Tag Archives: Goose Tatum

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.”

"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 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

“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.

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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.

He 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 from 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 Black 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 billion 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 Byberry; he died there in 1966.