Barnstorming to Heaven
Syd Pollock and His Great Black Teams
Publication Year: 2006
The Indianapolis Clowns were a black touring baseball team that featured an entertaining mix of comedy, showmanship, and skill. Sometimes referred to as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball—though many of the Globetrotters’ routines were borrowed directly from the Clowns—they captured the affection of Americans of all ethnicities and classes.
Alan Pollock’s father, Syd, owned the Clowns, as well as a series of black barnstorming teams that crisscrossed the country from the late 1920s until the mid-1960s. They played every venue imaginable, from little league fields to Yankee Stadium, and toured the South, the Northeast, the Midwest, the Canadian Rockies, the Dakotas, the Southwest, the Far West—anywhere there was a crowd willing to shell out a few dollars for an unforgettable evening.
Alan grew up around the team and describes in vivid detail the comedy routines of Richard “King Tut” King, “Spec Bebob” Bell, Reece “Goose” Tatum; the “warpaint” and outlandish costumes worn by players in the early days; and the crowd-pleasing displays of amazing skill known as pepperball and shadowball. These men were entertainers, but they were also among the most gifted athletes of their day, making a living in sports the only way a black man could. They played to win.
More than just a baseball story, these recollections tell the story of great societal changes in America from the roaring twenties, through the years of the Great Depression and World War II, and into the Civil Rights era.
Published by: The University of Alabama Press
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This book would not have been possible without the support of my wife, Marti. Without her love, understanding and encouragement, this work would never have been brought to fruition. ...
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There was a time! A time when baseball was king and a typical American boy dreamed of being a baseball player. A time when major league baseball was restricted exclusively to ten of our largest cities, and these favored venues were all located in the Northeast or Midwest. ...
Part One: Celebration: The Essence of the Clowns
1. The Heart and Soul of Black Baseball
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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; ...
2. Peanuts, Goose and Ed
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If Tut were not the Clowns' essence, Peanuts Davis might have been. Known also as Peanuts Nyasses on the Ethiopian Clowns, he and Goose Tatum were two of the best athletes ever to play baseball, good enough to make comedy part of every Clowns game from the time Peanuts joined the team in 1938 ...
3. Nature Boy, Prince Jo and Birmingham Sam
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The comedy of James "Natureboy" Williams was part of Dad's Clowns from 1955 to 1964. Initially, he played barefooted, in a dress, wearing falsies, and was billed as "Clowns Firstbase Ma'am:'' He wore a question mark for a number on his back. No one seriously thought he was female, and no one took him as a female impersonator. ...
Part Two: Syd Pollock: The Man Behind the Clowns
4. Dad and Baseball
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In Municipal Stadium, Kansas City, on the afternoon of June 10, 1962, before 4,553 paid, Dad's Indianapolis Clowns beat Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Giants 9-2. Satchel wasn't bad, considering his age and the pregame events. In five innings, he allowed six hits and seven runs behind four Giants' errors. ...
5. View from the Office
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The Clowns were America's living team; they brought the taste and smell and sound and feel of baseball into every part of every state, from big cities to small towns. During the decades when Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle played on familiar grounds in Yankee Stadium, ...
6. View from the Bus
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The story is told that when Abe Lincoln practiced law, he appeared before the same circuit judge two consecutive days in two separate towns, each day arguing opposite sides of the same issue on essentially the same facts involving different parties. When questioned about that by the judge, Lincoln said, ...
Part Three: The Twenties and Thirties: Road Map
7. Blue Sox, Red Sox and Cuban Stars
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Dad's 1920 Westchester Blue Sox was a decent local semi-pro team warranting a column inch or two in the Monday Tarrytown Daily News. All players held primary jobs, so games were Saturdays and Sundays. By 1922, the Blue Sox were a local favorite and quite skilled. ...
8. Enter the Clowns
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In May, they had a series with the same Miami Red Sox that ruined the season opener for Lefty Tiant and Dad's Havana Red Sox that March. The Giants-Red Sox matchup was described by the Miami Herald as one "to settle the supremacy of Miami's negro baseball circles:'' It reported, "The war is on folks and it will be worth seeing too. ...
