Thursday, December 6, 2012




Who's turn is it to write checks?

The winter meetings are taking place in Nashville, where teams at the major league level are trying to decide if they are in a position to add or subtract. Not just players and payroll for their own team but for the other teams in the league as well. In an afternoon a few high paid stat guys can impress a rich GM to make an offer that swing the balance of power in baseball. However more often than not it is a change for the worse and the balance is changed by the over-worked numbers cruncher suggesting a stinker.
Monty Hall encouraging MLB GM's

Very few moves made at the winter meetings by MLB teams are prudent, and even more rare is the swap that benefits both sides. It can take years for the full effects to be known after a trade or contract signing. The bulk of teams that sign big name players during press conferences at the winter meetings end up dealing that player later.

Also high on the percentage list of these players is injury, though any high paid player with an injury is going to come under heavy scrutiny. It just seems like a bad idea, and that the best of the signings and trades happen when there are no cameras rolling in the lobby.

I suppose its basically the MLB effort to have a Media Week, generate some interest in the offseason, pump up the press and have a way to remind fans of the marketed products for holiday shopping. But for me the whole coverage seems tacky. The only thing worse than having rich guys divide up the pile of money is to have a hotel full of media types glorifying the whole terrible scene.


Also on hand are the minor league teams, where the action is probably really heated and competitive. I have never been to a winter meetings, but I have the mental image of a convention of baseball interns -  a sea of solid color shirts with collars, waves of blazered jr execs orbiting the high dollar owners and buffering sales reps who offer various upgrades to facilities or in game promotions.

What a circus it must be to see all the potential acts for hire vying for business - where teams of costumed performers battle to the death for gigs. The faux fur flying and inflatables punctured, it is a cutthroat line of work!
MiLB mascot deathmatch promotion, coming soon!

I know our team has had some pretty bad performers - The Amazing Alexander wasnt very and somehow Black Elvis didnt go over as well as one would think. I liked it, the guy even did his Elvis for the National Anthem!
Black Elvis TCB'd for the Biscuits

The art of in game clowning has become a lost one perhaps in part due to the performers trying to simply do too much. The great baseball clowners of the old days were naturals because they were players first and being funny was just their way of fitting and and dealing with the stresses of daily life in the game. 


The great Emmett Kelly was the unofficial 56 Dodgers mascot
Some of the serious clowning in baseball began as players were called upon to recite their exploits in Vaudeville houses and theaters in the offseason. It became a great way to supplement the income and continue to travel during the winter months. A great many players were essentially side show acts, telling tales and embellishing their stories became essential to keeping their appearances profitable.

Players were known to add music to their acts, strumming banjo or plucking a ukulele and telling jokes. The ligher side of the stories always popular, spawning in part, the clowning aspect as players would play up the laughs from the crowds.

Also important to the development of baseball clowning was the sight gag. The theater audiences enjoyed a good retelling and a song, but a crowd at the game was a different beast. For the players who built up a reputation as funnymen in the offseason, appearing in person during the year soon meant that the crowds had expectations. They had heard the stories and wanted to see the comedy unfold in person. At that point, the baseball clown was born.


Most of these guys are fringe players - clowning as a way of getting ahead. They were usually better players than minor leaguers but most often not great big leaguers. Utility guys who were doing what they could to keep from being cut from the team, being funny might keep them around in case of a losing streak - they could lighten the mood a little as well as add to the total at the gate.

One of the earliest players who catered to the crowd, Herman Schaefer loved to get attention for his efforts. This future clown was a fine defender and decent at the plate. He came from a tough chicago neighborhood, played in the first Tinker-Evers-Chance game Cubs before moving on to captain Detroit where he was one of the few friendly to rookie Ty Cobb.
The Great Germany Schaefer

His desire for pranks was legend, and he paved the road for future loose nuts by setting a standard for being thrown out by umpires for being mischievous. He pioneered stealing first base, eventually forcing a rule to be made outlawing the practice. Herman helped perfect the hidden ball trick, using it successfully in the 1907 World Series.

