Tag Archives: Indianapolis Clowns

Birmingham Sam— The Last Great Star of the Indianapolis Clowns

9 May

I was sad to learn that “Birmingham” Sam Brison passed away in April.  below is an earlier post about his career with the Indianapolis Clowns:

Richard “King Tut” King’s illness, which led to his retirement in the spring of 1959, left a void with the Indianapolis Clowns— James “Nature Boy” Williams, was popular, but the barnstormers needed someone with Tut’s charisma.  They finally found him in 1962; his name was Sam Brison

The St. Petersburg Times described one of his early appearances:

“A limber fellow raced across the diamond in an Indianapolis Clowns uniform and bowed in the direction of teammate first baseman extraordinary Nature boy Williams.  Minutes later fans were acclaiming a new star…he shows signs of becoming one of the all-time greats”

Given his resemblance to King Tut; Clowns owner Syd Pollock originally billed Brison “King Tut Jr.”  The excellent book “Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and his Great Black Teams,” by Pollock’s son Allan and James Riley told the story of how he was renamed.  Brison approached Pollock and said he had a problem with the name:

“Problem is, I didn’t even know the man.  Seen his picture on the bus.  He musta been popular as God.  Fans keep asking me, ‘How your Daddy?’ and I got no answer.  Ain’t gonna lie, ain’t gonna say, ‘My Daddy fine, I’ll tell him you be asking.’  These people feel strong about King Tut.”

"Birmingham" Sam Brison

“Birmingham” Sam Brison

When Pollock asked if he just wanted to be called by his name, Brison said:

“No, I figure Birmingham Sam be good.  People ask me about how Birmingham is.  I can answer that.”

“Birmingham Sam” would be the team’s biggest draw during his 16 years with the team.  Following the example of many members of the clowns throughout the team’s history, Brison also spent his winters playing basketball, first with Goose Tatum’s Harlem Road Kings, then with the Harlem Globetrotters—on the basketball court he said he “had a lot of showmanship about me…I did a lot of hollering.”

Never one for understatement, some of Pollock’s press releases described Brison as “one of the best fielders in baseball and hailed as the greatest comedian in sports history. “  The six-foot-two-inch Brison would often begin performances by “unpacking” two-foot-seven-inch Dero Austin from a suitcase at home plate.

In 1969 The Associated Press reported that Brison had secured a spring training tryout with the Boston Red Sox’ Carolina League Winston-Salem franchise, Brison told the wire service:

“I just want to get to Florida and show my stuff.”

Brison said an injury earlier in the spring had led to the cancellation of a tryout with the Cincinnati Reds—there’s no record of the whether the Red Sox tryout ever took place.  The Associated Press story incorrectly said the 29-year-old Brison was only 23—his real age would have made it especially difficult for him to break into organized ball in 1969.

In the mid 1970s, during the beginning of the end for the Clowns as a viable business, Negro League Baseball was becoming the subject of renewed interest.  In 1976 the barnstorming tradition of teams like the Clowns made the big screen with the release of “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.”

In order to add authenticity to the baseball scenes stars Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor were joined in the cast by Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner (two-time American League all-star), Jophrey Brown (pitched in one game for the 1968 Chicago Cubs, then became a well-respected Hollywood stuntman), and “Birmingham” Sam Brison.

"Bingo Long" movie poster

“Bingo Long” movie poster

Brison played shortstop Louis Keystone in the movie.

“Birmingham” Sam Brison is seventy-two-years-old and lives, appropriately enough, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Veeck and Paige–a third time?

27 Feb

In 1959, when Bill Veeck purchased the White Sox rumors swirled in Chicago that the Sox owner was planning on having Satchel Paige start on Opening Day. Later, as the Sox were making a run for their first American League Pennant in 40 years the rumors resurfaced that the ageless Paige would join the White Sox for the Pennant run.

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Bill Veeck and Satchel Paige, 1959

Paige, who had played for Veeck with the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns, had spent 1956-59 with the Miami Marlins in the International League, winning 31 games. He had returned to barnstorming with the Cuban Giants and Indianapolis Clowns in 1959, but it was reported he was looking for another chance in the Major Leagues, and in June it began to be reported again that Paige would be joining the Sox.

A United Press International story in July said that Veeck had “sent Paige two new Chicago White Sox uniforms,” and quoted Paige:

 “If they want me they’d have to pay me big money.  I’m not going back for nothing.”

