Black Baseball’s “Funmakers”: Taking the Miami Ethiopian Clowns Seriously

This article was written by Brian Carroll

This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in the Sunshine State (Miami, 2016)

Found almost exclusively in black newspapers, box scores for Miami Ethiopian Clowns games read like a cast list for a Night at the Museum sequel:

King Tut, Abbadaba, Tarzan, Ulysses Grant Greene, Wahoo, Goose Tatum, Highpockets West, Peanuts Nyassas, Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia[fn]See, for example, the box score in “Crack Negro Teams Here,” Milwaukee Journal, June 22, 1941, sect. III, 5.[/fn]

Obscured by these vivid names and the vaudevillian antics that went with them is the fact that these entertainers also played first-rate baseball—as evidenced by the team’s many Negro American League and semi-pro tournament titles—and did so for longer than any other Negro League team. Taking the Clowns throughout the country on a barnstorming schedule packed with as many as 200 games per year, their annual baseball journey began each year in Miami.

Perhaps it should not surprise that the state of Florida, home to Emmett Kelly, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and the Florida Clown College, can also claim the variously named Ethiopian Clowns, a club that continued and perhaps perfected a tradition of baseball buffoonery that has been traced to the 1880s and the very beginnings of professional black baseball.[fn]“Black baseball established itself as a viable economic entity when the Cuban Giants were born” in the 1880s, according to Jerry Malloy, “The Birth of the Cuban Giants: The Origins of Black Professional Baseball,” Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Social Policy Perspectives (Spring 2004): 233.[/fn] Beginning in the late 1920s as the semiprofessional Miami Giants, baseball’s clown princes adapted and evolved along a timeline that stretched to the end of the Reagan Administration before disappearing into history’s mists as murkily as they first appeared. While certainly the longest-lived of the black teams, the Miami-Cincinnati-Indianapolis Clowns arguably were also black ball’s most successful business venture, a result primarily of the perseverance, business savvy, and adaptability of longtime Clowns owner Syd Pollock, a white Jew from Tarrytown, New York.

Because they survived so many existential threats, relocations, and changes in ownership, and due ultimately to their sheer longevity, this tireless band of baseball-playing “funmakers,” as the black newspapers liked to call them, serves as a sort of bass line when relating the many riffs, zigs, and zags of black baseball history. Leagues came and went, but the Clowns remained, sometimes welcomed by those leagues, but more often not. Jackie Robinson burst through white baseball’s color barrier, immediately siphoning off attendance at Negro Leagues games, but baseball’s jesters just kept on clowning. The team’s ownership changed hands several times, at least once in midseason, but the barnstorming bus kept rolling, taking the club’s unique blend of gags, showmanship, and diamond expertise from Dade County, Florida, to Denver, from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where eighteen-year-old Clowns shortstop Hank Aaron spent spring training in 1952, to Wichita, Kansas, where it competed in the first of that city’s many national semiprofessional tournaments.[fn]Hank Aaron, I Had A Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 28. For much more on the Kansas state championship baseball tournament, see Brian Carroll, “‘Praising my people’: Newspaper sports coverage and the integration of baseball in Wichita, Kansas,” in Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 33, no. 4 (Winter 2010–11): 240–55.[/fn]

The Clowns’ comic traditions, which ultimately can be traced to African folk culture, were more directly borrowed from the team’s immediate antecedents in Florida, the Cuban Giants, the country’s first viable black baseball venture and, therefore the team that showed there was indeed money to be made in the sport even while the color line was being re-drawn. These baseballers were neither Cuban nor exceptionally large, and they may or may not have adopted Spanishsounding “Cuban” gibberish to entertain white hotel patrons in St. Augustine, Jacksonville, and Palm Beach. What is known is that the Giants played “great ball, but, outside that they do more talking, yelling, howling and bluffing than all the teams in the league put together,” according to a report in the New York Sun in 1888.[fn]Quoted in Sporting Life, September 5, 1888.[/fn] Baseball’s first feel-good clown act was born.

