Tag Archives: Indianapolis Clowns

“The Case of Mr. Pollock’s Clowns”

2 Jul

DeHart Hubbard was the first African American Olympic gold medal winner in an individual event—running long jump,1924—and owned the Cincinnati Tigers, who played as an independent team from 1934-36, and were members of the Negro American League in their final season, 1937.

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DeHart Hubbard

In 1944, Hart authored a plan to capitalize on black baseball’s, “opportunity of becoming firmly entrenched as an outstanding and progressive enterprise, reflecting credit in Negro people.”

Hubbard warned that promoters and “booking agencies” controlled Negro League baseball and said the owners held no power.

Wendell Smith, sports editor of The Pittsburgh Courier endorsed much of Hubbard’s plan which he said would relieve the Negro Leagues “of many of the Barnum and Bailey policies, with which we are all familiar.”

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Wendell Smith

Smith used Hubbard’s “logical and credible” suggestions to improve “solve many of the problems with Negro baseball,” to revisit his opposition to one team–under the headline: “The Case of Mr. Pollock’s Clowns,” Smith wrote:

“In line with Hubbard’s program for a clearer interpretation of the policies of Negro baseball, I submit the case of the Negro American League aggregation known to one and all and the ‘Clowns.’ This team is owned by Syd Pollock of Tarrytown, NY, a theater owner, who is reaping profits out of Negro baseball.”

Smith had previously—in 1942 and 1943 columns–referred to the Clowns as a “fourth rate Uncle Tom minstrel show,” and said, “I believe most Negroes resent the Clowns and their implication.”

As a result of Smith’s 1942 comments, Pollock sent The Courier what Smith called “a bristling letter,” calling Smith’s claims about the team were “founded in filth and untruths.” Pollock claimed in the letter that the club was still owned by Hunter Campbell, a black man who founded the team as the Miami Giants in 1935 and by most accounts had sold his interest to Pollock in 1939.

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Syd Pollock

To this claim, Smith said, he was unable to “establish ownership” of the club, but that if Campbell still had an ownership stake:

“(T)he finger of scorn is all the more direct and penetrating.  As a Negro, Campbell should realize the danger in insisting that his ball players paint their faces and go through minstrel show reviews before each ball game.”

Smith also noted during the 1942-43 exchange that Pollock “Cancelled his subscription to The Courier.”

His opinion of Pollock and his team had not softened in 1944:

“Like many other white people, Mr. Pollock has a misconception of the value of Negro performers…(He) believes, apparently that the only way to make a success out of Negro baseball is to tack such an infamous name a “Clowns” onto his hired hands and send them around the country putting on showboat skits before ball games.”

Smith said he had spoken to Pollock frequently and considered him “a fine and well-meaning man,” but said:

“(Pollock) still seems to believe that the only way to make the ‘Clowns’ popular is to send them into a song and dance.

“Why he insists that this is the way to baseball success, I don’t know, because he certainly hasn’t been able to make any one city or community accept the team for any length of time.  Mr. Pollock has put his baseball circus in Miami and Cincinnati, but neither city accepted them.  Now he has moved his team to Indianapolis, where he hopes he’ll find more hospitality and finally a stationary home.”

Smith predicted that because “Mr. Pollock insists on having his ‘Clowns’ stress clowning on the baseball field, he won’t find a home,” and called on Negro American President Dr. John B. Martin, to explain to Pollock the, “broad and distinct difference between baseball and slap-stick comedy…The next thing we know, Mr. Pollock will have his ball club playing in a tent with an elephant doing the pitching.”

Smith kept up his criticism of Pollock later that summer when the Clowns’ owner was fined $250 by the league for his team walking off the field during a game in Memphis in June:

“It is gratifying to know that (President) Martin had the courage to give the arrogant Syd Pollock and his urchins a spanking.”

Smith took the attack on Pollock further:

“If there were such a thing as a baseball fascist, we’d expect to find Syd Pollock on the list, because he did more than any other person in the sports world to belittle the plight of Ethiopia while it was being raped by Italy.  My. Pollock carried on the ingenious idea of calling his club the ‘Ethiopian Clowns.’ He painted his players’ faces in diverse colors, made them go into a song and dance on the playing field, and in general was a party to what might be termed a ‘burlesque’ campaign that belittled the tragedy of Ethiopia.”

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Ethiopian Clowns, 1936

Smith would continue to take shots at the Clowns and Pollock throughout the 40s while fighting for integration of organized baseball.  In 1945, he congratulated Detroit promoter John Williams, who refused to book the Clowns in Detroit because, “he vigorously objects to the ‘Uncle Tom’ shows they put on,” he also lauded outfielder Jack Marshall who had refused to re-sign with the team because of “the monkey-shines owner Syd Pollock requires of his players.”

Despite Smith’s efforts, which continued after integration and after he moved to The Chicago Herald-American—where he again referred to Pollock’s “Minstrel Show,” in the 1950s, the Clowns continued barnstorming long after Smith called for their demise, and for more than a decade after Smith’s death in 1972.

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.

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).

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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.

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.

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.

“Nature Boy” Williams

31 Dec

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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–as 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.”

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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.