Barnstorming to Heaven
Syd Pollock and His Great Black Teams
By Alan J. Pollock, James A. Riley
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2006 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The Heart and Soul of Black Baseball
Once I watched the laughing bride at a wedding reception romp and strut to rock music, wedding gown held high off the floor, legs flashing—the same electric, irreverent joy and energy the Clowns gave baseball. Urban Negro league games were celebrations. Men wore straw boaters, fedoras and Stetsons, suspenders, dress pants and shirts and ties; women were in dresses, hats, jewelry, perfume and full makeup. Fans had sirens, cowbells, horns and spinning noisemakers. Hard liquor passed freely, and bets were openly made on anything from game results to whether the batter would get a hit to whether the next pitch would be a fast ball or a breaking pitch to whether the ball, if fouled, would be foul left or foul right. Games were social events.
Yankees fans in New York or Cardinals fans in St. Louis had seventy-six chances to see their teams at home. Clowns fans in New York or St. Louis had once or twice a year at most to see their team, absent rainout, and fans in the Clowns' hometown usually had less than a half dozen chances. Black children played with white dolls. Blacks saw white movies. Black schools stocked white books. Blacks heard white actors portray blacks on radio. But blacks could celebrate the greatness of black baseball live, and no fans were wilder, louder, or happier than Clowns fans.
I was a family legend for my ability to guess paid attendances of huge crowds of blacks within a few hundred fans, but I missed by thousands at Yankees games. The decibel level at a Clowns game nearly caused middle ear nausea, and I sometimes crossed my eyes to double crowd size to match sightsize with soundsize. Every Clowns game I ever attended, I went to the top step of the dugout or turned around on the bench to see the laughing faces and thought, "These people would never know the joy of this moment without Dad." It was a glimpse at universal love.
* * *
If Cool Papa Bell with his speed was the legs of black baseball and Satchel Paige with his fastball its arm, if Rube Foster, its founder, was its head, and Buck Leonard, Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson with their Hall of Fame ability its body, lean and athletic, then King Tut with his charisma, creativity and acting ability was its heart and soul, wild and poetic and funny. He wasn't just watched and enjoyed. Tut was flat out loved by everybody. In 1950 at a game in Victory Field in Indianapolis, a black man in his eighties, sitting next to Mom and me, told Mom, "I saw Tut from my Mama's lap. He gets right in beside your heart, don't he?" And we understood. He couldn't have seen Tut that long ago, but Tut wasn't just seen and heard. He was felt inside, fresh and young as a timeless, ageless spring bubbling joy. He was a drink from childhood's stream.
Tut was a genius, and I guess I'll never stop missing him. I grew up with his comedy. He was with the Clowns from 1936 until 1958. Tut traveled the nation so thoroughly, players reported no need to carry a road map on the bus. According to Clowns' lore, lost, even in the night, the team chauffeur could wake Tut to determine location at a glance and unerring directions to the journey's end.
Once Dad and I watched Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus stars Felix Adler and Emmitt Kelly state and nod respectively, during a TV interview, that many of their ideas and attitudes originated with Tut, and they considered him the best clown ever. First a ballplayer, then a ball handler in Clowns pepperball and other comedic juggling routines, Tut became an actor probably capable of playing Shakespeare in pantomime, but, of course, as a black man in his day, he likely would not have been permitted to play even a silent Othello, if he were so inclined. Tut loved and was loved in his own theater circuit—ballparks all over the continent. Silently he could entertain 20,000 fans or more from 30 to 150 yards away with routines they'd seen dozens of times before and have them roaring.
Whenever Tut saw Dad, his first words were always the same, "Skip, I got to have a raise." He always deserved one; he sometimes got one. He was perhaps the highest paid player in black baseball, receiving a salary from Dad and more from fans as he passed through the stands giving baseballs to kids and doing comedy. Fans often paid Tut a dime each for postcards of him that Dad had made for him. During the off-season, he sold numbers in Philadelphia, and given his ability to work a crowd close up, he must have enjoyed successful winters.
