Francois Battiste Becomes Reggie Jackson in Bronx Bombers

News hit this week that the Bronx Bombers which just opened up on Broadway on February 6, is closing. It’s another sad chapter in the Yankees’ belt, coming days after Jeter announced his retirement.

Freezing moments in time, the Broadway show recounts the history of the New York Yankees through the eyes of Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, played by actor Peter Scolari, and wife Carmen, played by actress Tracy Shayne.  For sports fans, the story brings back larger than life greats who have long since departed from this world.  Babe Ruth played by CJ Wilson, Joe DiMaggio played by Chris Henry Coffey, Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs) and Reggie Jackson are among those who are portrayed at the Circle in the Square Theater.  

Witnessing these wonderful actors work their craft, I felt like a kid watching a baseball game with my grandfather long ago.  The actor that stood out to me the most was Francois Battiste, who played Reggie Jackson and Elston Howard.  Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with him about his role and the history that is encapsulated within the play.  His Reggie Jackson is on point and razor sharp.

“It started with the script. I read it and was like [Wow, I really gotta get into this guy,” said Battiste. “So, I read everything that I could find out on this guy in interviews, I read his autobiography and found everything that I could find out about this guy. I spoke to individuals who saw him play and spoke to individuals who had interactions with him and I tried to figure him out that way. I try to pick up a few mannerism and a couple vocal inflections and how he carried himself around 77 or 78 as far as his gait and so forth. But the rest came from the script.”

For those that don’t know, Reggie Jackson’s persona and outspokenness is the foundation upon which many outspoken contemporary athletes stand today. I asked him how he got into character from an emotional standpoint. The way he stood, the way he spoke-it was Mr. October all day.

“You maintain yourself within the role and when that curtain goes up and you step on that hardwood floor it’s all in,” he explained. “No matter how good of an actor you are, you still have to immerse yourself in the situation.  You have to throw away what you think are his characteristics and become the man in the moment. It’s all in. The emotions that I feel in that time are real. There’s no falsity to that. With regards to the buckle, Willie Randolph came in last week and he said, “Man, I know Reggie. I played with Reggie. You were Reggie, even down to what you did with your buckle.’ Man, I gotta say, I didn’t know anything about Reggie or how he handled his buckle or anything like that. That just happened. I had no idea Reggie had those mannerisms. Certain things kind of fall into place, man. It means a lot that I’m getting the stamp of approval from people who played with him, people that know him and people who hired him. The Yankees’ brass came the other day and said positive things to say, not only in regards to me, but all the players. It’s thrilling to know that we’re doing what we love and people are receptive to it. These are real people.”

Reggie Jackson was a larger than life character who would help lead the New York Yankees to a World Series in 1977 with a Game 6 performance in which he hit three homers. He was the man. But a player who some would say was just as good gets very little publicity in real life. But Bronx Bombers puts him front and center.  That man is Elston Howard, who Battiste also plays with skill.

“Elston Howard was the first Yankee of color and he came to them in 1955. He’s just a remarkable individual who we don’t know enough about,” explained Battiste. “I grew up loving baseball yet I knew nothing about Elston Howard.   A lot of people don’t know enough about him.  He started to play in 1955, which was eight years after Jackie Robinson came into the league with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He has hall of fame numbers. He had to play behind Yogi Berra for four or five years before he was given the opportunity to catch.  He was an incredible individual who endured everything that Jackie Robinson endured, and in some cases more because he didn’t have an advocate like Branch Rickey fighting for him. This is a guy who had to go down to spring training and find his own lodging because he could not be in the hotel with the white players. He didn’t do that for one season, but for a number of seasons. He was a wonderful man and more people need to know about him.  The hall of fame voters need to vote him in. He’s documented as making nine all-star game appearances, but it’s actually 12. For three years Elston is documented as being in two all-star games.  There was another all-star game where the funds going to the pension of other players. Derek Jeter, who is masterfully played by Christopher Jackson, said to Elston maybe Reggie owes you something. Because you were so quiet he was able to be so loud.”

Elston Howard’s story is but one of the many stories in the continuity of what some call the greatest sports franchise in sports. Yankee history is filled with characters and titles the likes of which no franchise can match. Though the reviews for Bronx Bombers have been mixed, I can honestly say I enjoyed it very much.

The feelings of nostalgia inherent in the subject matter, the way each character represented uniquely different points in Yankees history, and the manner in which they all interacted throughout the play made the offering a complete joy to watch.

 On Thursday, the New York Times reported the show will end its short run in March. I don’t believe it’s closing because it was a bad play.  I believe Broadway audiences just don’t get shows about sports. With Bronx Bombers being the most recent of three plays written and directed by Eric Simonson and produced by Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, their first play “Lombardi” closed after receiving a Tony nomination in 2011 and Magic/Bird closed a month after opening in 2012.