Always working for the laugh!
Germany was often asked to re-enact his famous home run, which he did happily. From SABR article:
Schaefer was called on to pinch hit with two outs in the ninth, a runner on base, and his Tigers down by a run. According to teammate Davy Jones in The Glory of Their Times, Germany announced to the crowd: "Ladies and gentlemen, you are now looking at Herman Schaefer, better known as 'Herman the Great,' acknowledged by one and all to be the greatest pinch-hitter in the world. I am now going to hit the ball into the left field bleachers. Thank you."
Facing Chicago's Doc White, Schaefer proceeded to hit the first pitch into the left field bleachers for a game-winning homer. As he made his way around the diamond, Germany supposedly slid into every base, announcing his progress as if it were a horse race as he went around. "Schaefer leads at the half!" and so on. After hook-sliding into home, he popped up, doffed his cap, bowed, and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, this concludes this afternoon's performance. I thank you for your kind attention."


Not that they aren't great athletes, they have amazing abilities. Johnny Price could toss three baseballs in the air and hit the first one forward toward the pitching mound, the second one toward the backstop on the backswing and the third - still on the fly - forwards toward the mound with a simple one-two-three swing!

Price was a baseball wizard in acrobatics and hitting/fielding drills

I have seen the footage of him driving a jeep in an orange orchard during spring training, fielding fly balls hit to him. He even sits on the hood facing backwards on the jeep wheel, steering to catch balls hit to him, or while doing a complete headstand. Not hit like, easy here ya go, hit well and go chase it! He just reaches out and grabs the ball in his glove, right out of the air, jeep in full motion with no driver! Insane stunt, I was slack jawed when I saw it on Turner Classic Movies as a baseball themed short. Havent seen it since, but it is incredible to witness.

Johnny ready to shag flies

Al in his usual attire - waiting at third

One of the forerunners of modern In-Game Entertainment Industry, Al barnstormed for decades across the country performing for anyone who had a grandstand of baseball fans. His book "Clowning Through Baseball" is a delightful read, full of anecdotes from his playing days as well as his later work as a coach and then as a professional clown.
Schacht (kneeling) and Altrock (seated) perform for the World Series crowd as Babe and John McGraw look on

Among his best work: shadowing umpires and impressions, he could mimic other players windups and batting stances, as well as being a pitcher himself.
Other great exploits include his mistakenly hiring a chauffeur who didn't know how to drive, accidentally dousing his new manager with ice cold water and entering a game on horseback - he is a fantastic character worth looking into! Hopefully we can do more on him and his partners in crime - Nick Altrock, the infamous Moe Berg and Joe Cronin.

Al Schacht performing at the 1939 World Series, super rare color video of his act between innings Al is seen beginning at 2:23 or so.

Max Patkin inherited the moniker Clown Prince of Baseball, and deservedly so. Patkin was built to be more clown than player, with a face that inspires laughter and his uniform ten sizes too large.
Coaching first or third was a chance to clown

 Seen in the movie Bull Durham towards the end of his career he made clowning in baseball a lifelong existence, inspiring todays generation of baseball performers while offering a connection with the past.


Other players were instrumental in creating the baseball clown, offering more than just baseball as their main talent was being themselves, while some took on roles thrust upon them.

King Tut - The King of Baseball Clowns, a Negro League barnstorming performer
I mentioned Dave Barnhill a few weeks ago and his grease-paint Impo persona from his time with the Miami Clowns. Obviously by the 1940s the Negro Leagues had figured out clowning was profitable and attracted crowds.

Awesome ad shows Impo Barnhill as the Zulu Cannibal Giants take on the Ethiopian Clowns

Negro league teams had a knack for going the extra mile to entertain, already paving the way by proving night baseball to be profitable. Some of the stunts seem outlandish by todays standards, but by the same token many of todays acts seem really lame when held up next to the classics!

The Famous Chicken at Riverwalk

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