OFF BEAT

OFFBEAT: Wellman name equally famed for Baseball, as well as Star Plaza Theatre stage

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-04-14T00:00:00Z OFFBEAT: Wellman name equally famed for Baseball, as well as Star Plaza Theatre stageBy Philip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

Despite the month's bumpy weather, baseball season is now in full swing, with equally bumpy wins and losses for both the Chicago Cubs and White Sox.

A mention of the hopeful, fresh start to a new baseball season always reminds me of the favorite childhood tale of "Casey at the Bat." It was a staple used to teach reading in elementary schools, including while I was in grade school in the early 1970s.

But what I think of as a story, is really based on a poem/ballad written and published June 3, 1888 by Ernest Thayer, a friend of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who was hired by the media mogul as a humor columnist for his newspaper The San Francisco Examiner. "Casey" was his final work, though he didn't die until 1940 at age 77.

All these years later, two mysteries still remain about the poem: who did Thayer use as the inspirations for Casey and the burg of Mudville, as detailed in the prose.

(Though Thayer would never commit to an answer, it's always been believed late 1880s Boston star Mike "King" Kelly is the boastful personality being paid tribute to, since Thayer would fill in as a San Francisco Examiner baseball reporter in the off-season of 1887 covering exhibition games featuring Kelly.)

It wasn't until 1946, when Walt Disney decided to bring the character and poem of Casey to life as an animated big screen feature, that baseball's biggest ego found a new generation of fans.

This was the same time that baseball was becoming more popular to mainstreams than ever before.

This weekend, the new film "42" by Legendary Pictures opens in theaters, bringing the Jackie Robinson story to a new generation, sharing the journey of the African-American athlete who integrated Major League Baseball joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Actor Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson, who died in 1972 at age 53, and Harrison Ford plays baseball executive Branch Rickey. 

Bill Wellman, our region's entertainment icon who started both Bridge VU Theater in Valparaiso and then helped launch Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, talked to me last week about his own "brotherly" connection to baseball and The Dodgers.

"Phil: After talking to my grandson Guy Wellman III, I thought you might enjoy something about the Dodgers," Wellman said.

"With the Jackie Robinson movie coming out this weekend, I just purchased on eBay a copy of the Life magazine from April 1948. There are 154 minor league baseball players on the cover and my brother Guy Wellman Jr. was one of them. He will be reaching for his 91st birthday on July 30. He attended three consecutive years of going to spring training at Vero Beach during the same time Jackie Robinson was in his heyday with the Dodgers. My brother also ran every one of their Baseball Fantasy Camps for the Dodgers and they named a parking lot after him. At 89-years-of age, they hired him to come to spring training in Arizona to teach 18 of their rookies how Dodger baseball was taught to him in 1948. He played inter squad games against Jackie Robinson and back in 1950, he was in Triple AAA with St. Paul when the entire team watched the original movie about Jackie."

Thank you for sharing with readers. And what Bill neglected to mention is his brother Guy, who graduated from Indiana University, was even inducted into the Valparaiso University Hall of Fame in 1999 for coaching the 1950 undefeated football team and during his Dodger days (after his five seasons playing catcher), was active in the signing of names like Steve Garvey, Frank Howard, Geoff Zahn and Ted Sizemore.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or (219) 852-4327.

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