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Baseball’s immortal clowns

Beware of Moe.

Max Patkin, Clown Prince of Baseball... SetNumber: X35341

Before the advent of the internet, telling jokes and playing gags on your friends (and enemies) was part of the fabric of life. I had a friend who married young, at age 19, and after the ceremony at a rustic country church, two friends and I picked up the back end of his car and placed two wooden blocks under his axles. Understand, it was a Chevy Chevette. I tell you that so there’s no misperception that we were some muscle-bound lunkheads.

Lunkheads, yes. Muscle-bound, absolutely not.

Anyway, the blocks left the tires just ever so slightly off the gravel parking lot. My friend and his bride got into the car to leave for their honeymoon. A large crowd of well-wishers gathered around the car, which had been festooned with a couple of strings of pop and beer cans and the obligatory “Just married” written on the window. The groom, eager to get onto other things, put the cart into gear, released the clutch and…nothing. The tires spun, but the car stayed put. My friends and I started sniggering. The groom tried again, this time with a little more gas. A spray of gravel covered some of the well-wishers. He got out, did a circle around the car, confused but pleased with what he saw, got in to try again. Someone in the crowd yelled, “give it a little more gas!”, which he did. More gravel sprayed the crowd.

We were nearly doubled over in laughter by now. The groom got out of the car and came straight to us. He knew we’d gotten him, so we picked up the car and pulled the two blocks and sent them on their way to marital bliss. The women in the crowd, especially the bride’s mom, who had a reputation of being a hard ass, heaped some scorn on us. To me, it was a good gag. No brides or grooms were harmed, with only a few of the elders having their feathers ruffled.

Before everyone got so sensitive, a good gag was stuff of legend, in both the workplace and the sports world. The Harlem Globetrotters gained world wide fame, not just for being outstanding basketball players, which they were, but for pulling some hilarious gags during their shows. Baseball used to be blessed with some funny men back in the day, but they’ve become hard to find in modern times.

I remember the first and only time I saw Max Patkin perform live; it would have been at Royals Stadium sometime in the late 1970s. I’ve scoured online and in my collection of game programs for some notes on the performance but can’t find anything. I believe it was a July 15, 1979, game against the Texas Rangers. That game sticks out in my memory because Bump Wills, son of Dodger legend Maury Wills, hit a ball to deep left in the third inning. Royals left fielder Willie Wilson crashed into the wall chasing the ball. The fleet Wills circled the bases for an easy inside the park home run. Buddy Bell followed with a traditional out of the park home run off Paul Splittorff.

Back to Max Patkin. The only thing I really recall about his act was it happened between innings, probably the seventh, and I was not particularly amused by the routine, possibly because it was 90 degrees that day. What I remember was a goofy run around the bases, with Patkin flapping his arms like a bird, a mock argument with the umpires and spewing water out of his mouth like Old Faithful going off. Maybe I just dreamed the entire thing? That’s one of the problems of getting older, sometimes what we thought we saw and any written record of it can be two different things.

The next time I saw Patkin was in the 1988 baseball classic Bull Durham. This time I was older and more relaxed and not only enjoyed Patkin’s stunts, but I also found them hilarious. When he appeared on film, I thought, “Hey! I’ve seen this guy before”.

If you’ve seen the film, and what baseball fan worth their salt hasn’t seen Bull Durham, then you’ll recall that Patkin was the loose limbed, face twisting baseball clown who was held in high esteem by Kevin Costner.

The actual story of the trio known as the “Clown Princes of Baseball” is more complicated. The first clown prince of baseball was former Washington Senators pitcher and coach Al Schacht. Schacht had a knack for being able to mimic other players and umpires, which drew laughs from the crowd. He then expanded his act with the help of another Senators coach, Nick Altrock. The two would re-enact the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney long count heavyweight title fight. This is where it gets interesting. Schacht and Altrock reportedly hated each other to the point where they wouldn’t speak when they were off the field. When they re-enacted the fight, they often cut loose and pummeled each other, much to the delight of the audience. After World War II, Schacht opened a steakhouse in Manhattan, and much like Toots Shor’s restaurant, became a go to destination for athletes and celebrities for many years. Schacht passed away in July of 1984 at the age of 91.

