Tag Archives: Dero Austin

Birmingham Sam— The Last Great Star of the Indianapolis Clowns

9 May

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.”

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 cancelation of a tryout with the Cincinnati Reds—there’s no record of the whether the Red Sox try out 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

Brison played shortstop Louis Keystone in the movie.

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

Update: “Birmingham” Sam Brison passed away in April of 2014.

Dero Austin

10 Jan

 

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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, he 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.

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Austin stayed with the Clowns well into the 70s and by 1974 was billed as the team’s manager.  The 31-inch tall Grandfield, Oklahoma native died in July of 1987 at age 39.