The Giants owed their immediately profitable existence to the hotel building boom occurring along Florida’s east coast, starting in St. Augustine and, as snowbirds will travel, stretching to Palm Beach and Miami. By day the Giants could entertain the wealthy white clientele at the new Hotel Ponce de Leon and the Hotel Alcazar in St. Augustine, and by night the ballplayers would serve those same guests as waiters in the hotels’ restaurants. This black baseball-white hotelier business model fueled growth of the segregated sport well into the twentieth century.[fn]See Malloy’s pioneering research on the Giants in “The Birth of the Cuban Giants.” See also Brian Carroll, When to Stop the Cheering? The Black Press, the Black Community, and the Integration of Professional Baseball (New York: Routledge, 2007).[/fn] As Florida’s luxury hotels and resorts sprung up, black baseball teams followed.

By the mid-1920s, black baseball was on relatively firm footing, and though the Miami Giants’ history is shadowy at best, several accounts credit Johnny Pierce, a numbers runner and bootlegger, and Hunter Campbell with the team’s founding.[fn]See, for example, Raymond A. Mohl, “Clowning Around: The Miami Ethiopian Clowns and Cultural Conflict in Black Baseball,” Tequesta LXII (2002): 46; Neil Lanctot, Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution (Philadelphia: University of Penn Press, 2007), 108; and Alan J. Pollock, Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and His Great Black Teams, James A. Riley, ed. (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2006): 27, 49–50, 60.[/fn] (A member of the 1934–36 Giants teams, John “Buck” O’Neil, remembered a teammate, coincidentally named Buck O’Neal, to have been a co-owner with Pierce, but that memory is not corroborated by any other source.[fn]John Holway, Black Diamonds: Life in the Negro Leagues from the Men Who Lived It (Westport, Conn.: Meckler Books, 1989), 94. In his recounting, O’Neil got his nickname, Buck, from O’Neal, who came to the team from Waycross, Georgia. According to Alan J. Pollock, O’Neal was with the Miami Giants until 1935, when he moved to New York City and became a groundskeeper at Yankee Stadium.[/fn]) Pierce’s and Campbell’s choice of “Giants” as team moniker is not surprising; black teams frequently adopted “Giants,” and they did so throughout the history of the Negro Leagues, a practice that also saved owners advertising money. If fans saw “Giants” on an announcement or advertisement, according to Negro Leagues historian Larry Lester, they could assume it was a black team.[fn]Personal interview, January 9, 2004, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Incorporating “Giants” in a team name was homage to the Cuban Giants and, later, to the New York Giants. Long-time New York manager John McGraw very publicly supported integration and on occasion attempted to finagle a black player onto his roster.[/fn]

Pierce’s Giants frequently played Charles Henry’s Zulu Cannibal Giants, another traveling “clowning” team that played its winter baseball in Miami. “Saturday [the Zulus] paraded up and down Second Avenue, a big avenue for blacks in Miami, and that Sunday we packed that little ball park there,” Buck O’Neil remembered.[fn]Holway, Black Diamonds, 94. Second Avenue is in Overtown, which was called Colored Town during the Jim Crow era, home to Dorsey Park where the Miami Giants and Miami Clowns played.[/fn] The parades were a form of promotion, to get the word out of an upcoming game, according to another Miami Giant, Leroy Cromartie. “We’d go all over town, riding on the car, blowing horns. That’s the way we really got them in.”[fn]Cesar Brioso, “Memories of the Game,” (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel, October 15, 2000, available: Cromartie’s son, Warren Cromartie, played for the Montreal Expos and Tokyo Giants.[/fn] Based out of Louisville, Kentucky, the Zulus were known for wearing grass skirts and wigs, painting their faces in war paint, and performing war dances in bare feet: an assortment of gimmicks that provides a lens through which to see why so many in the black community found these clowning teams at best problematic. Playing to the worst of black stereotypes, and distracting from these teams’ otherwise impressive athletic achievements on the field, such “minstrel” acts prevented many black sportswriters from acknowledging these teams as full-fledged members of black baseball. The sportswriters blamed what they called “sideshows” for impeding the progress of the race. Pittsburgh Courier sports editor Wendell Smith wrote that he did not like the potential effect on the perceptions of whites regarding black baseball. Whites “like to believe” that the slapstick comedy and nonsensical approach “is typical and characteristic of all Negroes.”[fn]“Smitty’s Sports-Spurts,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 16, 1942, 17. Cromartie was speaking of the second iteration of the Miami Giants owned by Monk Silva, who bought the team’s uniforms from Pierce. The Clowns typically played Silva’s Giants at Miami’s Dorsey Park to open and close their seasons, and Monk agreed to store the Clowns’ bus during the winters (Pollock, Barnstorming to Heaven, 116, 137).[/fn] The Chicago Defender called such minstrelsy “a detriment to Negro league baseball.”[fn]“Bar League Ball Clubs From Playing Clowns,” Chicago Defender, January 3, 1942, 20.[/fn]

