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Broadway Goes to Bat in New York

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Every Thursday, May through August, cast and crew members from 30 Broadway productions play softball in Central Park. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

One of the Book of Mormon performers is furious. Sweat drips down his face as he punches bitterly at his cellphone and spits out rapid-fire laments for anyone who’ll listen. Someone is. General Butt-****ing Naked, a ruthless warlord in the Broadway show, hears the whines and steps toward him.

“Nah, it’s all fine,” says Derrick Williams, the actor who plays the general. “We did good, really.”

This isn’t backstage drama. This is baseball, or at least the underhand version known as softball. The Book of Mormon co-ed squad, in uniforms that read “God’s favorite team” on the back, just lost to the cast/crew/friends of the show Pippin on a last-inning walk-off home run in Central Park.

“It sucks we lost,” admits Williams, who first played ball here a decade ago with the show Wicked. “But it’s just good to do something with the cast other than hang out at the theater. This bonding does carry over to the stage.”

Outsiders who have gotten their idea of New York from stacks of New Yorker magazines, Woody Allen films, or even Broadway shows can be excused for overlooking what a big sports town it is. And, unlike many cities in the U.S., it’s baseball first here. After all, the Yankees (aka “Manchester United of the U.S.A.”) have won 27 championships. Beyond those Bronx Bombers though, you can see a game in the Big Apple for much less than pro football, basketball, or hockey tickets. And there’s a game most days of the summer.

Book of Mormon is one of 30 teams playing in a different sort of league. For starters, it’s free.

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Actors, stage hands, family, and friends play ball for the Broadway Show League. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

The Broadway Show League is a little-known New York classic that’s been around since 1955. Every Thursday, May through August, cast and crew members (or friends and family) from 30 Broadway productions play at Heckscher Fields, a quartet of wide green fields with a dramatic backdrop of buildings along the south rim of Central Park (just in from West 63rd Street). Unlike big league games, you can go up and talk with players or run the bases afterwards. When I attended there were only 15 or 20 fans watching. Plus there’s a café that sells beer and food behind one backstop fence.

“You should have been here last year,” says Dan Landon, 60, a theater manager and fully uniformed third-base coach for the show Once. “The Jonas brothers were playing. There were tons of young girls at every game.”

He’s happy with the present though. His team just did the unthinkable, which he’s quick to tell me: they beat Rock of Ages, 14-6.

“They’re young, they’re fast, they’re good players. And they hadn’t lost in three years,” Landon tells me (erroneously, it turns out; they lost last year’s championship after a few star players missed the playoffs in August). “Our guys are going to be celebrating that tonight. I mean, what do you expect? They’re Irish troubadours after all … or at least play them on stage.”

Rivalries aren’t just between productions, but between time slots. The 11:30 a.m. games are supposed to be newcomer teams—and more stars play then—while 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. games tend to see more stagehands and pals. (Pippin’s star pitcher, Linda Roland, is actually a wife of a stagehand. “We couldn’t get a hit off her arm,” one Mormon batter confessed.) Williams suggested Rock of Ages supremacy in recent years might be more tied to them refusing to move up to the tougher 1:30 p.m. slot.

This sort of culture only adds interest to the appeal of a free game at Central Park.

“When people think of New York, they think of the Yankees. But they also think of Broadway. This has both,” Williams say. “The cool thing about this is that they can come here and see some of their favorite stars get dirty.”

How to See Baseball in New York

Baseball traditions like a reviving rise from the seats to hear God Bless America during the seventh-inning stretch come at any of the following. The major league Mets and Yankees play 162 games from April to September, with playoffs in October; the Staten Island and Brooklyn teams play just June to August, with playoffs in September.

  • Take the Staten Island Ferry. The Staten Island Yankees, a minor league team, play right on the south end of New York Harbor. All seats are great and start at $16, hot dogs are $3.75, and fireworks are on Saturdays. If you go early, walk along the water. There’s a 911 “Postcard Memorial” just outside the park. If you have a few hours, the east side beaches are classic. And practically empty.

    See the Minor League Staten Island Yankees plays on the south end of New York Harbor. (Photograph by Robert Reid)
    See the minor league Staten Island Yankees team play on the south end of New York Harbor. (Photograph by Robert Reid)
  • Go to Coney Island. Playing in beachside MCU Park off the Boardwalk, the Brooklyn Cyclones became the first baseball team in the borough since the fabled Dodgers packed for Los Angeles in 1958 (read of their glory, and how they were named for pedestrians dodging street cars, in Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer). Tickets start at $19. Go early to take a 110-second ride on the team’s namesake, the 1927 rollercoaster nearby.
  • Meet the Mets. It says a lot of the Mets’ fortunes that a book on their first year is called Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? That said, inexplicably they won the World Series with seven seasons, and once again in 1986. That’s two to the Yankees’ 27, if you’re counting. So go, sing Meet the Mets, and watch for the mascot “Mr. Met” (basically a guy with a big baseball for a head). Don’t say so in the Bronx, but Citi Field in Queens (opened in 2009) is nicer than the new Yankee Stadium, plus food’s better and tickets are much cheaper and easier to get (from about $20). Afterwards, avoid the subway crowd and see a miniature version of the city, built for the World’s Fair of 1964, at the nearby Queens Museum of Art.
  • The darn Yankees. It’s a classic, even if the new stadium in the Bronx is pricey (and hasn’t seen a championship yet). This season is shortstop Derek Jeter’s last, so see #2 play while you can. If you go early, the Grand Concourse’s stretch of best Art Deco survivors are two blocks away, and the free Bronx Museum of the Arts is excellent. If you get fidgety during the game, take a look at that monolithic white apartment building over the scoreboard. Flavor Flav of Public Enemy lived there.

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