This article was written by Rob Edelman
This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)
You will not find Joe E. Brown’s name in a major league box score. But in his way, he is as much a part of baseball lore as the Gas House Gang, the Whiz Kids, and the House That Ruth Built.
Joe E. Brown was a movie star: a wide-mouthed co median whose face was his fortune. The zenith of his popularity came in the 1930s, when he appeared in a series of hit comedies produced by Warner Bros. Three of them-Fireman, Save My Child (1932), Elmer the Great (1933), and Alibi Ike (1935)-featured Joe E. as comical baseball players. Moreover, Brown was around the game all his life. He played baseball. He loved baseball. And he was a vigorous proponent of the game.
Joseph Evan Brown was born on July 28, 1892, in Holgate, a small town in northwestern Ohio. His parents were warm and loving but desperately poor, and young Joe E. was determined to abandon his roots and embrace a life of adventure. “I remember when I was a little guy going to school, stopping to look at a big 24-inch sheet announcing the arrival of the circus,” he recalled in 1963. “Another boy was with me. I pointed to the aerial act and said, ‘That’s what I’m gonna be.’ I remember it clearly. I didn’t say, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ I said, ‘That’s what I’m gonna be.”‘
And so, at the age of nine, Joe E. lived out what for other youngsters would be a storybook fantasy as he left home to join the circus. He became the junior member of The Five Marvelous Ashtons, an acrobatic act that toured the country performing under big tops and in vaudeville theaters. He earned $1.50 a week for the honor of being tossed through the air, and often being bloodied. As he grew into adolescence, Brown developed into a solidly proficient acrobat. While playing a date in San Francisco, he experienced firsthand the 1906 earthquake. It was around this time that he linked up with acrobats Tommy Bell and Frank Prevost and became the junior member of the Bell-Prevost Trio, a vaudeville act.
During this period Brown managed to play baseball whenever he could. He wrote in his autobiography, Laughter Is a Wonderful Thing, that his passion for the game “predates my first days at school, of that I’ m sure, so it probably began when I learned to walk.” In his youth, he explained, he
began haunting the knotholes around big league ball parks when 1 wasn’t on stage or practicing. And in the spring, after a season of sore ankles, skinned wrists, and broken legs, baseball as a career held more than a casual interest for me.
In 1908, Brown decided that he would seek summer employment as a ballplayer. Tim Flood, manager of the St. Paul Saints in the American Association, signed him as a second sacker, but his season ended abruptly when he broke his leg while sliding into third base. During the next few summers he played for various semipro teams in the Toledo, OH, area, including the Crowley All-Stars, Young Avondales, and Needham’s All-Stars. One of the many baseball-related photos printed in his autobiography features a serious-looking Brown, with arms folded, garbed in a Crowley All-Stars uniform and posing with a dozen teammates.
In 1911, when he was 19, Brown was offered a Boston Red Sox contract. At the time, he also had a lucrative offer to appear in a burlesque show. He already had spent a decade in show business, and realized that his best chance for long-term success was on the stage. So burlesque won out over baseball.
On Christmas Eve, 1915, Brown wed Kathryn Frances McGraw. The couple eventually became the parents of two sons and two adopted daughters. As Joe E. now had a family to support, his career choice was appropriate given his now-steady employment on the stage. By this time, he had morphed from acrobat to comic actor. On occasion, he even incorporated baseball into his stage act. The New York Times described one such routine, in which “a young pitcher [is] harried by batters, umpires and base runners.” Brown often quipped that he
once had a major league job. The manager wanted me to play third base. He said that ifT couldn’t reach the ball with my hands, I would open my mouth and catch it between my teeth. I tried it once and darn near swallowed the ball.
His Great White Way debut came in Jim Jam Jems (1920), and he spent the decade as a headliner appearing on Broadway and touring in stage shows. But he was not through playing baseball. In 1920, Brown worked out and appeared in exhibition games with the Red Sox.