Nonetheless, Pierce and Campbell were apparently inspired by the Zulus to take their Giants along baseball’s “minstrel circuit,” as historian Donn Rogosin put it.[fn]Donn Rogosin, Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Lincoln, Neb.: Bison Books, 2007), 146.[/fn] Campbell bought two Cadillacs with running boards to transport the team, and he contracted with Syd Pollock to book Giants’ games in the Northeast, as Pollock was doing for the Zulus. Sometime in 1936, Pierce and Campbell re-cast the Giants as the Miami Ethiopian Clowns; newspaper reports first began featuring the new name in June of that year.[fn]See “Ethiopian Clowns Play Here,” Montreal Gazette CLXV, no. 152, June 26, 1936, 14.[/fn] Perhaps the moniker was fashioned to quickly communicate both the color of the players and the comic entertainment with which they would intersperse games. “Clowns” makes sense; it references the shadow ball, pepper, and vaudeville sketches and routines the team would perfect and perform for more than fifty years. But why “Ethiopian”?

Pierce and Campbell seemed to have simply borrowed from the headlines of the black newspapers, including the big weeklies, the Defender and Courier. Benito Mussolini’s Italy attacked Ethiopia in 1935, beginning a six-year war that the black press closely followed and routinely put on its front page, in sharp contrast to the mainstream press. In Harlem in March 1935, in the lead-up to war, for example, “everybody from elevator boys to jazz orchestra leaders was equally disturbed” by the possibility of armed conflict.[fn]“War Fears in Italo-Ethiopia Rift,” Literary Digest, March 9, 1935, 14.[/fn] Throughout Italy’s forced colonization, the black papers expressed sympathy for Ethiopia, which had a black leader (Haile Selassie).

The team’s Ethiopia reference was seen by some as exploitation of black sympathy, which encouraged Negro league owners to oppose adding the Clowns to their ranks. Homestead Grays co-owner Cum Posey, for example, wrote in his weekly Courier column in 1942 that sportswriters would “always feel disgusted at Syd [Pollock] for… capitalizing on the rape of Ethiopia when that country was in distress.”[fn]“Posey’s Points,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 4, 1942, 16.[/fn] The Afro-American’s E.B. Rea took a different view, calling the move to block the Clowns “as funny as the Clowns themselves.” If so many were paying to see them joke and jest, how much more ardently would they turn out to see them play Negro American competition? Rea asked.[fn]E. B. Rea, “Down My Street,” The Afro-American, January 10, 1942, 21.[/fn] Importantly, however, the sports columnist took exception to the “buffoonery” for which the Clowns were known, describing it as unbecoming a team hoping to “crash white baseball.”

Pollock did most of the booking of venues for the Clowns’ barnstorming up and down the East Coast, which is why in 1937, with Pierce’s health faltering, Pollock stepped in with much-needed capital to keep the team bus rolling. According to Pollock’s son, Alan, his father paid Pierce’s widow for his share, though in another of Alan Pollock’s accounts, the transfer of ownership came as a result of his father funding the team’s barnstorming season. Mohl describes Pierce as bitter over Pollock’s takeover, meaning that the elder Pollock took an ownership stake before Pierce died in 1937.[fn]Mohl, “Clowning Around,” 63, citing a 1998 telephone interview with Alan J. Pollock, Syd Pollock’s son.[/fn] Campbell, who was the team’s business manager on the road, continued with the team until his death in December 1942.[fn]“Hunter Campbell, “Clowns Ball Club Owner, Is Dead,” Chicago Defender, December 19, 1942, 20.[/fn] In Pollock’s and Campbell’s care, the Ethiopian Clowns became a dependable box office hit in the late thirties, drawing crowds wherever they went, including Yankee Stadium and Comiskey Park, where they regularly outdrew major league clubs.[fn]“Black Yanks to Play Clowns,” The New York Times, July 7, 1945, 8.[/fn]

