The Clown Prince of Baseball

This article was written by Larry Amman

This article was published in 1982 Baseball Research Journal

It was 1977 and I had never been to Connecticut before. I was impressed with the pine-studded hills and small ponds. They looked especially nice with the patches of snow on the ground.

What do I know about Al Schacht? I asked myself. He was born November 11, 1892 in New York City. He pitched for Washington between 1919 and 1921 and compiled a 14-10 record. He coached third base for Washington afterwards and downed with Nick Altrock. From the mid-thirties on he downed on his own. He did a lot of USO shows, and he owned a restaurant in New York for years.

I got off the bus at Southbury, Conn., and called the number. Schacht said he would be right over to pick me up. Ten minutes later a recent-model white Thunderbird pulled up. I could recognize the man from photos taken years ago.

On the way to his condominium in the countryside, he and I exchanged pleasantries and I told him about my work on a book manuscript about the old Washington Senators. That was the reason for the interview. At the same time I looked at the man for some sign of his age. He was supposed to be 84, but I couldn’t believe it. His hairline had receded just a bit; he was only slightly gray. His face looked a bit drawn and weather-beaten but had few lines or wrinkles. The same was true of his hands. He wore a white, turtleneck shirt under a corduroy sport coat. His trousers were well tailored.

We got out of the car and went up an incline to the condominium. Schacht moved quickly and lightly. Inside the house he introduced me to Mrs. Schacht, a woman who looked considerably younger. Younger than what? I thought to myself. His real age or the age he looks, which is no more than 65?

As soon as we sat down in the living room, he started talking.

“There is never any applause for a third-base coach. I know. I was one for 13 years. If he sends the runner in and the runner is safe, the runner gets the applause. But if he sends the runner in and he’s tagged out, then who gets booed? It’s the coach. The runner might have been at fault because he slowed down, but the coach still gets booed.

“Of course, what I remember best about coaching third is the seventh game of the `24 World Series. The fans were awfully nervous in the last few innings. They were smoking cigarettes, one right after another. And so there was a cloud of smoke that had settled over the field. It just hung there. In the last of the 12th there was one out. Ruel, our slowest man, is at second. McNeely is at bat. He’s strictly a left-field hitter. Couldn’t hit one to right if his life depended on it. I expected McGraw to switch Irish Meusel to right field and Ross Youngs to left because Youngs had a far better throwing arm. I know. He and I were both with Rochester of the International League in 1917. Then the manager saw what a great arm he had at third base and put Youngs in the outfield to take advantage of it.

“Well, McGraw didn’t switch them. I was surprised, too, to see Lindstrom playing McNeely halfway, you know — about even with the bag. Lindstrom was the kid, the recruit they had at third. McGraw was supposed to be the greatest strategist in baseball. Here I am in the third-base coach’s box, between Lindstrom and the Giants dugout. McGraw was almost directly behind me. I expected to hear him yell something out to Lindstrom, to tell him to play back near the edge of the grass. Well, he didn’t. Lindstrom played halfway. Then the ball hit the pebble and went over his head into left. I sent Muddy around. I figured he would make it on Meusel’s arm. Meusel didn’t even throw. But if Lindstrom had been playing back on the edge of the grass, he could have fielded the ball, even though it did hit the pebble.”

Without interruption, Schacht made a smooth transition to Walter Johnson, the Washington hurler who benefited from that crucial Series play.

“I wouldn’t have given ten cents for Johnson’s chances when he came in. He was tired. He had been pitching too much in that Series. He got into trouble in almost every inning, but he got out of it. That’s the type of pitcher he was. Walter and I were very good friends. I never met anyone like him. He came from the country and stayed “country” all his life. When I came to the club we roomed together on the road. We played casino a lot until I beat Walter so much he wouldn’t play anymore. His cuss words were really something. You want to know what they were? “Great Scott Animal!” Or better yet, “Goodness Gracious Sakes Alive!”

“In 1919 I had just come to the ballclub from Jersey City. Walter was pitching and I was sitting on the bench. Walter didn’t like the call on a pitch, and so he walked to the plate and said to Billy Evans, the umpire, “Good Gracious Sakes Alive! Where was that ball?” I almost fell off the bench; I thought it was so funny to hear language like that in the majors.

“It was because of Walter that I started the most important game of my life. Here, I got it framed.”

He handed me a box score of a game that was in a small picture frame. I expected the date would be April 19, 1920, when he shut out the Athletics 7-0. However, this date was July 5, 1920 with Washington defeating New York 9-3. Schacht was the only Washington pitcher. “You’ve probably heard about this game before,” he said, “but let me tell you the whole story behind it.”