His real name was Richard King, and he and his wife, Bea, were family friends as long as we could remember. Bea too called him Tut.
Unless my brothers and I joined Dad in the dugout, the most exciting games for our family were always those at which Mom sat with Bea King and Pauline Downs, the wife of Clowns' manager Bunny Downs. The cheering and laughter of the three women spread through the section they sat in like good news. This, despite the fact Mom disliked baseball and considered 18 men playing with a little white ball absurd.
Before large, black, big-city crowds, Tut's entrance never varied. After batting practice and before infield practice and as the crowd filed in, a chain of firecrackers exploded, amplified like gunshots in the Clowns dugout, and Tut bounded from a smoking dugout onto the field, clothed in prisoner's black and white striped suit and hat, and shackled by ball and chain, wide-eyed, body flexed in tension, searching urgently behind in fear and ahead for escape. Some thought it was racial, stereotypical imagery, among them Dad, but Dad saw surrealistic anti-racist overtones. He felt Tut was stating, "This the way they see us—startin' out shackled, but before this game is over my brothers and sisters, I gonna take you everyplace we gonna be, and we gonna leave this ball and chain behind. Ain't nothin' really back of me but noise and smoke, and next time I come out the dugout, I gonna be free."
Of Tut's sketches, his most obvious low comedy acts were fan favorites, but Tut's subtlety lent a beauty that even when such earthy routines were repeated, they were creative, inspiring, different and funny, and his artistic use of face and body blended to give life to routines that were nothing short of pure genius.
Tut worked solo and in tandem with Peanuts Davis, Goose Tatum and others. Peanuts and Goose, who later became famous with basketball's Harlem Globetrotters, were both good ballplayers and talented comedians, but Tut's most memorable companion for rehearsed two-person sketches was Spec Bebop, who never played. Bebop joined the Clowns in 1949, and his real name was Ralph Bell. He was a dwarf from Daytona Beach, Florida, standing just over three feet tall, and because he was short-limbed, stubby and pudgy, and Tut was tall, slim, graceful and long-limbed, the physical contrast highlighted the humor. Bebop's drinking sometimes caused nonappearances, but infrequently enough that Dad was unafraid to advertise Bebop's appearances.
Bebop's rookie year, Pauline Downs reported to Mom, "Wait till you see Spec Bebop. He's so cute, you'll just want to pick him up in your arms and love him," an urge Mother easily overcame. But as I grew up, I learned through team saga that Bebop was a lady's man, so I guess there were those who did pick him up in their arms and love him.
* * *
Tut and Bebop's comedy routines were great crowd pleasers and never failed to "bring down the house." The fishing sketch was Tut's popular favorite. Each game, between a random set of innings, Tut and Bebop sat on the infield grass, Tut in front. With two sets of bats as oars, they cut through imaginary waters to their fishing spot and rested their bats on the bottom of their invisible boat. Peacefully, each picked up a bat as a pole, cast an imaginary line and fished. As they waited for a bite, Bebop pointed up to the beauty of the day, and, as Tut scanned the skies contentedly appreciating, he suddenly flinched, snapped one eye shut and wiped his angry face clean as he shook his other fist at an imaginary bird, a portent of worse things to come. Then—the unexpected—Tut hooked a monster fish, and, with Bebop a clinging appendage to his back, he quaked and shook from front to back and side to side with the ebb and flow of the huge invisible beast, fishing pole flicking and seeming to bend, until the creature pulled the boat under, throwing Tut and Bebop separate ways into menacing currents. As they swam for their lives across the infield toward shore, and as their strokes brought their heads above water, each spit an impossible number of streams high in the air, seemingly from reservoirs unknown to even gluttonous camels.