Pollock’s own career in black baseball began more than a decade earlier, in 1928, when he bought from Ramiro Ramirez the Havana Red Sox, a squad of mostly Cuban players that began each season in Miami. The Red Sox began barnstorming the next season with an eight-game set against an amateur team fielded by the Miami Athletic Club. After adding shadow ball and comic routines in 1930, the team became the Florida Cuban Giants, then for 1931 the Cuban House of David, and finally the Cuban Stars in 1932. The Cuban House of David name “borrowed” from a popular white barnstorming team, a Benton Harbor, Michigan-based band of bearded baseballers known as the House of David, which saw several copycat teams pop up throughout the country. To combat the name infringements, the preexisting House of David team resorted to calling itself the House of David Originals.[fn]“House of David Originals to Trot Out Here Sunday Against Two Spokane Baseball Teams,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 18, 1935, 16.[/fn] “I originated the ‘pepper game,’ and now almost every traveling club in the country and eight or 10 university teams feature the game,” Originals owner J.L. “Doc” Talley told a newspaper. Neither Cuban nor Jewish, Pollock’s Cuban House of David players, likewise, grew their hair out to match their moniker, likely further irritating Doc Talley. According to Pollock’s own promotional materials, these bewhiskered baseballers were “the strangest of baseball’s aggregations and a weird and eccentric attraction.”[fn]“Colored Cuban Club of House of David Coming to Victoria,” Victoria Daily Advocate, March 2, 1931, 3.[/fn] St. Petersburg’s black Florida Stars were frequent foes for the team, particularly on its annual treks north from Havana through Florida.[fn]“Negro Baseball Team to Tackle Cuban Tossers,” St. Petersburg Times, March 29, 1931, 13.[/fn]

Thus, when Pollock began steering the Clowns, he had already experimented with blends of baseball and comedy, and he had learned and even perfected how to promote the games in the pages of the black newspapers. Even a casual reading of these weeklies reveals how many of Pollock’s advances, which today would be called press releases, made it into publication virtually unaltered: “Unmatched comedy, stellar big league baseball, plus all sorts of added attractions are on tap at Comiskey Park on July 4,” read one such article, published as straight news in the Chicago Defender.[fn]“Clowns To Bring Lot Of Comedy,” Chicago Defender, June 26, 1954, 12.[/fn] “Featuring the inimitable King Tut and his cohort, Spec Bebop, in the fun-laughing department, the ‘Imps of the Diamond’ are more popular today than ever before,” the article states.[fn]King Tut’s given name was Edward King. Spec Bebop’s was Ralph Bell. King played for the Clowns from 1938 to 1950.[/fn] Trying to balance the values of entertainment with those of athletic competition, another of Pollock’s advances, which ran in several newspapers, claimed that the team’s “funmaking” in no way interfered with “their able playing, for with all their horse-play, they show more speed than a flock of gazelles, handle the ball with the dexterity of shellgame manipulators, and at any stage of a tilt, convulse the fans when infielders and outfielders alike recline on the ground while pitchers hurl their smoke ball past their batsmen.”[fn]In Mohl, “Clowning Around,” 52.[/fn] By the early fifties, Pollock was sending out thirty thousand press releases a year.[fn]Ibid., 51.[/fn]

Dave Barnhill, who began with the Clowns before becoming a New York Cuban and, in 1949, a farmhand with the New York Giants, provided baseball historian John Holway with a vivid remembrance of game days with the funmakers: “We’d come to the park with [grease] paint on our faces like a clown. Even the bat boy had his face painted too. We wore clowning wigs and the big old clown uniforms with ruffled collars. My clowning name was Impo. We’d play ‘shadow ball’…Then when we were supposed to get down to business, we pulled the clown suits off, and we had our regular baseball uniforms underneath. But we didn’t change our faces. We played with the clown paint still on our faces.”[fn]Holway, Black Diamonds, 139–40.[/fn]

