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Looking Back: Indianapolis Clowns Visit The Dell
05/14/2012 9:30 AM ET
One night in July 1956, over 1,200 Nashvillians gathered at the Sulphur Dell ballpark for an evening of "funny" baseball. In the city were the Indianapolis Clowns, the baseball equals to the Harlem Globetrotters of basketball fame. The Clowns were members of the National Negro League, but barnstormed across the country. Their usual oppositions at this time were the New York Black Yankees who can be compared to the Washington Generals-the Globetrotters' nemesis.

The Clowns were a legitimate baseball team that injected comedy routines before and during a game. The Clowns were owned by Syd Pollock whose first comedic baseball team were the Zulu Cannibals. These players wore grass skirts and African tribal war paint. Though their performances were popular with the fans, there were critics that their image was a poor stereotype.

Most of Clowns' players were black with Cubans and a few whites joined the club in latter years. Some of the Indianapolis' players participated in pregame comedy antics, but played the game itself straight. Most of the players wore clown make-up, but the serous players did not. The Nashville Globe gave this preview of the game in Nashville:

"The nationally famous Indianapolis Clowns seven times Negro world baseball champions, will bring their array of stars and comedians to Sulphur Dell next Thursday, July 5th, to take on the highly regarded New York Black Yankees of the Negro National League in an exciting combination baseball attraction and fun-show extravaganza, starting at 8 p.m. o'clock.

"Syd Pollock, owner and general manager of the famed Clowns has engineered his powerful baseball machine to the top rung on the baseball ladder, and has sold some of baseball's top performers to the major leagues. Among the stalwarts who formerly wore the spangles of the Indianapolis fun makers and now playing big league ball are Henry 'Hank' Aaron, hard-hitting Milwaukee Braves' outfielder; Charley Neal, sensational Brooklyn Dodgers infielder; while Johnny Wyatt and southpaw Ted Richardson winner for Augusta Tigers in that 20-inning marathon over Montgomery Rebels, hurling aces, have also been bought by the majors and farmed out for seasoning with top minor league teams.

"Goose Tatum, clown prince of basketball, got his start with the same Clowns. Pollock has another outstanding aggregation for the coming season plus a 5 star diamond fun show featuring King Tut the funniest guy in baseball. The balance of the hilarious comedy show includes Spec Bebop, midget comedian; the Clowns' clown Ed Hamman the sensational third baseman; Prince Jo Henry, and Nature boy Williams, hard-slugging first baseman, who bats 'em barefooted.

"Ed Hamman is rated as one of baseball's top 'trick artist' demonstrates his unique talent with his unbelievable back-hand throws across the diamond. He has a standing offer of $1000 to any major or minor league player who can duplicate his throwing and pepper ball feats. Hamman has performed in practically every major league stadium with his special and extraordinary routines."

The players were gifted athletes and used comedy to reveal their baseball skills. Their pitchers could constantly throw strikes by pitching behind their backs or between their legs. Ed Hamman was white and the only player to throw a baseball backhanded across the width of the diamond. During the game, Hamman could be seen in the stands selling programs.

Richard King (King Tut) was billed as "The Clown Prince" of black baseball. He would perform skits before the game, between innings and met with the fans in the stands. "Tut" usually wore a tuxedo and top hat or dressed as an Egyptian Pharoah. Spec Bebop was a dwarf and did not play baseball. His activities included pantomimes and humorous skits between innings. The Nashville Globe gave this partial report on the game at the Dell:

"It was the same old story with the Indianapolis Clowns and the New York Black Yankees Thursday night down in Sulphur Dell, when the latter again got away to a fine lead only to fool around and let the Clowns stage a big rally to win the thing, this time by the figure of 10-5.

"As in the previous tilt here in the early season, there was a comedy of errors as the Clowns committed a total of three for the evening, while their traveling companions were bobbling the ball four times.

"While scarcely anybody in the Dell actually expected the Black Yanks to beat the more experienced Clowns, still nobody expected the Yanks to blow the five run lead, which they had established in the first of two frames of the contest. They blasted the Clowns for two in the first and three in the second for their only runs of the night although there was not a gent nor a lady on the place who believed that the New Yorkers were through scoring for the evening following their three run outburst in the second. But that was exactly how it turned out."

One of the Clowns regular routines was their "Shadow Ball" performed in pregame warm-ups. The players went through their batting, throwing and fielding motions using an "invisible" baseball. These antics were performed in very slow motion with humorous facial expressions. They liked to use oversized props like a four-foot long glove and Hamman would arrive at the plate with a bat as tall as himself. On occasion, the players would block the view of the umpire behind the plate and call their own balls and strikes.

Hamman became part owner of the team in 1952 and managed the team. The Negro Leagues would beak apart due to the integration of the major leagues. Eventually Hamman owned the team outright and remained with the Clowns until the 1970's.

This quote is from Jim Cohen, a Clowns player from 1946-52: "We were something very different and very special. Nobody did what we did. Fans got their money's worth. All the routines and bits kept people in stitches. It was fun for them and fun for us, too. The acts we put on guaranteed that no matter what the local economy was like that particular week, we'd draw. But you must remember that sandwiched in between all the bits and jokes was some very good baseball. Just as nobody doubts the Globetrotters of today are great basketball players, nobody doubted that we were great baseball players."

Bruce "Charlie" Johnson wrote in his article The Clown in Times:

"The Indianapolis Clowns have a unique place in baseball and clown history. By attracting white audiences with their comedy, and winning their respect with their skill, the Clowns helped create an acceptance of black baseball players, which broke down the sport's racial barriers. By combining classic circus style clowning with comedy based on baseball skill, they created a unique entertainment show."

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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.