The Ethiopian Clowns

April 27th, 2009 in American History by

Revealing Great History: The Negro Leagues
On its most fundamental grounds, this blog – which I find humbling based on its principle of relating tales with credibility and animation about people who came before us — will hopefully become a source of enlightenment on a wide range of topics. My particular interest lays in the history of Major League Baseball, in particular the Negro League and the impact it has had on our culture and our values and how we can learn from its influence. That said…

Post World War II America conjures images of glowing, black and white vacuum tube screens replete with ticker tape parades for our boys returning home, GIs planting wet ones on missed loved ones, and Teddy Ballgame emerging as a hero of war and future legend of our national pastime. What falls between the cracks, those unaccounted-for moments in baseball history, are what enrich our experience. The game’s past is not limited to grainy sound bites, yellowed news clippings and hallowed record books. There was a time when ballplayers took the field in a vibrant manner precisely as described:

Play ball.

In 1940, with no particular association to the North African country, team owner Syd Pollock decided that his Miami-based, all-black, half-comedy, big league ballclub be deemed the Ethiopian Clowns. The nickname was certainly more appropriate than its suggested place of origin. It was not enough for this extraordinarily talented group of black players to out-pitch, out-field and outhit every opponent they barnstormed. For this club to capture the imagination of its immensely white audience, they had to employ some rather unorthodox methods, understanding that entertainment and novelty were as important as wins and losses. By 1943, they would be accepted into the Negro American League, where they would capture three straight championship titles, provided they scale back their “extreme comic behavior.” But then again, these were the Clowns.

One of the most beloved “cast members” in their traveling circus was a gregariously engaging middle infielder whose absence at any game would actually warrant an immediate refund of the ticket price. Reese “Goose” Tatum was a gifted gloveman and an even more adept entertainer, given his hidden ball tricks, his ability to field with a mitt three times the average size, and the plays he made at second base from the comfort of a rocking chair. On theme days he would cajole the crowd in a grass skirt alongside their “mascots,” Spec Bebop and King Tut, the latter of which being the first dwarf, though not the last, to enter baseball lore. Paired with the rollicking of Tatum was the showmanship of pitcher Ed Hamman, who would fire strikes from between his legs or behind his back when he wasn’t climbing into the crowd to sell programs or taking swings with an oversized bat. He was also partly responsible for the popularization of “shadow ball,” where a full roster of nine would play out innings without the benefit of a baseball, ad-libbing the pitching, hitting and fielding of an invisible spheroid.

Pollock and Abe Saperstein, his new business partner and early Harlem Globetrotters innovator, moved the Clowns from Miami to Cincinnati and ultimately to their more permanent home in Indianapolis in 1946. They would remain there for the better part of a decade while establishing themselves as the most recognizable faces, or even “white-faces” when they would reversely mimic blackface performers, to field a professional diamond.

They would send players to the majors, including my home run king, and shouldn’t beg to be everyone else’s, Henry “Hank” Louis Aaron. At 20 years old, Aaron played for the club in 1952, but was almost immediately drafted by the Boston Braves while batting cross-handed, “because nobody told me not to.”

Aaron was merely a supporting character given the parade of personalities that surrounded him. But other pros would follow his path with the team: John Wyatt of the A’s, Paul Cassanova of the Senators, and Choo-Choo Coleman of the Mets would all trace their professional roots to Indianapolis. We always discuss the legends of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. We don’t often discuss the other historical figures of Negro League Baseball, those that came up with the Clowns: the women…

The Clown in Times, by Bruce “Charlie” Johnson
Negro Leagues Baseball Encyclopedia
Indianapolis Times, 2/1/01

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