Whether it was ever a serious discussion, or simply two famous showmen milking rumors for the maximum publicity will never be known, but Veeck and Paige let the rumors swirl well into August before Veeck finally put them to rest, telling Jet Magazine:

“We’re not giving any thought to hiring him.  I’m very fond of LeRoy and I see him whenever he’s in town.  I gave him the uniforms because we’re old friend and for no other reason.”

And with that White Sox fans missed the chance to see the pitcher who Veeck called “The best righthander baseball has ever known,” pitch for the 1959 Pennant winners.

A Thousand Words–Satchel Paige, Chicago White Sox

6 Feb

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What if?  Satchel Paige in a White Sox uniform.  From 1938-1947 the Sox never finished better than 3rd, add Satchel Paige to those teams, which already had some good pitching including Ted Lyons, Eddie LopatThornton Lee, Monty Stratton and Orval Grove, and Sox fans might have had something to cheer about.  But of course, by the time Paige had a chance to play in the Major Leagues he was at least 42-years-old.  Paige would have helped at the box office as well.  For example, on July 18, 1942 the Sox drew slightly better than 24,000 for a doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers, across town at Wrigley Field a nearly identical amount came out to watch Paige pitch the first five innings for the Memphis Red Sox against the New York Cuban Stars.

Instead, all White Sox fans have is this rare photo taken in 1965 when Paige appeared with the Indianapolis Clowns at Comiskey Park (Chicago Cubs outfielder George Altman is the catcher in the picture).

——-

in 1935, Gene Coughlin, a sports writer for The Los Angeles Evening Post-Record wrote a column that went largely ignored, calling on organized baseball to break the color barrier which “not only makes (baseball) look ridiculous but is at the same time passing up increased business.”  Coughlin predicted that if a Pacific Coast League team were to sign Paige, it “would be good for an extra 10.000 in attendance every time he goes to the mound.  And he became good despite the inane prejudice that drives the colored baseball player to the sandlots and keeps him there.”

Coughlin’s column concluded:

“When you come right down to it, that baseball doesn’t give a darn whether it is pitched or caught by a white hand or a black one.  It is a symbol of game, a sport, and not a symbol of class distinction or color.”

Twelve years later organized baseball finally agreed.

King Tut

30 Jan

For almost 30 years Richard “King Tut” King was the clown prince of Negro League baseball and one of its biggest drawing cards.  King, born in 1905 in Philadelphia spent his youth playing in sandlot and semi-pro leagues.

He is listed as having made seven plate appearances for the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants in 1931—the rest of his nearly 30-year career was spent primarily as an entertainer.

Richard "King Tut" King

Richard “King Tut” King

King joined Charlie Henry’s Louisville based Zulu Cannibal Giants in 1934.  The Cannibals wore grass skirts, red wigs and face paint.  Players were identified by “native” names, as with this lineup printed in The Meriden (CT) Daily journal in advance of the team’s 1935 appearance:

“The Cannibals will lineup as follows:  Wahoo, right field, Limpopo, first base, Rufigi, center field, Tanna, left field; Taklooie, third base; Bissagoss, shortstop, Kangkol, second base, Nyass, Catcher; Kalahare, Pembra, Moke, Impo and Tankafu pitchers.”

Sometime during the 1935 season after the Cannibals had played a game with the Miami Giants, King, tired of irregular paydays with the cash-strapped Cannibals, stayed in Miami and joined the Giants.

The following season the Giants became the Ethiopian Clowns—later the Cincinnati Clowns and finally the Indianapolis Clowns– and King spent the next 22 years with the team.

King became most famous for his pantomime “shadow ball” routine with Spec Bebop, a ball juggling act with “Goose” Tatum, and playing with an over-sized first baseman’s mitt.

Richard "King Tut" King, left and Goose Tatum at Crosley Field, Cincinnati, performing the ball juggling routine

Richard “King Tut” King, left and Goose Tatum at Crosley Field, Cincinnati 1946, performing the ball juggling routine

For the most part he did not participate in games.  As a result it’s unclear exactly what his skill level was.

In 1948, Hall of Fame sportswriter Sam Lacy wrote in The Baltimore Afro-American said King:

“ Hasn’t hit a ball since they found his namesake’s tomb.”

Bob Motley, who was a Negro League umpire form 1947-1958, said in his biography:

“King Tut was actually a heck of a ballplayer and could put some serious wood on the ball.  I don’t particularly think he was major-league caliber, but he was good.”