The second clown prince of baseball was a gentleman by the name of Jackie Price. Price had a short (seven game) career with the Cleveland Indians in 1946. Price could hang upside down from a batting cage and take batting practice. He also had the unusual ability to throw three baseballs to three different people all in one movement. He also was famous for releasing a pair of boa constrictors on a train, a stunt that sounds like it could have come from latter day funny man, Moe Drabowsky. Price briefly teamed up with Patkin, a show that Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau said was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. Sadly Price, like many tortured comedians, committed suicide in October of 1967.

Which brings us back to Max Patkin. Patkin had been playing in the minor leagues as a pitcher, before an arm injury ended his career. He joined the Navy in World War II and while pitching for a service team, gave up a home run to Joe DiMaggio. Patkin threw down his glove in mock disgust and followed the Clipper around the bases, mimicking DiMaggio’s running style. The crowd loved it and the next chapter of Patkin’s life was born. Patkin estimates that he performed at more than 4,000 ball parks in his career between 1944 and 1993 without missing a show. His appearance in Bull Durham exposed him to a new generation and gave him baseball immortality. He retired in 1995, back near his birthplace of Philadelphia. He died of an aneurysm in October of 1999 at the age of 79.

No baseball story about funnymen would be complete without a mention of Moe Drabowsky, the greatest pitcher to ever come out of Ozanna, Poland. Moe was one of only four players who played for the Kansas City Athletics and the Royals. When compared to the other three baseball comedians, Drabowsky had the most significant career, pitching for eight teams over a 17-year career that was worth almost 20 WAR. Drabowsky had some early success in the 1966 World Series as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. He also was credited with the first win in the history of the Royals. He also gave up Stan Musial’s 3,000th hit.

Despite his success on the mound, Moe is best remembered for some of the outrageous stunts he pulled. One of Drabowsky’s go to stunts was to put snakes in teammates lockers and goldfish in the water cooler of the visiting team. Can you imagine one of today’s players finding a snake in their locker? Drabowsky’s former Oriole teammates Brooks Robinson and Paul Blair were particularly frightened by snakes, as are most sane people. Drabowsky once ordered Chinese take out from the bullpen at Anaheim Stadium and when he returned to Baltimore as a member of the Royals, he hired a pilot to fly over Memorial Stadium with a banner that said, “Beware of Moe”.

When he joined the Orioles, he used his knowledge of the bullpen phone system at Municipal Stadium to call the Athletics pen and disguising his voice said, “Get (Lew) Krausse up!” This confused A’s starter Jim Nash, who had been sailing along with a shutout at that point. As a member of the Royals, he called the Baltimore bullpen and pretending to be Earl Weaver, shouting, “Get (Dick) Hall up!”

Weaver looked into his bullpen, called down and said, “what the hell is Hall throwing for?” Hall sat down. An inning later, Drabowsky got Hall throwing again. Weaver, his famous temper flaring, called the pen once again and chewed out some poor sap on the other end who had no idea what was going on.

Drabowsky’s best stunt came during the 1970 World Series celebration when he gave baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn a hot foot on live TV. While Kuhn was being interviewed, Moe stuck a book of matches near his shoe and ran a trail of lighter fluid to the matches. He lit the lighter fluid which in turn ignited the book of matches. Afterwards, Drabowsky said, “I lit Bowie up real good!” Can you imagine a player today giving Rob Manfred a hot foot on live TV, during the World Series no less? I’d both love it and pay money to see it. In a 1987 interview, Drabowsky said, “players today seem to be more serious. I would tend to believe they don’t have as much fun. You don’t find the same kind of characters in the game today. Egos are a big factor. And the guys are making so much money.”

There have been other notorious pranksters and oddballs in baseball’s recent history. Bill “Spaceman” Lee certainly deserves a place at the table. Joe Carter was known to pull a good prank or two as was former Angels manager Mike Scioscia. But by and large, that era is dead. I don’t know why. Like Drabowsky said, maybe it’s ego. Maybe it’s money. But I’d love to see a Manfred hot foot.