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Clowns were more than entertainers

When not facing legitimate competition, barnstormers provided comedy
January 30, 2007
They were not just barnstormers. They were trailblazers.

The Indianapolis Clowns straddled the line of bringing a quality lineup to the field on a regular basis during their heyday in the 1940s while providing quality comedy entertainment for fans during an even longer time period.

Created in 1929 in Miami, they also played as the Ethiopian Clowns in their early years. With the country in the midst of the Great Depression, fans could come to see some baseball and also get a few much-needed laughs.

Think baseball's version of the Harlem Globetrotters (a team that predated the Clowns by two years): a versatile and talented group of outstanding athletes who could amuse as well as play the game -- and play it well.

The team incorporated "routines" such as "shadow ball," going through pregame drills in slow motion with an imaginary ball. Pitchers could throw perfect strikes from between their legs or behind their backs.

Unlike the Globetrotters, however, the Clowns sandwiched their barnstorming years around nearly a decade of legitimate competition, facing and beating more impressive teams than the Washington Generals and New York Nationals night after night.

In fact, a future Globetrotters star got his professional athletic start with the Clowns. Reese "Goose" Tatum, who went on to star for the 'Trotters and is credited with inventing the skyhook, played for the Clowns before switching sports. He became known as "the original Clown Prince" with the Globetrotters.

After playing and often beating teams in the elite Negro American League, they were invited to join the NAL in 1943 as the Cincinnati Clowns (they moved to Indianapolis full-time in 1946).

The Clowns won the Negro American League pennant from 1950-52 and again in 1954 before returning to their more lucrative barnstorming schedule when the successful integration of the Major Leagues spelled the beginning of the end for competitive Negro League Baseball.

In that time, they gained enough respect that Oscar Charleston, who managed the team until his death in 1954, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

When the Negro Leagues folded, the Clowns shifted their emphasis once more from competitive play to on-field entertainment, continuing to operate in that mode until 1988. They also continued to bring in talented players.

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The best example would be a young slugger who made his professional debut with the Clowns in 1952 at age 18. Hank Aaron played for the Clowns for a year before the team sold his contract to the Milwaukee Braves.

Aaron certainly was the biggest star to go from the Clowns to the Majors, but he was not the only one. Among the other alumni to move on to the big leagues were three catchers -- Cuban-born Paul Casanova of the Washington Senators, Clarence "Choo Choo" Coleman, who wound up his career with the New York Mets, and White Sox catcher Sam Hairston, who with his son Jerry Sr. and grandsons Jerry Jr. and Scott became the first African-American three-generation MLB family.

Around that same time, the Clowns continued to make baseball history, signing the first three women to play professional baseball in a men's league.

Second baseman Toni Stone joined the club in 1953 and hit .267. When the team sold Stone's contract to the Kansas City Monarchs, the longest-running franchise in Negro League history, it brought in two more women: second baseman Connie Morgan and pitcher Mamie "Peanut" Johnson.

Johnson, who perfected her curveball with help from Satchel Paige and got her nickname from an opposing player because of her 100-pound physique, went 33-8 in three seasons with the Clowns.

The trio remained the only women to play in the Negro Leagues.

A large part of the reason for the Clowns' sustained success was player-turned-part-owner Ed Hamman.

Hamman, a star with the team in the 1930s and '40s, was one of the few who literally lived up to the nickname "Clown," often playing in full clown whiteface makeup. But he also could play some baseball, dazzling fans with his talent at playing "pepper" and his ability to throw a ball backhanded across the width of an entire baseball field.

When his playing days ended, he took over as manager, part-owner and full-time ambassador, interacting with fans in the stands and selling programs to help raise money for local charities. He remained with the team into the 1970s.

The Clowns finally disbanded in 1988 after a few decades of barnstorming and entertaining fans all over the country.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for