Throughout his career, newspaper or magazine pro files of Brown invariably cited his love of baseball-and his talent for playing the game. As far back as March 1921, the Boston Globe reported that Brown “has recently received an offer from the New York Americans to play with the team this year.” The actor added,
At one time I played [semipro ball in Toledo], but an accident to my arm made it necessary for me to give it up. Since then I have received many offers to go back into baseball but it would be rather foolish alter I had started a successful career on the stage.
While a fine athlete — his athleticism is ever apparent in his baseball films, as he tosses balls and belts line drives without the aid of special effects or body doubles — it is debatable whether Brown possessed the talent to sustain a major league career. During a moment of candor in a 1937 interview, he even admitted, “[There] are a lot of stories about my baseball playing, but most of my big-league experiences happened in the imagination of various writers.”
Brown’s celebrity status, however, did allow him to maintain his insider access to major leaguers. On April 18, 1922, the Boston Globe reported, “The Red Sox and Yankees occupied boxes last night at ‘Greenwich Village Follies’ at the Shubert Theatre as guests of Joe E. Brown, the principal comedian in the show.” The item concluded by noting that Brown “was formerly a professional baseball player.”
By this time Brown’s calling card was his face rather than his physical aptitude. A Boston Globe profile of the comic began: ‘”Did you ever see anything so funny as that man’s expression,’ exclaimed a woman in the audience at the Wilbur Theatre… as she gazed upward at Joe E. Brown, comedian of’ Jim Jam Jems.”‘ The article continued, “He has a comic style particularly his own, and not the least part of his success is the expression of his countenance. He doesn’t have to say a word to get a laugh.”
Nevertheless, the nature of Brown’s comedy primarily was physical-and it was a wonder that he did not become a silent cinema comedian. His screen debut did not come until the dawn of the sound era, in Crooks Can’t Win (1928), an inauspicious melodrama. He quickly established himself, however, upon signing a Warner Bros. contract and appearing in a series of come dies in which he alternately played two character types, both of whom were rubes. One was self-centered, with a mouth that was figuratively and literally big. The other was more shy and naive.
Brown’s three baseball films were especially popular. The first was Fireman, Save My Child, in which he starred as “Smokey” Joe Grant, an absentminded, Rube Waddell like small-town firefighter whose pitching prowess earns him a spot with the St. Louis Cardinals. Just as he was starting his screen career, Brown had been cast in the road production of Elmer the Great, Ring Lardner and George M. Cohan’s stage comedy about a none-too bright hurler (originally played by Walter Huston) which opened on Broadway in 1928. Jack Oakie starred in the first screen version, titled Fast Company (1929). Brown was tapped for the remake, in which his character, Elmer Kane, is a small-town rube/home run hitter who plays for the Chicago Cubs and falls for a flighty actress. Finally, in Alibi Ike, Brown played Frank X. Farrell, a fireballing Cubs rookie right hander who is as brash and overconfident as he is talented.
When Warner Bros. decided to sign him to a contract, Brown asked the studio to provide him with his own baseball team. It was written into his contract that Warner Bros. would pay for the team’s uniforms, equipment, and travel expenses. The ball club was named Joe E. Brown’s First National All-Stars; it consisted of studio employees and former professional players, and was pitted against all-star, semipro, college, and Negro League nines up and down the Pacific Coast. Decades later, Brown described the contract as a “pip.”
As he settled into his Hollywood lifestyle, the comedian was at the epicenter of Southern California baseball. In February 1932, he and Buster Keaton-another screen star whose love for baseball was legendary-were involved in an all-star fund-raiser for the Los Angeles Olympic games. Over 8,500 fans packed Wrigley Field to see the Joe E. Browns defeat the Buster Keatons, 10-3. Rogers Hornsby, Gabby Hartnett, Paul and Lloyd Waner, Sam Crawford, Billy Jurges, Stan Hack, Tris Speaker, Dave Bancroft, Carl Hubbell, Charlie Root, Pat Malone, Johnny Moore, and Pie Traynor were a few of the big leaguers who participated.
