May 12, 1946: Indianapolis Clowns, Chicago American Giants play to 20-inning tie
When the Indianapolis Clowns and the Chicago American Giants battled in a Negro American League game on May 12, 1946, it ultimately was an exercise in frustration for the players. The two teams played 20 innings, and with the game tied 3-3, it was finally called by darkness without a winner. But while the fans who stayed until the end that chilly afternoon may have wanted the game to continue until somebody won,1 they also had just witnessed one of the most impressive pitching duels in years.
The Indianapolis Clowns were unlike other teams in the Negro Leagues: They were comedians as well as athletes. Before being admitted into the Negro American League in 1943,2 they had played in Miami and then Cincinnati, where they established a reputation for zany, vaudeville-style antics. Their club name referred to the fact that the players were known for “clowning around” and making the fans laugh, in addition to playing baseball.3 To be a successful member of the Clowns meant being able to fulfill that dual role.
For example, the starting pitcher in the 20-inning marathon was Ed “Peanuts” Davis. According to his 1942 draft card, his full name was Edward Arnett Davis, but few newspapers of his day referred to him that way. He was usually called Ed “Peanuts” Davis. A native of Jackson, Mississippi, he supposedly picked up the nickname while still in high school, working part-time as a peanut vendor during minor-league games.4
Some sources erroneously made his nickname into “Peanut”; equally common was the use of his Clowns pseudonym, “Nyasses.” Many of the Clowns’ players used faux-African names, to go along with their original team identity as the “Ethiopian Clowns.” In addition to Nyasses, there were players nicknamed, “Kalahari, Mofike, Selassie, Tarzan, [and] Khora.”5
But by any name, Davis was widely respected for his comedic routines. White sportswriters called him the “colored clown prince of baseball,”6 and they often compared him to another “clown prince,” former major leaguer Al Schacht.7
But Davis was much more than just a jokester. As one reporter for the Black press pointed out, “He’s a brilliant hurler … and a standout also if stationed anywhere in the outfield or infield.” In fact, the reporter said Davis was the equal of any pitcher in Negro Leagues baseball – including the great Satchel Paige. And while he could be “as funny as the proverbial barrel of monkeys,” when it came time to pitch he was totally serious, and had no trouble getting opposing hitters out.8 He not only had a good fastball but was known for his excellent knuckleball; one of his teammates, veteran second baseman Ray Neil, said Davis threw the best knuckler he had ever seen.9
Even a stint in the Army during World War II, which kept Davis away from the Clowns for three years, did not stop him from being a successful pitcher. It may have even helped: He got regular practice during his military service because he was part of an Army team stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. Among his teammates were many other Negro Leaguers, including Ed “Pepper” Young of the Chicago American Giants and Robert “Pepper” Sharpe of the Memphis Red Sox.10 The Fort Benning team competed in exhibition games against barnstorming Black clubs; and sometimes the competition might include a Negro League team that was in the area.11 The mission of the Fort Benning team was to boost morale. They entertained their fellow soldiers, as well as the local fans, and sometimes, they played in support of a local charity.
When Davis rejoined the Clowns in April 1946, just in time for the Negro American League season, he resumed his role as a starting pitcher, and was ready for Opening Day,12 which was good news for Clowns manager (and third baseman) Jesse “Hoss” Walker. And when the Clowns played the Giants on May 12, Davis once again got the call.
Meanwhile, Giants manager Candy Jim Taylor went with Gentry Jessup, who was known as “one of the leading hurlers” in the Negro Leagues,13 and was the ace of the Giants’ staff. The weather was cloudy and cool, with temperatures barely reaching 50, and although by game’s end the fans were “shivering,” more than 9,000 of them traveled to Comiskey Park to see the two teams play.14 (The two teams played in better weather a month later, in a game that featured a rematch of Davis and Jessup; this time, as many as 25,000 fans were expected at Comiskey Park.)15
It may have been uncomfortable for the fans to sit in the stands on such a chilly May afternoon, but what they saw did not disappoint: the game had numerous twists and turns. The Giants scored first, with a run in the second. The Clowns tied the game in the fifth, and then went ahead with two runs in the sixth: Howard “Duke” Cleveland drove in one of the runs, and Efigenio “Coco” Ferrer drove in the other.
But the Giants fought back, scoring one in the seventh, and then tying the game in the bottom of the ninth, when left fielder Jim McCurine tripled, scoring Pepper Young, who had singled.
And then, it turned into an epic pitching duel: amazingly, neither man lost any effectiveness despite pitching the entire game.16 In 20 innings of work, Jessup gave up 13 hits, and Davis gave up 15. Jessup struck out 11, while Davis struck out 8.17 Each team had the occasional runner on base during extra innings, but neither the Clowns nor the Giants could break through.18
But by now, it was getting dark, and the umpires decided to call the game at the end of the 20th inning. Some of the fans who had stayed till the bitter end were undoubtedly wishing the teams might keep playing, but it was not to be. The game went into the books as a tie.