At 45-years-old, King was pressed into duty as the regular first baseman on the Clowns’ 1949 barnstorming tour, The Associated Press said:

“Heretofore little has been known about his hitting prowess, since during the regular season the Clowns have used him only as a fun maker…at Atchison the other night, he slammed out three hits in five trips to the plate, including a long home run over the left field wall to slug the Clowns to a 9-6 victory over the mighty Kansas City Monarchs.”

While tremendously popular with fans across the country, and the top-billed member of the team in promotional materials throughout his career, the African-American Press was not always in agreement about King’s act.

Near the end of his career, The Baltimore Afro-American said:

“Tut is a natural clown and a natural ballplayer…one of baseball’s most popular players among the fans as well as with his teammates.”

On the other hand, when King entertained the crowd at the 1947 East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park, he included two of his regular routines.   Frank “Fay” Young of The Chicago Defender, often called “The dean of Black sportswriters,” was not amused:

“(T)here are thousands who did not approve of King Tut’s crap shooting stunt or his shimmy in the grass skirt.  He could have left that part of his act at home.  The East vs. West classic is a high-class sport event.  Let’s keep it that way.”

Frank "Fay" Young, The Chicago Defender

Frank “Fay” Young, The Chicago Defender

King remained a huge drawing card throughout the 1950s; he spent each off-season appearing regularly with New York Broadway Clowns and New York Colored Clowns basketball teams, and occasionally with the Harlem Globetrotters.  He and Spec Bebop were part of the Jackie Robinson’s All-Star’s barnstorming tour in 1953.

King with Curtis "Junior" Johnson in a 1952 New York Broadway Clowns promotional photo

King with Curtis “Junior” Johnson in a 1952 New York Broadway Clowns promotional photo

On August 29, 1958 King was honored for what The Afro-American called “A million miles and a billions laughs,” at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia.  Jackie Robinson sent a congratulatory telegram and many Negro League legends were on hand, including Bill Yancey, Toussaint Allen, Mahlon Duckett, Bill Cash, Chaney White. Buddy Burbage, and Hank Miller.

King’s career came to an abrupt end before the 1959 season.  Jet Magazine reported:

“(King) suffered a memory lapse en route to spring training at St. Petersburg, Fl, was picked up by police and returned by air to Philadelphia where he was hospitalized.”

King was committed to the Pennsylvania State Hospital at Bybury; he died there in 1966.

A Thousand Words—Dero Austin

10 Jan

dero

Dero Austin Jr. was one of the few Negro League “players” who was born too late; he was added to the Indianapolis Clowns in 1964 to try to recreate the fame of one of his predecessors, Spec Bebop, who had top billing with the team well into the 1950s.

Spec Bebop, circa 1952

Spec Bebop, circa 1952

Austin quickly joined  James “Nature Boy” Williams as one of the most popular members of the barnstorming team, but the Clowns’ were well past their heyday when they filled ballparks across the country.  Occasionally they still drew well, in Austin’s first season, 1964, 15,797 fans saw the Clowns in Chicago’s Comiskey Park on July 10; across town 13,556 fans watched the Cubs play the San Francisco Giants.

Austin would usually bat first in each game, replicating Eddie Gaedel’s appearance for Bill Veeck’s Saint Louis Browns in 1951–occasionally Satchel Paige would pitch to Austin.  While he appeared in publicity photo’s playing the field, Austin never appeared in the field during a game.

Satchel Paige pitching, Dero Austin at the plate.  Comiskey Park 1966

Satchel Paige pitching, Dero Austin at the plate. Comiskey Park 1966

Austin never became as popular as Bebop, and the Clowns continued playing to smaller crowds in smaller towns until they disbanded in the 1980s.

Austin stayed with the Clowns throughout the 1960s.  The three-foot tall Grandfield, Oklahoma native died in July of 1987 at age 39.

A Thousand Words—Nature Boy

31 Dec

natureboy

By the time James “Nature Boy” Williams joined the Indianapolis Clowns in 1955 the team had become a full-time barnstorming attraction, having dropped out of the Negro American League which itself was in its death throes.

Later that season The Washington Afro-American said:

 “Williams already has become the fans’ number one idol.  His side-splitting antics and peculiar catches around first base have won rave notices.”

The 6’ 2” 220 pound Williams spent more than a decade with the clowns and was known for batting barefoot, playing with the large glove pictured,  and dancing at first base with umpires.

Jet Magazine reported in 1964:

“Williams played the entire 1963 season with his right eye completely blind due to an off-season accident and without even his teammates knowing his condition.”

The Clowns played their last full season of tour dates in 1988, the team officially disbanded after playing a few games in 1989.

Williams died in Maryland in 1980 at the age of 50.

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