Under the Baseball Big Top
Quick, look over there. You better not blink because you just might miss the best play you will ever see.
For better than 40 years, that’s what folks came to expect when teams like the Indianapolis Clowns came to town. Think of the Harlem Globetrotters in their heyday. The Clowns might pull off some hijinks in between fundamentals, but they could also give a big-league squad a run for its money.
1. Beyond crowd-pleasing antics and the goofy nicknames, you will read about the barnstormers themselves who gave everything they had to put on a good show.
Clowns standouts included King Tut, Bebop, Nature Boy and Peanuts Davis. Tut, whose given name was Richard King, acted as the Clowns ringleader for 22 years. His entrance was loud in more ways than one. Tut emerged from the dugout in chains, something that was sure to make an impression. With the help of Bebop, otherwise known as Ralph Bell, the pair simulated navigating rough waters, using baseball bats for oars. In between innings, fans clamored for Clowns autographed baseballs, postcards and anything they could get their hands on. After all, who knew when this comedy act that inspired Ringling Brothers and Barnum&Bailey Circus would be back?
2. As Clowns owner, Syd Pollock dedicated his life to equality on the baseball diamond.
Alan Pollock writes of his father, Syd, that “he viewed all as companions, not competitors.” (44, Barnstorming) Not that Syd ceased looking for ways to put the best product on the field. The elder Pollock sent and received mail constantly, so much so that he went to the post office four times a day. If Pollock saw a player pull off a trick once, he remembered it forever. Perhaps one day there would be a new Clowns act.
3. The younger Pollock invites fans to come along on a journey in the passenger’s seat for a sometimes bumpy but never dull barnstorming ride.
You might think that the Depression would do in the Clowns. Not so, writes Alan Pollock. “His teams provided a cheap seat for great entertainment, and gave laughs during an era provoking too many tears.” (86) One of their contemporaries said, “The Clowns were the most innovative team in sports. Even when [they] did fishing or boxing or the dentist, no matter how often you saw it, it was funnier this time than the last, and you knew it would be funnier next time.” (90) Barnstormers were not so lucky in the 1950s. Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers meant fans yearned to see blacks in the majors, not in a side show. And if you couldn’t watch the action live, tune into your TV. Another blow to barnstorming.
Before barnstorming boarded up, the Pollock family saw the start of its dream realized. Black ballplayers, Clowns, including Henry Aaron, burst into the big leagues. While good for Aaron, all too soon the air let out of the big tent.
Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.