Part Four: The Forties: With Fire
9. Denver Post Tournament Champions
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As the '40s began, not all loved the Clowns. Foremost among Clowns detractors was Homestead Grays owner Cum Posey. Posey doubled as a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, the world's largest black weekly, and was also creator of the short-lived 1932 East-West League. ...
10. Bunny and Buster
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McKinley "Bunny" Downs, once second baseman of the reknowned Hilldale ball club, was first hired in 1942 as Clowns' field manager, then replaced Hunter Campbell as business manager and remained in that post the entire time the Clowns were in the Negro American League. ...
11. Style Defined and Refined
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The Clowns' will to win appears in photos of team altercations. Tut and Bunny were always central images. The team's business manager and chief entertainer took the field for every bad call, every argument, every melee, every brawl. If the Clowns lost, Tut used spare time to harangue them in the locker room ...
12. Highlights and Insights
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Jim Cohen sat on the bench next to Dad in a small park with a tin fence near Wilmington, Delaware, as Clowns hopeful Walter "Dirk" Gibbons worked in a dense fog against the Monarchs. "Kansas City was educating Dirk:'' Cohen said. "He threw a pitch–BOOM, off the tin. Another, BOOM, off the tin. ...
13. More Tales of Goose and Tut
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Like "Revelation" and the start of Tale of Two Cities, Reece "Goose" Tatum was a tangle of contradictions. Most say he played basketball best, some baseball. All say he was funny. He was mean. He was master of comedic timing. He often lacked the rhythm of ordinary human kindness. He was considerate. ...
14. Life on the Road
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Life on the road was difficult and had its own vagaries, its own set of rules, and its own math. Bunny Downs spoke of the road. "Shuck in' corn, hoein' taters, pick in' cotton ain't no tougher than this business. No, sir. For a real hardworking business day in and day out, you gotta take this here whatchacallit, tourist baseball.'' ...
15. At the Helm
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During 1947 and 1948 the Clowns had a farm team, the Havana La Palomas. Patterned after the parent club, the team featured the betweeninnings comedy of Ed Hamman, who also served as road business manager. The field manager was Ramiro Ramirez, who had been a player manager for Dad's Cuban teams in the '30s. ...
16. Remembrance of Players Past
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As part of growing up, children should view parents as strong and sacred, powerful and everlasting, perpetually vibrant and joyful. At least, that's how my brothers and sisters and I saw ours. And it was good. Besides our parents, we had others we perceived as larger than life: King Tut, Buster Haywood, Bunny Downs, ...
Part Five: The Fifties: The Jody Transition
17. First Pennant
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As an attraction, the Clowns swelled Negro leagues attendances to unprecedented numbers during the 1940s. At 11:59 P.M., December 31, 1949, I called my friend Jay Cohen for our phone conversation planned to last from the 1940s into the 1950s. Our discussion ended at 12:01 A.M., January 1, 1950. ...
18. Repeat Champions
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American life in the' 50s was not all drive-in restaurants, rock and roll and idyllic family life. National psychology in the' 50s was framed early by the Korean War and throughout by the Cold War. The inconclusive police action against North Korea and Communist China, which lasted from June 1950 through July 1953, ...
19. A Shortstop Named Henry
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The major off-season problem occurred in September 1951, when Dad sold the contracts of Sherwood Brewer and Len "Preacher" Williams to the Braves, leaving the Clowns without a shortstop. Dad thought first of Carl Dent, but, back from Canada, Dent had signed with Ed Gottlieb to play second for the Philadelphia Stars. ...
20. Toni Stone
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For 1953, Dad signed shortstop Willie Brown, outfielder Richard Hairston and pitcher-utility man Rufus McNeal. Dad bought outfielder Frank Ensley's contract from the Monarchs, and he joined Drake and Merchant to form another sterling outfield. ...
21. Charlie, Connie and Peanut
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The upcoming 1954 season presented a new assortment of problems. Buster Haywood had signed to manage the Memphis Red Sox, where men were men and women were spectators. To replace him, Dad hired the man he considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived, Oscar Charleston. ...
22. Jackie Robinson's All-Stars
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During the four years 1950-1953, the Clowns toured postseason against Jackie Robinson's Major League All-Stars. Legendary New York public relations man Ted Worner ran the tours. ...
