Week of December 22, 2005

Indianapolis Clowns

Hey Joe: Do you have stories about the differences between clowning and playing NLB teams? Some say this wasn't legitimate baseball, but my research indicates that it was simply a different way of approaching the game and earning the needed revenue to keep the team operating.

Kate Sutter, Lebanon

In 1950, when I joined the Memphis Red Sox, the Negro League was composed of ten teams. In addition to Memphis, there were the Kansas City Monarchs, Cleveland Buckeyes, Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, Baltimore Elite Giants, New York Cubans, Philadelphia Stars, Houston Eagles (who later became the New Orleans Eagles) and the Indianapolis Clowns. The Clowns and Monarchs had white owners.

By 1953 the league had dwindled to four teams. In 1955 the Indianapolis Clowns abandoned the league to become independent. Later they traveled with the New York Black Yankees — similar to the Harlem Globetrotters' relationship with the Washington Generals.

As great as the players were, black owners shared the same likeness, especially in reference to business. At the time of black owners' existence, they filled teams with the money. The black baseball league was as legitimate as the white baseball league. The only illegitimacy was prohibiting blacks' inclusion. Had this not been the case, blacks would have invaded the white baseball league then, as they have the NBA and NFL. Not one time do I recall a Negro League baseball team parading up and down streets to attract fans to the ballpark, as was depicted in the movie The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.

At a very early age, I was attracted to a radio program called Amos 'n Andy, a show in which two white men amassed a fortune by mimicking blacks as ignorant, easy marks. I could hardly wait for the show to air so I could laugh at myself. Many blacks did likewise, though there were others who were quite disenchanted. Most whites took this for granted. This seems to be the crux of the question, because of the name Indianapolis Clowns. Before I joined the Clowns in '55, all clowning was on the sidelines, similar to the Cardinals' Fredbird, which also pertained to white entertainers like Bobo Nickerson, Max Patkin and Ed Hamman. The only time infielders joined in the fun parade was during the famed "shadow ball act," which was faking infield practice without the ball.

Due to a serious injury that occurred when I played in a white league, I was unable to perform 100 percent, which I hoped to do once I joined the Clowns. Therefore, I undertook clowning while playing and originated many things seen in the majors today.

Prince Joe Henry, one of professional baseball's original "clowns," was an all-star infielder for Negro League baseball teams in Memphis, Indianapolis and Detroit throughout the 1950s. But up until the late 1940s, Prince Joe didn?t know anything about the Negro Leagues. His knowledge of organized baseball was limited to the Cardinals and Browns games he attended during his preteen years at Sportsman?s Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white.

Perhaps Henry?s most vivid memory of those games: Upon entry, white ushers would politely escort the boys to a small section of the left-field stands reserved for "Colored." After climbing past several tiers of bleachers, they?d arrive at their stop, rows and rows behind their white counterparts.

Even at a young age, the boys were conscious of the double standard -- and determined to vent their disdain. The opportunity would arise with the urge to urinate. Rather than head for the latrine, the boys would edge their way to the front of the section and let fly. As the liquid foamed its way down the concrete steps toward the white kids, Henry and his pal would ease back and relax, politely rooting for the visiting team to beat the hell out of the Browns or the Cards.

After all, Henry and Crittendon hailed from Brooklyn, Illinois, a small, predominantly black township just east of the Mississippi River. So hospitable were the residents of Brooklyn that they were known to take in a rank stranger, treat him to breakfast, lunch, supper and a night out on the town -- and afterward, if he messed up, treat him to a good ass-whippin'.

Direct questions on any and all topics to [email protected]. If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

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