The fact that Barnhill, a player with Negro League bona fides such that he would be considered for a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates and eventually rise as high as Triple-A in the New York Giants organization, had to clown with a stage name of “Impo” demonstrates the sort of Faustian bargain black athletes and entertainers alike had to make in order to do what they loved most.[fn]“Negro Ball Players Might Get Try-Outs,” Chicago Defender, August 1, 1942, 25.[/fn] As Hall-of-Famer Hank Aaron put it, the Clowns “didn’t have the luxury of concerning themselves with something like tradition.”[fn]Aaron, I Had A Hammer, 29.[/fn] Aaron joined the Clowns in 1952 as a brash eighteen-year-old from Mobile, Alabama; he refused to have anything to do with the clown acts, leaving that to the older players such as Reece “Goose” Tatum, the long-time on-field leader of and first baseman for the Clowns, and Buster Haywood.

In the forties, many black newspapers simply refused to cover the Clowns, seeing them as an embarrassment to blacks everywhere.[fn]“Bar League Ball Clubs From Playing Clowns,” Chicago Defender, January 3, 1942, 20.[/fn] The Courier’s Smith wrote in 1942 that “this aggregation travels around the country capitalizing on slap-stick comedy and the kind of non-sense which many white people like to believe is typical and characteristic of all Negroes.” The pantomime acts belonged not on a baseball diamond, he wrote, but on “those Mississippi showboats.”[fn]“Smitty’s Sports Spurts,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 16, 1942, 17.[/fn] Calling them a “fourth-rate Uncle Tom minstrel show,” he objected again the next season, as well, this time to the club’s “unnecessary monkeyshines.”[fn]“Smitty’s Sports Spurts,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 23, 1943, 16.[/fn] Smith, Posey, and others believed that Pollock and other black baseball interlopers sought to exploit negative racial stereotypes in a trivialization of the black game, a view that in historical hindsight seems unfair. Pollock’s contributions to black baseball were vast, even legendary. But he was not the only target. The Courier called Abe Saperstein, owner of the Chicago-based Harlem Globetrotters, a “bad influence,” because by booking games for the Clowns he was “ridiculing Negro baseball, Negro players and the race in general.”[fn]“July 27 Set As Date Of East-West Game,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 28, 1941, 16.[/fn] Neither did the newspapers cover with any frequency similar “clown” acts, such as those of the Zulu Cannibal Giants, Louisville Black Spiders, Tennessee Rats, or Jax Zulos of New Orleans.[fn]The Jax Zulos wore grass skirts and featured pitcher Bolo Power (“Zulos Play Houston Twin Bill June 25,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 24, 1944, 12). The Rats were one of the earliest black clubs to pair minstrelsy with baseball (“90 Years Ago – Play Rats,” Lyon County (Iowa) Recorder, August 4, 1999, 2).[/fn]

For these reasons, in 1940 the Negro League owners agreed in a rare spirit of collaboration to prohibit member clubs from playing the Clowns. But many clubs simply ignored the ban, finding Pollock’s drawing power too substantial to ignore. The Kansas City Monarchs and Chicago American Giants were among the first to schedule exhibition games. The next season, owners again threatened to ban the Clowns over Pollock’s use of “Ethiopian,” an insult that Posey said “capitalized” on the downfall of the “only empire which really belonged to the Negro race.”[fn]“Posey’s Points,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 5, 1941, 16.[/fn] For his part, Pollock said the name had been approved by Ethiopia’s government before Italy’s invasion.[fn]Lanctot, Negro League Baseball, 109. Because the government had been ousted, such a claim would have been impossible to verify.[/fn] Once again by June, Negro league teams were again doing business with the Clowns, who had added at least two new “reams” or acts: “the lightning two ball infield drill” and “a fishing act.”[fn]“Crack Negro Teams Here,” Milwaukee Journal, June 22, 1941, sect. III, 5. For the fishing sketch, King Tut and Spec Bebop would sit on the infield grass as in a boat, casting their bats like rods, and waiting for a bite. Tut would pretend to hook a marlin or tarpon, quaking and shaking with the ebb and flow of the big fish. Dragged underwater, Tut and Bebop would “swim” ashore (Pollock, Barnstorming to Heaven, 10).[/fn] Even one of Pollock’s most vocal critics, Defender sports editor Fay Young, conceded that, “whether some of us like the white chalk on the players’ faces or not, the Clowns prove from the crowds they draw, that they have something the public wants.”[fn]Lanctot, Negro League Baseball, 109–10.[/fn]

