Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime

 

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The Indianapolis Clowns

Clowns Of Baseball

The Negro baseball leagues and barnstorming teams specialized in presenting baseball clowns.

Many teams included a clown character on their roster during the 1930's and 40's. The Brooklyn Royal Giants featured Country Brown. Brown would get down on his knees while batting. Brown often made very animated telephone calls to his girlfriend using an invisible phone. The Detroit Stars featured Clown Prince Joe Henry. Willis Jones would read a newspaper while playing shortstop. Pepper Basset played Catcher while sitting in a rocking chair, and was still able to throw out runners stealing second.

There were also novelty teams. The players for the House of David team all wore beards. (This team inspired a scene in the Red Skelton movie Whistling In Brooklyn.)

There were two entire clown teams, both owned at some point by New York promoter Syd Pollock.

His first clown team was the Zulu Cannibal Giants Baseball Tribe. The players wore grass skirts and African tribal war paint. Players for other black teams looked down upon the Cannibals because they thought the team perpetuated the worse negative stereotype. The team was very popular with the public.

Pollock's other team was the Indianapolis Clowns. Most of the players were African American or Cuban, but some Caucasian players also joined over the years.

During their history, the Clowns represented many towns, and had several owners, including Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters. The Clowns became a much-respected team. Oscar Charleston, one of the team's managers, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

The team started barnstorming in the 1929 as the Miami Clowns. (During the early years, they also were known as the Ethiopian Clowns.) Established baseball teams were having trouble attracting attendance during the depression, so the new Miami team added comedy as an extra inducement.

During the same period, white minor league teams featured appearances by Al Schacht, the Clown Prince of Baseball. (Later, when teams had trouble attracting audiences during WWII, Max Patkin began his baseball clown career.)

In When The Game Was Black and White, Nelson Stroch said, "Going to see the Clowns was like going to the movies to see a Laurel and Hardy film. It was great comedy. You knew you were off to a great show and you got it. They played good baseball, of course. But it was the show, from batting practice through the last pitch, that drew the fans."

Jim Cohen, a player from 1946 until 1952, said, "We were something very different and very special. Nobody did what we did. Fans got their money's worth. All the routines and bits kept people in stitches. It was fun for them and fun for us, too. The acts we put on guaranteed that no matter what the local economy was like that particular week, we'd draw. But you must remember that sandwiched in between all the bits and jokes was some very good baseball. Just as nobody doubts the Globetrotters of today are great basketball players, nobody doubted that we were great baseball players."

They realized that clowning brought people into the ballpark, and outstanding playing was what kept them coming back. During one tour, they won thirty-one straight games. They regularly played the powerhouse teams of the Negro American League (NAL), and won. In 1941, they joined the NAL representing Cincinnati. Their record with the league includes three straight NAL Championships. It was while with the NAL that they became a Philadelphia team.

Some of the players participated in some of the pregame comedy routines, but played straight. Many outstanding black athletes who went on to dominate other teams, started with the Clowns. Their most famous alumnus is Hank Aaron who made his professional debut with the team in 1951. (A year later the Clowns sold his contract to the Milwaukee Braves.)

The Clowns was the first professional baseball team to hire a female player. Marcenia "Tony" Stone played second base with the team in 1953. She batted .267. The following year the Clowns sold her contract to the Monarchs. They hired two women replacements: Marie "Peanuts" Johnson, pitcher; and, Connie Morgan, second base. Women also served as umpires for the team.

Part of the team's comedy was based on outstanding baseball skill. Their pitchers could consistently hit the strike zone while throwing under their legs or behind their back. One of their players, Ed Hamman is the only person in history to be able to accurately throw a baseball backhanded the width of the field. Hamman was also recognized as the outstanding pepper ball player. (Pepper ball is quickly passing the ball around the infield as a warm up drill.)

Ed Hamman performed with the Clowns in the 1930's and 1940's. Not all of the Clowns wore make up, but Hamman did wear full whiteface circus style make up. He became part owner of the team in 1952. With Hamman as their owner- manager, they survived the break up of the Negro League caused by the integration of major league teams. He stayed with the Indianapolis Clowns into the 1970's.

Hamman would go into the stands to sell programs, which included a couple of pages of his jokes. This gave him a chance to interact with the fans individually, and for the kids to see a clown up close. Hamman donated much of the revenue from the programs to little leagues and charitable causes.

Another early star of the Clowns was Reese "Goose" Tatum. He was so popular that if he was unable to play, the team would refund the ticket price to anyone wishing to leave a game after it was announced that he wasn't playing that day.

Not all of their stars were baseball players. Spec Bebop, a dwarf, did not play. He entertained the crowd with skits, dialogues, and pantomimes.

King Tut was billed as "The Crown Clown", crown prince of Negro baseball. He also performed skits before the game, between innings, and interacted with the fans in the stands. He either dressed as an Egyptian Pharaoh or wore a tuxedo and top hat.

One of the team's traditions is to perform the classic Clown Dentist routine during the seventh inning stretch. Spec Bebop and King Tut were among the entertainers cast in this act over the years. They also incorporated other standard circus clown routines into their games.

Another team tradition is performing their Shadow Ball routine during the pre-game warm up. Using an invisible ball, the players went through all the throwing, batting, and fielding motions in extreme slow motion with exaggerated facial expressions. This physical comedy routine requires great physical control.

An invisible ball was used in another gag. When a ball was hit to the outfield with a runner on third, the Clowns would let the ball go. An outfielder would make a shadow throw, and suddenly the catcher would produce another ball from inside their uniform to tag the runner out.

Another favorite bit performed by catchers was to block the umpire's view, and then call their own strikes and balls.

For some of their routines, they used oversize props. Sometimes the first baseman used a four-foot long glove. Ed Hamman would use a bat as tall as he was.

The Indianapolis Clowns would hold their spring training in Florida, and had a home schedule in Indianapolis, but their bread and butter were the road games. Their fans eagerly looked forward to their annual visit so they could relive their favorite routines and see what new bits the Clowns came up with.

The Indianapolis Clowns have a unique place in baseball and clown history. By attracting white audiences with their comedy, and winning their respect with their skill, the Clowns helped create an acceptance of black baseball players, which broke down the sport's racial barriers. By combining classic circus style clowning with comedy based on baseball skill, they created a unique entertainment show.

 

Reprinted from The Clown In Times Volume 6 Issue 3

Copyright 2000 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.

Information On The Clown In Times, and other publications, by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson

 

 

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