In neighborhoods across the world this week many cultures will be celebrating Carnival. From beads and beignets in New Orleans to dancing in the streets of Brazil, they’ll be laughter, music and candy. In our little corner of the world there are clowns… lots and lots of clowns.
In honor of Rose Monday we thought we’d share a few clowns of the game with you. When it comes to clowning around it seems the pitchers have cornered the market.
The Clown Prince of Baseball
The original clown prince of baseball was so-named by his colleagues in the game. Al Schacht was a pitcher and third base coach for the Washington Senators in the early 1920s. Along with fellow coach Nick Altrock, they created a comedy routine mimicking players and coaches in the league. Though rumored to have had a falling out early on, the comedy duo continued their routine for over a decade before Schacht headed to Boston to become a solo entertainer. He would tour in 110 minor league cities in 1939.
Schacht wrote Clowning Through Baseball in 1941 and would go on to write three other baseball-centric autobiographical titles in ’44, ’45 and ’54. During the 2nd World War, in the winter of 1950, Schacht entertained the troops, bringing his routine into military hospitals in Germany.
Schact’s replacement was Jackie Price. A shortstop out of Cleveland, Price loved to spend time upside down. He had a routine that included standing on his head as well as being suspended upside down while taking BP. For a short time, Price teamed up with the man who would take his place as the third Clown Prince of Baseball, Max Paktin.
Max Paktin was the third, and arguably best-known, Clown Prince. He started out after a mock protest of a Joe DiMaggio homer off him as a pitcher. The game took place in Hawaii in 1944 with Paktin on the mound for the Navy and DiMaggio at bat for the Army Air Force.
Patkin commanded from $900-$1,500 per show and performed with the comedy legends including Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Groucho Marx. He started as a professional clown in 1946. In the 1940s he worked for legendary baseball promotional guru, and Indians owner, Bill Veeck. When Veeck sold the team in ’49, Paktin took his show on the road traveling 100,000 miles/summer to minor league parks in the US and Canada for 52 straight seasons making more than 4,000 career appearances. Patkin also spent several years with the Harlem Globetrotters, was in the film Bull Durham doing his routine and had his uniform retired to Cooperstown.
When Paktin began his career the color divide still existed in baseball. That created two unique clown-inspired acts in the sport. Paktin and Price teamed up to tour with the short-lived traveling All-Stars - headed up by Feller and Paige. There was also the Indianapolis Clowns.
Bob Fellar All Stars v. Satchel Paige All Stars
The year before the color line fell in the US, when Satchel Paige was already 40 years old, he and future teammate Bob Feller, spent the end of the ‘46 season on a month-long exhibition tour. Paige’s team included negro league players like Buck O’Neil and Hilton Smith while Feller called on his friends from the MLB including Stan Musial and Phil Rizzuto. 22 games were played in a month’s time across the US. It was a rare opportunity to see interracial play until the color barrier fell the following season. Bob Feller said, “It was a racial rivalry, but we were very friendly.” According to Feller there was not much interaction between the teams and, at its core, it was merely a money-making opportunity for all involved.
Along for the ride that month were Max Paktin and Jackie Price. The performed both pre-game and between innings. Price stuck to his favorite position, inverted. He hung by one leg while hitting balls to the outfield for pre-game and, according to Feller, would drive around the outfield in a jeep catching fly balls when the team was running late. “He was the best entertainer I ever saw,” Feller said.
The Indianapolis Clowns
Begun in the 1930s as a negro league team, the Clowns were the last team in the league to disband, continuing to play exhibition games into the 1980s. Their combination of show business and baseball earned them the title of the Harlem Globetrotters of Baseball. While fielding a baseball team within the league in the 1940s, there were a few men who toured with comic acts. When baseball integrated, the clowns continued to take the act on the road through the 1960s. The Clowns played exhibition games into the 1980s, but as a humorous sideshow rather than a competitive sport, until eventually disbanding in 1989.
The movie Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings, starring Richard Pryer, James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams was loosely based on the Clowns and came from a book of the same title.
The Modern Era of Clowning
Joe Warden pitched one season in the major leagues before getting hurt. He turned his sense of humor, and friendships in the game, into a second career. Unlike his predecessors, rather than honing his act on the field, he saves his antics for the players and staff when they can truly enjoy the show.
First making a name for himself on ESPN’s Cold Pizza as an analyst, he did his act for a while in the Golden Baseball League and now travels the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association circuit appearing at old-timer games and golf outings around the US. He also is a regular at Cooperstown events, including the Hall of Fame Classic.
He calls himself both an emcee and host more than a performer and he says he relies on some of Patkin’s old tricks. He has a few tricks of his own however, like bringing his water gun into the press box.
A personal part of his act started in 1989 when his wife got him a Baseball Encyclopedia for Christmas. He always had it on the road with him, to help with material for his act. To help settle a dispute about player stats one day he brought the book into the hospitality room of a golf event. After settling the dispute he asked for the guys to sign the book by their names. This began a tradition of sorts and he now has over 1,200 signatures.
Since 2004, Myron Noodleman has toured minor league ballparks as the self-titled Clown Prince of Baseball. He is a professional clown whose shtick includes dressing as a nerd. He began working the routine in the 1980s before attended the 1994 Winter Meetings with an agent in tow. Every summer he performs his nerd act at 60-70 ballparks in “Nerd Night” promotions. Unlike the true Clown Princes of Baseball he is neither a player nor does he perform his act during the games. He is strictly between-inning entertainment. In these ways he is far more like his mascot-cladded predecessors the San Diego Chicken and Philly Phanatic who, though created for major league teams, have also toured minor league parks. This would also put him in direct billing competition with another predecessor, Morganna The Kissing Bandit.
Morganna performed at minor league parks from the 1970s through the 1990s. Called the Grand Dame of Baseball by some, her routine consisted of rushing players from the stands to steal a kiss. Her career began on a “dirty-double dare” from a friend. In 1969, she was strictly unofficial in her on-field capacity – there merely as a life-long fan of the game. Following her stolen kiss from Pete Rose she was dubbed the kissing bandit by a Cincinnati sports writer. By 1990, she had stolen more than 37 major league cheek smooches. Always respectful of the men’s real life women, and because it was more sanitary, she restricted her impulse kisses to the side of men’s faces and always got permission first. In fact she met her own husband, an accountant, at the World Series.
Morganna went on to create a lucrative career from those kisses. She was invited to perform at minor league parks where her attendance consistently doubled averages and eventually becoming a part owner in a minor league club. She was endorsed by a peanut company, had her own line of bubble gum baseball cards and is recognized in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In modern time, the closest we’ve seen to Schacht’s original act is performed by none other than Will Ferrell. In 2015 Ferrell got into the game. During spring training in the Cactus League he hung out with 10 teams in one day. He pitched for the Dodgers, hit a homer for the A's and coached 3rd for the Cubs. All of it was not only in good fun, but for a good cause, raising awareness and funding for cancer research.
No matter what your preference - clowns, bandits, or baller wanna be’s doing their part for humanity - there is no doubt that well-timed comedy and baseball belong together.