Unable to enforce yet another ban in 1942, a prohibition supported by “the sports editors of the various papers,” the Negro American League agreed for the 1943 season to add the newly christened Cincinnati Clowns. The name change allowed the league and its owners to save face.[fn]“12 League Clubs to Bar Clowns and ‘Cuban’ Teams,” Afro-American, January 3, 1942, 21.[/fn] But as usual, the Clowns began their touring, traveling season at Dorsey Park in Miami.[fn]“Baseball Bits,” Afro-American, March 27, 1943, 23. In a memorable spring season opener, Pollock brought Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, “the world’s fastest human,” to Dorsey Park in April 1940 (Elliott J. Pieze, “Miami,” Afro-American, April 13, 1940, 23). Little evidence of Dorsey Park’s central role in black Miami’s cultural life of the thirties remains, though there is a part of what was the grandstand behind home plate. Sun-Sentinel writer Cesar Brosario called Dorsey Park a “focal point of Miami’s African-American community” of the thirties and forties (“Memories of the Game”).[/fn] In a league as topsy-turvy as the Negro American, the Clowns were a constant, playing in a dozen straight seasons and winning four out of five championships during the years 1950–54. Relocated to Indianapolis in 1946 after shuttling back and forth between Cincinnati and Indy for two seasons, the club weathered the post-integration storm, one that saw black fans switch allegiances to freshly desegregated squads such as the Dodgers, White Sox, and Cardinals. Founded in 1920 purposely to effect integration, the Negro Leagues discovered that achieving that goal made them increasingly irrelevant.[fn]Founders of the Negro National League believed that a product on the field equal or superior to major league baseball would force integration. One of those founders, Chicago’s Rube Foster, also believed that integration would occur by adding an entire all-black team, and he had every intention of being the owner and manager of that all-black major league entry.[/fn]

For Smith, the Negro Leagues were by 1950, “on the ropes and ready for the killing,” a description that preceded “probably the worst [season] in the history of Negro baseball.”[fn]Wendell Smith, “The Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 16, 1950, 24.[/fn] Larry Lester ends his history of the East-West Game in 1953, when it drew only 10,000 fans, even though the all-star game continued in some form until 1963.[fn]Larry Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game, 1933–1953 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).[/fn] He justifies his endpoint with the fact that the 1953 edition was the last to showcase a Negro leaguer on his way to the major leagues, Ernie Banks. Smith reported that big league scouts on hand to evaluate the fast-shrinking pool of talent that year were “underwhelmed” with what they saw.[fn]Wendell Smith, “All-Star Tilt Fails To Impress Scouts From Big Leagues,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 22, 1953, 14.[/fn] Certainly by the mid-1950s the Negro American League was semi-professional at best. League games were diversions that relied ever more on sideshow entertainment and less on athletic achievement or competition. And this was of course perfect for the Clowns.

It is no mistake that Kansas City’s home opener in 1953 versus the Clowns drew 18,205 fans—a good crowd by even major league standards—or that a Monarchs- Clowns doubleheader in June drew more than 21,000, one of the largest crowds to see any baseball game in Detroit that season.[fn]“21,399 See Kaycees Win Twin Bill,” Chicago Defender, July 2, 1953, 27.[/fn] The Monarchs had Ernie Banks, and the Clowns had professional baseball’s first female, second baseman Toni Stone. Pollock wasn’t finished pioneering. Though she was a solid player, the addition of Stone for a reported $12,000 was primarily a bid to sell tickets.[fn]In Kansas City that Sunday in mid-May, Stone struck out and grounded out in three innings of play (Russ Cowans, “Richardson Gives 8 Hits To Loses [sic],” Chicago Defender, May 28, 1953, 30). For the season, Stone hit .243 in 74 at-bats and 50 games. Seventeen of her eighteen hits were singles, she knocked in only three runs, and she stole one base (“Monarchs Win Crown In NAL,” Chicago Defender, September 24, 1953, 28). Monarch manager Buck O’Neil wrote in his autobiography that Kansas City’s signing of Stone the next season was “not because she was the best second baseman around but because she could give us a boost at the gate.” (I Was Right On Time, 194). Stone was in 1954 the highest-paid Monarch, but it is unlikely she was in fact paid $12,000. Alan J. Pollock guesses she made $300 per month (Barnstorming to Heaven, 243).[/fn] The former Minnesota high school star gave the Clowns “a road attraction unequalled in Negro baseball,” according to the Defender, which at this critical stage of black baseball’s viability did not question or criticize Pollock’s latest gimmick.[fn]“Clowns Blazing in Second Half,” Chicago Defender, July 23, 1953, 26.[/fn]

