Remembering Baseball’s Clowns

patkin I can still remember the antics of Max Patkin as he performed his routine in the coach’s box for my beloved White Sox. It was way back when, in the Old Comiskey Park, when baseball was more of a game than a business. Back then, you really couldn’t beat fun at the ole ballpark! It had nothing to do with whether your team won or lost, or how your “fantasy” players performed. Things were real back then, the smells were real, the music was played by real organists (entertaining the crowd), and the fans were real. People watched the game, they didn’t talk business, and everybody kept score.

But I digress, why remember the clowns, why now? My Chicago White Sox Trivia Calendar, with ripoff pages, had this as today’s fact, “Long before he achieved fame as a baseball clown in Washington, DC, lefthanded pitcher Nick Altrock (1903-09) was a three time 20 game winner (1904-06) for the White Sox”. It got me thinking and I decided to research baseball clowns.

An arm injury after 1906 ruined Altrock’s career, but he hung on with the White Sox and Washington Senators until 1924, though he pitched very little after 1908 and made sporadic pinch-hitting appearances after that, including one in 1933 (facing Rube Walberg of the Philadelphia Athletics) at 57 years of age. Nick became a coach for the Senators in 1912 and remained on the Washington staff until 1953, a 42-year skein that represents the longest consecutive-year tenure of a coach with the same franchise in baseball history. During that time, he was noted for his antics in the coaching box and teamed with Al Schacht, the “Clown Prince of Baseball,” for a dozen years to perform comedy routines on baseball fields in the days before official mascots. Schacht and Altrock also took their antics to the vaudeville stage where they appeared in a comedy routine. An anecdote, probably apocryphal, has been printed in some baseball books about a quip by Altrock during his coaching days with the Senators. A batter had hit a ball into the stands and it was not known whether it was fair or foul. The umpire, who had been the target of Altrock’s gibes, made the call and shortly afterward a woman was carried from the stands on a litter. The umpire asked Altrock if the ball had hit the woman. In his clear voice, Nick answered, “No. You called that one right and she passed out from shock.”

Al Schacht’s ability to mimic other players from the coaching lines, and his comedy routines with fellow Washington coach Nick Altrock, earned him the nickname of “The Clown Prince of Baseball.” Ironically, at the height of their collaboration, Schacht and Altrock developed a deep personal animosity and stopped speaking with each other off the field. During their famous comic re-enactments of the Dempsey-Tunney championship boxing match, many speculated that they pulled no punches as they rained blows on each other. After 11 seasons (1924-34) as a Senator coach, Schacht broke up his act with Altrock to follow Washington manager Joe Cronin to the Boston Red Sox, where Schacht coached at third base in 1935-36. He then focused on a solo career as a baseball entertainer. Schacht, wrote: “There is talk that I am Jewish — just because my father was Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I speak Yiddish, and once studied to be a rabbi and a cantor. Well, that’s how rumors get started.”

In contrast to other baseball entertainers who relied on comic routines to draw laughs, Jackie Price used his amazing baseball skills to delight fans. One of Price’s most famous tricks was to hang upside down and take batting practice for 15 minutes or more. Batting either left-handed or right-handed, Price could hit fast pitches from opposing pitchers while suspended from the backstop or a pole while being suspended upside-down from his ankles. He also would perform a trick that would remind one of the old tale of David and Goliath, hurling a baseball out of the stadium, using a sling. Some of his stunts included his shooting a baseball out of an air gun and then jumping into a jeep and speeding into the outfield to catch the plummeting sphere. He would amaze fans by pitching two balls at one time, one a curve and the other a fastball, and batting two balls with a fungo bat at the same time, sending them in opposite directions. Price could also catch baseballs between his legs, behind his back, and even in the neck of his uniform shirt. A popular Price maneuver was to throw three baseballs with one hand and have each of them land in a different catcher’s mitt in the strike zone. He could also hold three baseballs in his throwing hand and toss them in one motion to three different players stationed around the infield. And thus he became the “Clown Prince of baseball” between Al Schacht and Max Patkin. All you need to know about his zaniness is that he was once ordered off a train by Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau for letting loose a pair of five-foot boa constrictors.

After an arm injury curtailed his minor league career, Max Patkin joined the Navy during World War II. Stationed in Hawaii in 1944, Patkin was pitching for a service team, and Joe DiMaggio homered off the lanky right-hander. In mock anger, Patkin threw his glove down then followed DiMaggio around the bases, much to the delight of the fans–and a career was born. Later in the 1940s, Patkin was hired as a coach by Bill Veeck and the Cleveland Indians. After Veeck sold the team in 1949, Patkin began barnstorming around the country. As a barnstormer, Patkin played minor league stadiums throughout the United States and Canada. He had a face seemingly made of rubber that could make a thousand shapes. He was rail thin and wore a baggy uniform with a question mark (?) on the back in place of a number, and a ballcap that was always askew. While some derided his act as corny, he became a beloved figure in baseball circles especially after an appearance in the film Bull Durham. Patkin estimated he made more than 4,000 appearances. On July 20, 1969, he played to a crowd of four in Great Falls, Montana as most fans were home watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon. Between 1944 and 1993, he did not miss an appearance. Max Patkin retired from clowning in 1995. He died in 1999, at age 79, and so did baseball clowning.

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One Response to “Remembering Baseball’s Clowns”

  1. I just watched “When It Was A Game” last night and saw some old film footage of Al Schacht and Max Patkin. Great stuff, especially the clips of Patkin coaching first base. Thanks for the writeup Teddy. I’m off to learn more about these men.

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