“About a week earlier Walter Johnson had pitched a no-hitter at Boston. We came back to Washington for a series with the Yankees beginning with the Fourth of July. Griffith had let it be known that Johnson would pitch on the fifth. Naturally, there would be a big crowd with Johnson pitching against New York after the no-hitter. That morning Johnson called Griffith and said that he had a pulled leg muscle and a pulled groin muscle and would never be able to get to the ballpark, much less pitch.

“Griff was still the manager that year. During batting practice he called me, Acosta, and Courtney into the dugout and explained the situation. The three of us had enough rest to start that day. I said, “I’ll start, Mr. Griffith.” He was so relieved that he put his arm around me and said, “Albert, if you get me out of this spot, you can have a job in my organization for as long as you want.”

“So I went out to warm up. I already had a reputation as a clown, and everybody thought this was a joke. “Ha, ha, Al Schacht thinks he’s Walter Johnson. Ha, Ha.”

“They didn’t know, but the joke was on them. Well, the game is ready to start, and One Arm Phillips goes out to the mound with his megaphone.

“Ladies and Gentlemen. The batteries for today’s game: For New York: Thormahlen and Hannah. For Washington, Schacht.

“Well, that was as far as he got. People started booing and throwing pop bottles and cushions out on the field. One bottle almost hit me. I went under the grandstand and finished warming up there. The field was finally cleared, and I went out to pitch. I walked the first man, and there was another shower of cushions and bottles. The field had to be cleared off all over again. I went on to retire the side, and we won the game. After the game Griff was overjoyed, and he repeated his promise to me.

“In my very next start I was sliding head-first into second and Donie Bush, the Detroit shortstop, put a slap tag on my right shoulder that tore a ligament. I still pitched for the Senators in 1921, but it was years before I could throw again with a good natural motion.

“I tried making a comeback in the minors. Then, in 1924 I decided to give up. I called Griffith and reminded him of his promise. With Griff, his word was his bond. He let out two of the coaches, Chesbro and Egan, to give me a spot. Right after I got there in June, the club went on that winning streak. I don’t know if I had anything to do with it. That was a smart ball club, very smart. Its strength was in the infield. I think Bucky Harris was the best of all the player-managers. He was smart, aggressive; he made the right moves. His example meant a lot. He was a tough one at second. If a runner came in high on a double play, he wouldn’t hesitate to put the ball right between the guy’s eyes. Babe Ruth tried to up-end Bucky once. Bucky sidestepped him, gave him the hip, and knocked Ruth onto the outfield grass.

“I think Ossie Bluege was the finest fielding third baseman the American League ever had until Brooks Robinson came along. I used to call him `Sunface’ because of the way his skin would get red from the summer sun. Joe Judge was a fine first baseman, about as good as Sisler in the field. Joe was my oldest friend on the team. We first met in 1908 as kids playing on a sandlot team in New York.”

We interrupted the discussion so Al could meet a dental appointment — but first we went to lunch. We traveled to a mall designed in the same pseudo-wood style as the condominiums were and entered a Howard Johnson-type restaurant. He talked about some of the big names in baseball in the 1920s.

“I used to call Ty Cobb, “Mr. More.” I did that everytime I met him. Finally, in his last year as a player — Cobb was with Philadelphia then — he and I were talking while we were standing around the batting cage before a game. He asked me why I always called him “Mr. More.” “Simple, Ty. You’ve got more hits, more runs, more stolen bases, more records, and more money than any of us.”

“Cobb as a manager? Not good. The way he treated pitchers was awful. I remember one day Howard Ehmke was pitching for the Tigers. He was getting hit, and Cobb called time to go to the mound and talk to him. Well, Cobb stood there on the mound showing Ehmke up in front of the whole ballpark. I mean Cobb was holding the ball demonstrating the grip, the stride, the release, and everything else. Imagine that! Talk about ruining a pitcher’s confidence. I don’t think Ehmke ever was the same after that.”

“I remember Babe Ruth from the International League while he was with Providence. I pitched both games of a doubleheader against them and won both. Of course, the next season I pitched both games of a doubleheader against Buffalo and lost them both, 2.1 and 1-0. Yes. That’s right. Joe McCarthy was with Buffalo then. He played second base. The last time I saw Ruth was on the “day” that was given for him at Yankee Stadium after he had gotten sick. There’s a picture of us together that day on the bookcase at home. I asked him, “Babe, I played against Baltimore and Providence when you were there. I played against Boston and New York when you were with those teams. How come you never hit a home run off me?” The Babe said, “Easy. By the time I came up, you’d been taken out for a relief pitcher.”