Brown also was instrumental in getting his baseball pals parts in movies. Frank Shellenback had a supporting role in Fireman, Save My Child; Shellenback and a roster full of ballplayers (Herman “Hi” Bell, Guy Cantrell, Dick Cox, Cedric Durst, Ray French, Mike Gazella, Wally Hebert, Wally Hood, Don Hurst, Smead Jolley, Lou Koupal, Wes Kingdon, Jim Levey, Bob Meusel, Wally Rehg, Jim Thorpe, and Ed Wells) appear as big leaguers in Alibi Ike.
In 1934, a Los Angeles Times reporter asked Brown, “You didn’t really ask Dizzy and Daffy Dean to accept a picture contract, did you?” His response:
Why not? They’re fine boys, interesting, natural, lovely characters. When I was sitting next to Dizzy in Detroit [during the World Series], with the fans swarming around him for autographs, he whispered, “Funny, isn’t it? Five years ago I didn’t even own a pair of shoes.” They’re not swell-headed. Besides, Warners wired me to ask them…
The Dean boys soon were starring in Dizzy and Daffy (1934), a Warner Bros. two-reel comedy short in which Shemp Howard (of the Three Stooges fame) remarks, “The only Dean I ever heard of is Gunga.”
Brown also reportedly-and inadvertently-played a more direct role in the ’34 series. According to the Los Angeles Times, Detroit hurler Schoolboy Rowe “caught part of his pitching hand in a door jamb…and subsequently had the bruise aggravated by a hearty good-luck hand-shake from Joe E. Brown, the film comedian.”
From 1932 through 1935, Brown was a part owner of the American Association Kansas City Blues. In 1935, the rumor circulated that he was considering purchasing the Boston Braves, but this came to naught. Brown organized a semi pro basketball team whose roster was stocked with ex-UCLA Bruins. He owned racehorses, and often could be found at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and other Southern California racetracks. His Beverly Hills home housed a trophy room for his rapidly growing collection of autographed baseballs, bats, caps, and other sports memorabilia. He accumulated hundreds of items, from lumber used by Babe Ruth and Nap Lajoie and a cap worn by Eddie Collins to a baseball autographed by England’s King George V, a football jersey worn by Red Grange, Gene Tunney’s and James J. Braddock’s boxing trunks, and a first-edition copy of Henry Chadwick’s 1868 book, The Game ofBase Ball, the initial hardcover baseball tome. Alas, most of the memorabilia was destroyed later in a house fire.
Decades later, Brown recalled that upon learning that Lou Gehrig was about to retire, he wrote the Iron Horse to request the ballplayer’s first baseman’s glove for his collection. “Lou wrote back, asking me to name anything but that, and I understood but I felt bad about having asked,” he explained.
Not long afterward, he retired. In the fall of that year [ 1939] I went to New York to see the Yankees play in the World Series. Just before gametime a batboy came up to me and asked me to come to the Yankees’ bench. Well-Lou was waiting there. He was very ill, by then, so thin and gaunt that I was startled at his appearance. But he smiled and held something out to me — it was his first baseman’s glove. “Here it is, pal,” he said.
By the late 1930s, Brown’s popularity was waning. He left Warner Bros., appeared in some independent movies, and concluded his starring career in a series of low budget Columbia Pictures comedies released in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
But Brown did not fade from the public eye. During World War II, he proved that his heart was as big as his mouth as he became one of the first Hollywood celebrities to volunteer to entertain the troops. Brown trekked to combat zones from North Africa to Italy, the Pacific is lands to Australia and New Zealand, bringing laughter to the Gls. He once estimated that he had traveled over 200,000 air miles during the war. Ever the jokester, he quipped, “When I opened my mouth in the South Pacific, 8,000 mosquitoes flew in.” Even though he was a civilian, Brown reportedly was allowed to pack a carbine and ride in a tank while on Luzon, the Philippine island.