Over in Pittsburgh, failing to see any irony in his position, Smith criticized Pollock and Stone for breaking baseball’s sex barrier. The champion of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, the Boswell to Robinson’s Johnson, Smith asserted that “a woman’s place is in the home!” and not on a baseball diamond.[fn]Wendell Smith, “The Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1953, 14.[/fn] He wrote that “it is, indeed, unfortunate that Negro baseball has collapsed to the extent it must tie itself to a woman’s apron strings in order to survive. … Mr. Pollock is trying to convince us that she plays second base like Jackie Robinson.” He wondered how bad black ball’s hurlers had to be to enable “a doll” to hit .217—“not bad for a dame.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] It meant that the pitchers had nothing on the ball “but the cover.” More characteristic of coverage during this period, however, was that of the Defender, which heralded Indy’s clown prince Ed Hamann for his “hilarious diamond entertainment,” which included “in-throws, pepperball shennanigans [sic] and feats of new magic… guaranteed to make even the most casehardened fan roar with glee.”[fn]“Clowns Using Giant, Comic To Win Fans,” Chicago Defender, December 13, 1952, 13. See also “Clowns Blazing in Second Half,” Chicago Defender, July 23, 1953, 26. For more on this era of the Clowns’ history, see Bill Heward (with Dimitri V. Gat), Some Are Called Clowns: A Season with the Last of the Great Barnstorming Baseball Teams (New York: Crowell, 1974). The book is a memoir, however, and not a documented history.[/fn] The Defender’s coverage read just as one might think Pollock had wanted it to, celebrating the entertainment values of the “Imps of the Diamond,” a “baseball circus really worth seeing.”[fn]“Clowns To Bring Lot Of Comedy,” Chicago Defender, June 26, 1954, 12.[/fn] The newspapers were publishing Pollock’s press releases without alteration.

In 1954, after losing Stone to the Monarchs, Pollock added two more female players—second baseman Connie Morgan and pitcher Mamie “Peanut” Johnson— in order to deliver “unmatched comedy.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] All that remained for black baseball, it seemed, was barnstorming, which the Clowns did well into the late eighties, or long after Pollock’s retirement after the 1964 season, through at least three more ownership changes, and despite reverse-integrating in 1968.[fn]Pollock sold controlling interest in the team in January 1965 to long-time road manager Ed Hamann for $3,885, according to Pollock’s son, Alan (Barnstorming to Heaven, 380). By the eighties, the team was entirely white.[/fn] Thus, in important ways, the Clowns’ history is black baseball’s history: a product of segregation, a (mostly) black institution often exploited by astute white businessmen, an expression and celebration of black culture and identity, but also a vehicle for stereotype, misunderstanding, and at times degradation. Through it all, the Clowns proved innovative, resourceful, and resilient, much like the sport that so desperately needed them. And though they were required to “shine” in order to entertain and perhaps to reassure white audiences, many also dazzled with their play, showing skill that laughter cannot and should not obscure.

BRIAN CARROLL is professor and chair of Communication at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia, where he has taught journalism since 2003. He is author of When to Stop Cheering? The Black Press, the Black Community and Black Baseball (Routledge, 2007); and The Black Press and Black Baseball, 1915–1955: A Devil’s Bargain (Routledge, 2015). Before joining the professorate, he was a sportswriter for 10 years covering minor league baseball for The (Greensboro, NC) News and Record. He serves on the editorial board of Black Ball.