I raised some questions about the old players and managers.

“Connie Mack: He was a fine old fellow. Before some games with the A’s I’d go over to their bench, put Mr. Mack’s straw hat on my head, get a scorecard in my hand, and pretend I was directing the outfielders around the same way he would. Mr. Mack enjoyed that as much as anybody.

“Walter Johnson as a manager: Not good. He wasn’t aggressive at all in his moves. Also he was just too nice a guy. He would never do anything to make a player dislike him. He didn’t understand the ordinary ballplayer. A pitcher would be going lousy and I’d tell him, “Walter, you should take that guy out.” He’d say, “If he can’t last two innings, he doesn’t belong in the majors.” I remember when he was hired. I was in the club office that day. Griff was shaking his head. He was distressed. He said, “Albert, Walter Johnson is not a manager, but I owe the man the job. I’ll give him three years to make himself a manager.”

Schacht visited with the waitress, teasing her and charming her. We got up to leave the restaurant, and he did the same with the cashier. He showed himself to be a man with a great capacity to enjoy life and other people.

We went to the dentist’s office. Schacht exchanged lively pleasantries with the receptionist and the dentist. They seemed to have their own private jokes with him. When he was led to the appropriate room, the dentist, with a proud smile on his face, said to a waiting patient, “That’s Al Schacht, the Clown Prince of Baseball.”

As we left the mall to get to the car, Schacht matched my own long, quick strides to avoid snow banks. In the car he pursued a subject started earlier. “What have you heard about Clark Griffith?” I told him that Bluege always spoke of him with great admiration.

Schacht nodded.

“Some people have called Clark Griffth “cheap.” Let me tell you how cheap he was. He provided a home for all the kids of his sister when they were orphaned. He was a wonderful man. I owe a lot to him. He was a ballplayer’s man. I used to spend a lot of mornings in the office talking with him. He’d call me “Albert.” He never asked about any of the players’ lives off the field. He figured that was their business. Of course, he had to be economical. He didn’t have any great wealth of his own. He bought me from Jersey City after I had won 19 games for $2,500. He paid $1,000 down and the rest later. My salary for Washington was $300 a month. I started two games. I beat St. Louis 4-1 and Boston 4.2. You know what my salary was for the next year? $325, a raise of $25 per month. I accepted. I had no complaint.”

We sat down in his living room in the late afternoon. Schacht brought out several scrapbooks to review his career.

“Here is a picture of our public school team in 1908. I was pitching a lot of sandlot games on the side in those years. Here is a clipping about the 1910 season when I pitched for a semi-pro team in Walton, N.Y. I won 17 straight games. I pitched for the New York Metropolitans in 1911 and then for the Edison team in 1912. The next year I made the Newark team in the International League, and I pitched there for three years. In 1916 I was out of baseball due to arm trouble. The next year I had a tryout with the Giants. McGraw sent me to the Rochester team.

“In 1918 the war effort was going full blast. I signed up to pitch for the Bethlehem Steel Company’s team. They put me on the payroll as a “Consulting Engineer.” What that meant was I would carry some drawings or papers to different people. Pretty soon I got my draft notice, and I had to leave. The company paper had this story on me.”

There was a picture of Schacht in celluloid collar and a poem about what he would be like on the Western Front. The poem suggested that Schacht could be used as a secret Allied weapon by having him jump out of a trench and do one of his comic stunts which would make even Kaiser Bill laugh.

I asked Schacht when he began doing comedy routines?

“Pantomime was something I began doing back in the public high school. I would imitate the way different teachers walked. I pulled a variety of stunts all through my minor league career, and did some pregame shows. But, let me tell you the story about what I did to really gain my reputation and my title as “The Clown Prince of Baseball.”

“In 1913 I signed on with the Newark team and went with them to spring training in Savannah. One night Harry Smith, the manager, had me go out on a snipe hunt. Well, I was a city kid. I’d never been hunting in my life. So I spent the whole night in a cemetery with a lantern and a sack. If somebody had come by, he probably would’ve thought I was digging up stiffs. Well, after that I thought, someday I’ll pull a gag on him. It was the next year in Buffalo. We were playing a doubleheader there, and I was scheduled to pitch the second game. Outside the ballpark there was a cab waiting, a horse-driven cab. The horse had a feed bag on him, and the cabbie wore a tuxedo and a top hat. I asked the cabbie how much he made in an afternoon. He said three dollars. I paid him that. Then I put him in the bleachers wearing ordinary clothes while I stayed under the bleachers with the horse during the first game.