For his tirelessness in entertaining the troops, Brown was given a Bronze Star as well as a special citation, voted by the Military Order of the Purple Heart, for his “meritorious service.” However, he and Kathryn person ally felt the brunt of the war. Their eldest son, Don Evan Brown, a captain in the Army Air Corps, died at age 25 in October 1942, when his plane crashed near Palm Springs during a training exercise.
In 1945, as the war wound down, Brown signed to tour as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy. He opened in Chicago and eventually appeared in the play well over 1,000 times on stages from Broadway to Australia. He also returned to the screen, and gave a highly regarded dramatic performance as a small-town minister in The Tender Years (1947). He was ideally cast as Cap’n Andy in the second remake of Show Boat ( 1951), and gave what easily is his best-remembered performance as a loony millionaire in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot ( 1959). Here, as he slyly winks at the camera, Brown ardently romances Jack Lemmon’s jazz musician-in-drag. His closing line “Nobody’s perfect”-is one of the more famous in film history.
Baseball, of course, remained an intrinsic part of his life. “Whenever he doesn’t have a matinee, he’s at some sports event,” noted sports columnist Braven Dyer in 1946, while Brown was performing Harvey in Chicago. From 1953 to 1964, he served as first president of the PONY League, comprising teams made up of 13- and 14-year-olds. Long a supporter of the UCLA Bruins baseball team, the school’s Westwood ballyard was named “Joe E. Brown Field.”
During the 1953 season, Brown conducted pre- and post-game interviews for the New York Yankees and did five innings of play-by-play-three on television, and two on the radio. Radio-television critic Warren Bennett wrote that Brown was “as relaxed before the cameras as an old shoe. Shy, diffident ball players loosen up for him as they never did for his predecessor, the illustrious Joe DiMaggio.” Brown told Bennett, “What I want to do is talk to the baseball fan who loves the game so much he stands in line to get a good seat.”
In l955, his 37-year-old son, Joe L. Brown, replaced Branch Rickey as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. But Joe E. remained firmly rooted in Southern California-and as the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn for Los Angeles, he was well-suited to become a high-profile promoter of West Coast baseball. In October 1957, not long after the team played its final game at Ebbets Field, Brown was the master of ceremonies of a star-studded luncheon at Los Angeles’ Statler Hotel, held in honor of the team.
Brown was among the leaders in the battle for the “Yes” vote that would approve the Dodgers’ contract with the city of Los Angeles, and result in the construction of Dodger Stadium. He became general chairman of the Taxpayers Committee on Yes for Baseball, and predicted that the Dodgers would lure baseball fans from far across the region-particularly if they competed in a spanking-new ballyard. The actor clearly was jockeying for support when he observed, near the start of the 1958 season, “Dodger President Walter O’Malley hopes to admit 300,000 youngsters [free of charge] to Coliseum games this season, and will up the figure to 600,000 when the club builds its own stadium in Chavez Ravine.” He added, “The boy whose idol is Duke Snider or Junior Gilliam can’ t go very far wrong in his future life.”
Joe E. Brown quietly lived out the rest of his life. He died at age 81 on July 6, 1973, of pneumonia and heart failure. Kathryn, his wife of 58 years, survived him. Brown was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, which houses the remains of entertainment industry legends from George Burns and Gracie Allen to Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, and Spencer Tracy.
Brown’s life may be summed up by the title of a classic Hollywood film, albeit one in which he did not appear: It’s a Wonderful Life. “There’s been tragedy, when we lost our boy,” he recalled in 1963. “But l’ve had the chance given every other citizen in a free country of living my life as I wanted to live it and becoming what I wanted to become.”
ROB EDELMAN most recently authored the box liner notes and an essay on early baseball films included on the DVD compilation Reel Baseball: Baseball Films from the Silent Era, 1899-1926. He also is an interviewee on several documentaries included on the DVD re-release of The Natural.
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