Tut swam safely ashore, exhausted and almost drowned near the pitcher's mound, and as he came to and gathered his strength and resources and arose, he noticed Bebop prone, unmoving, heaped on the shore several feet away. A stethoscope pulled from a pocket affirmed life, but the joy of Tut's face again clouded as, pulling off his baseball cap, he scratched his head, risked a look upward, to contemplate means and perhaps divine assistance to restore consciousness to his small companion.
First, he sat on Bebop's waist and pumped his chest, becoming doused anew with each thrust as a still comatose Bebop sprayed him from some improbable reserve source of water in his mouth.
Each subsequent treatment involved odors. And ecumenical and selfless in thought, Tut pre-checked each remedy. He unbuttoned the top of his baseball shirt, put his nose in the armpit of his underlying sweatshirt, held his nose, again looking to the heavens as if to ask for this task to pass from his nostrils, and almost joined Bebop in the nether world. Then he subjected the dwarf to the therapy. Bebop's legs rose and shook, then fell, and his body convulsed, but his eyes stayed closed and there was no respite from his near-death experience.
Finally, less extreme anatomical rescue possibilities were tried and narrowed to Tut's foot, and the pre-operative anxiety of a neurosurgeon could be read in Tut's eyes from as far as the bleachers as the comedian committed to the ultimate final cure and removed his shoe, and the shock of his preadministration test nearly killed him. He threw the shoe upward, recoiled from it and ran from it momentarily. Then he turned to face it and confront what he must do: altruistically sneak up on his shoe on tiptoes, no matter the risk to self, grab it, and place it under the moribund Bebop's nose.
And this he did. Again, Bebop's legs rose, and his feet shook, and his body quaked with spasms. His arms jerked and twisted, and his body flapped, and at last he jumped to life, and the two ran to the dugout smiling to start their lives anew.
* * *
One summer a dachshund, name later repressed by those who knew him, traveled with the Clowns. Between innings, a player placed a tiny plastic fire hydrant behind home plate. Tut then walked the dog leisurely, eventually approaching the hydrant. Pointing to the hydrant, Tut, in pantomime, instructed the dog to relieve himself. Irritated at the dachshund's failure, Tut illustrated the technique on one tiptoe while raising his opposite leg over the hydrant. The dog looked at him even more quizzically. Still restrained, Tut illustrated again by gently lifting the dog's right rear leg over the hydrant but again failed to obtain the desired result. Figuring he had a left-legged dog (Dad once claimed Michelangelo had a left-legged dog who wet wild high), Tut manually helped the dog with the left leg. Always grantor of a last chance, Tut rose ominously to full height and pointed dramatically at the hydrant like Sitting Bull—had he chosen to give Custer warning, would have pointed at the border of Indian territory—as though by raw will Tut could make the dachshund voluntarily vacate its bladder politely. Again failing, he waved Bebop out of the dugout carrying a three-foot by two-foot red wooden box with a flip top, a hole at one end, and a crank at the other. Tut placed the dachshund in the box and lowered the lid over him as Bebop turned the crank, and a string of a dozen hot dogs rolled one by one from the hole.
"We could carry an extra pitcher-outfielder and the bus would smell better," one Clowns player observed during the year of the hot dogs.
* * *
Bebop started the dentist sketch in the dugout, filling his mouth with large kernels of blanched corn as Tut strolled the sidelines dressed in his trademark tailed tux coat over the Clowns uniform and carrying a severely scuffed black leather bag with "DENTIST" on each side. Over the seasons, Tut acquired his bags from doctors who had overused them through years of house calls, and got his tux coats from undertakers. His original sartorial inspiration came in an alley behind a Philadelphia funeral home sometime off-season during the 1930s. As Tut was walking down the alley, an undertaker emerged and threw an old cutaway on the trash pile, and Tut spontaneously conceptualized it on the baseball diamond and picked it up. Sewing up the back, Tut finalized the image that all who saw him would always remember—Tut in Clowns uniform wearing tailed tux coat and double-billed Clowns cap turned sideways, a peak shading each side of his head.
