guarantee pennants. Yet it does seem likely, as the owners contend, that if the reserve clause were outlawed and all the peons went free, baseball as we have known it would be finished, and from all indications there are many in the country who would view its demise with regret.”

Not a word about signing a free agent named Joe Hardy who could hit the ball a mile.

Wallop died at 65 in 1985, survived by his wife Lucille Fletcher, a playwright, and two brothers who both practiced medicine in Maryland. A nephew, who bears his name, is himself a physician in Maryland today.

Douglass Wallop is little remembered today as a sportswriter, but wrote what could arguably be called the most successful baseball novel in history, which led to the most successful baseball play in history. Not a bad legacy at all.