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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Civic Theatre examines the story of Jackie Robinson in ‘National Pastime’

By Ed Condran For The Spokesman-Review

Buck O’Neil nailed it while sitting in the KXLY studio in 2003 when he reminisced about Jackie Robinson breaking major league baseball’s color line in 1947.

“When (Brooklyn Dodgers President) Branch (Rickey) signed Jackie to that contract, that was the beginning of the civil rights movement,” O’Neil said

O’Neil, who became the first African-American coach in the major leagues, experienced the racial divide first hand and understood Robinson’s incredible story as well as anyone.

“Buck O’Neill was like a holy man,” Spokane Civic Theatre’s Playwright-in-Residence Bryan Harnetiaux said. “He said that Jackie started the civil rights movement when he came to Spokane. There was no one like Buck.”

The Negro League star was a special guest when Harnetiaux’s play “National Pastime” was produced by Spokane’s Onyx Theater Troupe in 2003. However, “National Pastime” was written for Spokane Civic Theatre in 1997. Harnetiaux was working on another project at that time but after reading Arnold Rampersad’s compelling “Jackie Robinson: A Biography,” all was scrapped.

Harnetiaux was inspired to write a play about Robinson’s unparalleled experience. “I asked the Civic’s artistic director at the time, Jack Phillips, if I could focus on a play about Robinson and after he said yes, and I immediately worked on the first draft,” Harnetiaux said. “I was embarrassed as a lawyer and a baseball fan that I didn’t know that much about Robinson’s story.”

After extensive research, Harnetiaux initially focused on the first meeting between Rickey and Robinson. “The crucible of the play is when Rickey meets Jackie and plays this vile role in seeing how much Jackie could tolerate,” Harnetiaux said. “It was a very dangerous meeting that changed everything.”

The deep play, which debuted at Civic in 1998, covers the nuances of the fascinating story about Robinson. “National Pastime,” which runs Friday through April 23, focuses on Robinson’s superhuman tolerance while dealing with unbridled hatred from white fans, the opposition and even some teammates. “Jackie Robinson should be up there on Mount Rushmore for what he went through,” Harnetiaux said. “It’s hard to imagine anyone else handling all of that. Jackie was a very special person.”

Robinson, who played for the Dodgers from 1947-56, also was one of the most dominant players of his era, an extraordinary feat given white peers Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle simply had to show up at the ballpark and perform without being the subject of relentless and misguided hatred.

“It’s fascinating how together, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey overcame the racist culture in baseball and in the country,” Harnetiaux said. “I don’t think people realize that it was against all odds and they did it.”

Harnetiaux accomplishes a great deal with much ground to cover. The play looks at the years of Robinson’s storied life and there’s a number of key characters included in “National Pastime.”

“I thought I knew the Jackie Robinson story but I didn’t know about Wendell Smith and his impact,” “National Pastime” director Kimberly Ridgeway said.

Smith, an African American sports journalist, pushed Rickey to consider Robinson as a potential major leaguer.

Ridgeway learned about other folks close to Robinson who have slipped through the cracks of history, such as his mother. Harnetiaux wanted a Black woman to direct the show, and connected with Ridgeway. “Bryan thought that I would be an asset since Jackie was so close with his wife, Rachel, and his mother,” Ridgeway said.

Ridgeway, 48, landed the gig and agreed to leave her Oakland home to spend a month in Spokane. “It’s been fantastic,” Ridgeway said. “It’s been great getting to know Spokane and I’ve enjoyed being part of this fascinating play, about a legend, who changed the course of American history. Without Bryan reaching out to me I would have never learned about Pee Wee Reese and Dixie Walker.

The colorfully named ballplayers were Dodgers but they were very different. The latter prepared a petition for players to sign who opposed Robinson playing. The former embraced Robinson and eased some of the tension .

After experiencing the play and digesting what Robinson endured it’s not difficult to understand why the trailblazer died at 53. However, his wife is still alive at 100.

“The unimaginable stress undoubtedly shortened Jackie’s life,” Harnetiaux said. “It’s amazing that Rachel is still with us.”

“National Pastime” is a work close to Harnetiaux’s heart. “I’ve written over 40 plays but this was the play that I was most compelled to write,” Harnetiaux said. “This is such an important story that everyone should know.”

Numbers are a huge part of the game of baseball and the number 75 looms large for the run of “National Pastime.” The play will commence Friday within the 75th anniversary year of Robinson breaking the color line. The Spokane Civic Theater and Harnetiaux turn 75 in 2023.

“How great is that,” Ridgeway said. “It’s kismet. On top of all of that, the actors have kicked it up a notch since we’re so close to opening night. We can all feel how special this is all going to be.”