23. On the Road Again
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On April 10, 1955, the Indianapolis Clowns, billing themselves Negro World Champions, opened the season against their touring partners, the New York Black Yankees, in Greensboro, North Carolina. The fastest outfield in baseball remained intact–Frank Ensley in left, Verdes Drake in center and Irwin Ford in right, ...
24. Farewell to the King
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The Clowns were an anachronism. Black baseball was essentially dead. The Clowns had a pulse because Dad willed it so, and because he could adapt to almost anything. The Clowns still served at least three functions: entertaining people; bringing baseball everywhere; and creating baseball interest ...
25. Bobo, Yogi and Chauff
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No longer able to afford a nonplaying manager, Dad hired former Clowns Negro leaguer Lincoln Boyd as player manager. Carl Forney remembered Lincoln Boyd: "During the day, we hit a town, tell you if you're gonna pitch that night, he'd say, 'Brother, I'm going downtown on you: And he would hit you downtown. ...
Part Six: The Sixties: A Section Reserved for Whites
26. No Camelot for the Clowns
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In 1960, the nation elected John Fitzgerald Kennedy president despite his Catholicism. Dad had followed John F. Kennedy's career for years and was convinced that the young politician, committed to civil rights, would become president and make the sixties special. ...
27. The Clowns in Cooperstown
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For 1960, the Clowns signed two important pitchers, right-hander John Whitehead and left-hander Freddie Battle. A power hitter as well as a power pitcher, Battle also played first and outfield and served as bus barber and as one who made bus society palatable. ...
28. Bobo Revisited
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In the spring of 1962, Dad and Ed made amends with Frank "Bobo" Nickerson, who had appeared briefly with the Clowns during 1961. Bobo suggested that he was going "to catch a ball from an airplane flying at 1,000 feet this season." Dad questioned the ambiguity of Bobo's language. ...
29. My Roomie
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Turned out, there was much more to Bobo than the disgruntled juggling Army Ranger he projected. It's just his bad moments were as easy to read as the top three lines of an eye chart magnified. He was joyful to travel with and daily some new positive part of Bobo emerged. ...
30. On Being Black and on the Road
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Freddie Battle pitched a no-hit win over the Stars 2-0 in a 2 P.M. tilt, and after the players showered and changed and loaded the bus, we drove into black Chattanooga to eat before our bus money jump into Mason, West Virginia. As we emptied the bus, Chauff announced a 6 P.M. departure time, giving us an hour to eat and reboard the bus. ...
31. Riding into the Sunset
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One legacy of the Clowns 1962 season was the flamboyant 1963 home uniforms of Charles O. Finley's Kansas City A's, designed after Finley saw the New York Stars' colorful uniforms during a 1962 Clowns game in Kansas City. The 1962 New York Stars' uniform was cotton, not flannel, was tighter fitting than traditional baseball attire, ...
32. One Last Hurrah
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By 1964, Dad was in his 50th year promoting baseball. He felt sure that passage of a Civil Rights Act integrating the road was imminent. James Natureboy Williams was 1964 manager of the Clowns, and the latest find was Dero Austin, a three-foot baseball comedian from Brandfield, Oklahoma, who, like Spec Bebop, did not play the game. ...
Part Seven: As Mailmen Whistle
33. The Last Whaler
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Not long after Dad put the 1964 schedule cards on a storage shelf, Ed and Dad met to settle up and split their minimal 1964 profit, 55 percent to Dad, 45 percent to Ed. The process, in Dad's office, took more than a day, but less than two, and at the end, as Dad waved to Ed, who was headed south toward Tamiami Trail ...
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"Well, Alan, that part of life died the other day. Syd did that since I can remember too. Beginning in the depression, he give cash to Spot Poles or Stringbean Williams or Pop Lloyd, whoever come down to his ball club's dugout, didn't matter they ever played for him or not. ...
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During the late 1960s, Ed Hamman invoked his plan of transporting 14 players in two station wagons with a U-Haul to save bus, gas and chauffeur money, and they played local teams only. In 1968, he reverse-integrated the team by signing white players. Roster size was reduced to 10 or 11 during the late '60s, ...
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Page Count: 424
Publication Year: 2006