In our modern world, where relief pitchers are the norm and complete games are not as common as they were in the 1940s,19 it is rare for one pitcher to last 10 innings, let alone 20 innings, the way Davis and Jessup did. But then, both men were known for finishing what they started, Gentry Jessup especially: He started 22 games and completed 19 of them. Davis, who sometimes pitched in exhibition games,20 or was called upon to pitch in relief,21 started 17 league games for the Clowns, and completed 12 of them.
Meanwhile, the 20-inning game on May 12 was a tie in more ways than one: It also tied the record for the longest Negro Leagues game. Back in August 1922, the Chicago American Giants of the Negro National League, managed by the legendary Rube Foster, came out victorious in a 20-inning game against New York’s Bacharach Giants, finally winning it 1-0.
At the end of the 1946 season, the Clowns finished fourth in the Negro American League, with a 35-48 record; the Giants also had a losing record, finishing sixth, at 39-64. But those records were deceptive: both teams had some dynamic players, and both teams were capable of playing exciting baseball. And on a chilly Sunday afternoon in mid-May, both teams demonstrated what fierce competitors they were, as they battled for 20 innings in a game that nobody won.
This article was fact-checked by Stew Thornley and copy-edited by Len Levin.
The author consulted Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, various SABR biographies, and several newspaper databases. Retrosheet’s collection of Negro Leagues records, based on information compiled as of December 2022, was especially helpful for the author’s research of Ed “Peanuts” Davis and Gentry Jessup and the 1946 Negro American League season.
The author is also grateful to Baltimore-based researcher Donna Hesson, and the reference librarians at the Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Jackson (Mississippi) public libraries.
1 “Clowns, Chicago Play 20-Inning 3-3 Tie,” Chicago Defender, May 18, 1946: 11.
2 “Cincinnati Clowns Start Spring Training in Miami,” Jackson (Mississippi) Advocate, February 27, 1943: 6. Some of the team’s promotional materials referred to the “Cincinnati-Indianapolis Clowns,” even though the team played almost all of its home games at Victory Field in Indianapolis. A majority of the newspapers, especially those in close proximity to Indianapolis, did not use the Cincinnati-Indianapolis name. But others continued to employ the hyphenated version sporadically until about 1946. Sports reporters like Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier opposed this practice: He believed Clowns owner Syd Pollock was being deceptive in insisting the team served both cities. Smith took the owner to task in his May 13, 1944, column, saying that the team had moved to Indianapolis, and the name should reflect that fact.
3 Alexa Brown, “Short Stops: Real Clowning Around,” National Baseball Hall of Fame, July 6, 2022: https://baseballhall.org/discover/shortstops/real-clowning-around.
4 “Peanuts Nyasses, Baseball’s Stepin Fetchit,” Chicago Daily News, August 1, 1942, Pictorial Section: 8.
5 Alan J. Pollock and James A. Riley, Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and His Great Black Teams (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 49.
6 “World’s Champs of Negro Ranks in Second Visit,” Chester (Pennsylvania) Times, June 19, 1940: 14.
7 “Fans Urged to Come Early to Watch Clowns,” Davenport (Iowa) Daily Times, June 11, 1941: 19.
8 “Ethiopian Clowns Open at Macon,” Birmingham (Alabama) Weekly Review, April 24, 1942: 7.
9 Pollock and Riley, 165.
10 “Brown Bombers Play Benning Club in Twin Feature Next Sunday,” Birmingham News, June 17, 1945: 3B.
11 “Black Barons to Play Fort Benning or Stars in Game at Rickwood,” Birmingham, News, June 25, 1944: 2B.
12 “Negro Opener at Russwood Sunday,” Memphis Press-Scimitar, May 3, 1946: 18.
13 “Clowns Here Wednesday,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 4, 1945: 16.
14 “Clowns, Chicago Play 20-Inning 3-3 Tie,” Chicago Defender, May 18, 1946: 11.
15 “Negro Giants Face Clowns Tonight,” Chicago Sun, June 13, 1946: 24.
16 “Clowns, American Giants Play 20 Innings, 3-3 Tie,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 18, 1946: 9.
17 “Giants, Clowns Tie, 3-3, in 20 Inning Game,” Chicago Tribune, May 13, 1946: 29.
18 “Clowns, Chicago Play 20-Inning 3-3 Tie,” Chicago Defender, May 18, 1946: 11.
19 For example, in 1946, Cleveland Indians star Bob Feller pitched 36 complete games; in 2022, Miami Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara pitched a league-leading six.
20 “Clowns Play Seattle; Owens in Exhibition,” Indianapolis Star, July 18, 1946: 18.
21 “Clowns Dubbed by Grays 10-4,” Indianapolis Star, July 12, 1946: 19.
Indianapolis Clowns 3
Chicago American Giants 3
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