“When it was time for me to come on the field for the second game, I had the bat boy come to the gate that opened onto the field from the bleachers, and he led the horse out to the pitching mound with me riding on top wearing the tuxedo and the top hat. We made our way to the mound slowly with everybody in the stands laughing like crazy. Finally, we got to the mound, and the horse went to the bathroom all over it. Harry Smith was also our team’s catcher. He played the whole thing straight. I got down off the horse, and he gave me a few instructions, and then I pitched. Well, it wasn’t easy pitching in a top hat and a tux. I got knocked out of the box in the third inning.

“The next day Jack Yellen, a sportswriter for the Buffalo Courier, called me “The Clown Prince of Baseball.” It stuck. I was with Washington until the end of 1934. Then I went to Boston with Joe Cronin for two years. Eddie Collins was the general manager then, and he was bringing a lot of former A’s into the organization. I didn’t feel comfortable there, and so I went out on my own. I did about 130 games a year in different ballparks from then on. In addition, I worked every World Series game from 1921 to 1946 and every All-Star game from 1933 to 1946. During World War II I visited the troops everywhere they were: Africa, Europe, the South Pacific, Asia. I put on a number of small shows every day. The other guy [Nick Altrock] and I worked at tennis matches, basketball games, hockey games, and vaudeville in the winter. In 1927 he and I shared the billing at the State Lake Theater in Chicago with Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys.”

I asked him when he stopped talking to Altrock? He said, “About 1929. That was the only way I could continue to work with him.” He turned aside other questions about Altrock and talked about the restaurant he owned for 25 years at 52nd and Park Avenue in New York.

“I sold it in 1976. Of course, I continued to work at oldtimers’ games. The last time I entertained in public was three years ago (1973) before a game in Hartford.”

Schacht gave me a menu which advertised “Democractic waiters at Republican prices.” The food was all listed as part of baseball players’ names. For fish there was “Dizzy Trout” or “Connie Mackeral.” For meat there was “Goose Goslin,” “Rabbit Maranville,” and “Duck E. Medwick.” For dessert a customer could order such things as “Pie Traynor” or “Cookies Lavagetto.” Schacht also showed me pictures of himself with the famous names in entertainment and sports in his restaurant.

Schacht talked about the art of pantomime:

“I never rehearsed. You can’t rehearse pantomime. You have to go out there with the goal of who and what you are trying to impersonate. Once you’re out there, you’ve got to feel who and what you are trying to impersonate as you go along — you can’t stop and think. You’ve got to make the audience understand everything you’re doing exactly when you’re doing it. Because if you lose them — even for a minute — you’re going to be so humiliated that you’ll want to dig a hole in the ground and crawl into it. Facial expressions are most important. The “other guy” had a perfect face for pantomime. You’ve seen pictures of him. He was so ugly he was cute.”

I noted that 12 years after Nick Altrock’s death, Schacht’s dislike for the man had diminished very little. He avoided any reference to his former partner by name. Not being from the Mike Wallace Interviewing School, I decided I would not pursue efforts to find out what had caused dissension in the great comedy act even before it broke up. Their imitation of the Dempsey-Tunney Long-Count in 1927 was a classic for sport fans. While the audience laughed at the spectacle, insiders were aware that the two clowns were really working each other over with boxing gloves. In spite of later efforts by Griffith to bring the two together, they did not speak from 1929 to Altrock’s death in 1965 at age 88.

In the early evening Schacht drove me out to the highway to catch my bus. He got out of the car and jogged across the highway to check out which bus was for me. When he came back to the car, I couldn’t contain my feelings anymore. “Mr. Schacht, you certainly are the youngest looking and acting 84-year-old I’ve ever seen.” First he said I should call him “Al” and then he said: “Well’ I’ve been very lucky. I thank God for that. I eat the right things and never too much. I had a problem with ulcers when I was younger. That taught me how to eat right. I do some stretching exercises and I trot every morning for five minutes.”

After bidding this grand old man goodbye, I settled down on the bus and reviewed the notes I had taken. I thought about the contrast between the old and the new and what it means to live to such a healthy and vital old age and still remember so vividly those experiences of 50, 60, 70 years ago. It was Schacht himself who put all this into perspective when he said earlier in the afternoon: “To me it’s like it was all yesterday. None of it seems like it was a long time ago.”

Al Schacht marked his 90th birthday on November 11, 1982, still in fine shape and receiving visitors.