And that was the Tut fans saw as Bebop climbed the dugout steps, holding his towel-encased head in agony, and approached the circuit dentist with a toothache bigger than self, pointing to the upper right side of his mouth. Tut pulled a pre-placed folding chair from the stands, and Bebop sat, rocking back and forth in pain. Tut unstrapped the towel from Bebop's head and, as Bebop opened his mouth, seemingly wide enough to take in Tut's entire head, close exam revealed an abscessed tooth, but as Tut pulled pliers from his bag with one hand, with the other he had to shove a rapidly panicking Bebop back into the chair. Again, as Tut clanked the pliers loudly, he had to restrain the patient by force. Finally, the pliers entered the dwarf's mouth, but the tooth was tough. Bebop's body rocked in rhythm with Tut's, hands grasping Tut's arms in futile resistance, as Tut alternately pulled on the tooth, leaning backwards to put all his weight into it, and shifted forward to allow slack. Finally, Tut put one foot on the chair for extra leverage and shook back and forth and side to side yanking on the tooth as Bebop swayed in reaction like a seated dance partner.
And at last, the pliers came free, as Tut fell back on the ground, a blanched corn tooth in the pliers, and Bebop smiled. Tut proudly threw the tooth in the air for all potential patients to see, as Bebop walked away confidently, but before Tut could fold up the chair, Bebop was returning, again clenching his mouth in agony, this time pointing at the lower left, indicating the wrong tooth had been pulled. He sat, and Tut confirmed the self-diagnosis, and as he test-clanged the hammer and chisel newly removed from the bag, he again had to make a one-handed catch of the nervous patient to seat him.
The chisel slid into Bebop's mouth and the metallic sound of the tripping hammer echoed to the farthest bleacher seats. Each time Tut pounded, Bebop's feet flew up off the ground. And when the hammering finally stopped, Tut reached in Bebop's mouth and flicked a second tooth high in the air.
Bebop staggered toward the dugout, dazed and worn, but in obvious relief, then, before Tut could fold the chair, Bebop again clutched his mouth in agony, this time pointing at the upper middle, sitting again to submit to expert examination. With a smile, Tut snapped his fingers at the ultimate why-didn't-I-think-of-it-sooner dental plan.
He inserted a metal funnel into Bebop's mouth, and this time, before the patient had chance to bolt, he dropped a lit firecracker into the funnel. With the explosion, Bebop spit a cloud of smoke and dozens of blanched teeth into the air, and the two ran happily into the dugout.
Dad's own comedy career began spontaneously when I was six, at a Puerto Rican Winter League game. Mom and I watched Tut stroll the sideline with his dentist bag. Complacently, we turned toward the dugout and saw Dad emerge, towel around his head, as Tut's stooge. Rum and the heat had victimized the scheduled patient. Later during the game, a slight earthquake stirred the crowd, but I was more stunned by Dad's comedy debut.
A few years later the Clowns played their longtime rivals, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, at Dexter Park in Brooklyn. Mom and Dad wouldn't let me go because it was a school night, but the game was televised live in the New York metropolitan area. Mom was cleaning dishes as the camera panned to Dad in a business suit, towel around his head, again leaving the dugout for the dentist sketch and looking like a forlorn figure out of a B movie. "Mom!" I hollered in disbelief, "Come quick! Dad's on TV!" Dad later told me Bebop had not been feeling well and that when I next went to see Dr. Leibowitz, our family dentist, I was not to mention that Dad had seen another dentist.
Both times Dad was an excellent patient and probably would loved to have performed more. I never saw him do any other Clowns act. Other players or comedians stood in for Bebop. I suspect, though, that, besides Bebop, no one but Dad was willing to face the funneled firecracker. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Barnstorming to Heaven by Alan J. Pollock, James A. Riley. Copyright © 2006 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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