Boys of summers past: The Clowns were the last of baseball’s barnstormers
Wednesday, April 12, 2017 1:34 PM
“The riches of the game are in the thrills, not the money.”
– Ernie Banks (1931-2015)
Ladies and gentlemen, nearly three quarters of a century ago, Cincinnati had a pair of professional baseball teams.
Of course, there were the Reds, but some might not realize there was another ball club called the Clowns. The Clowns had built a following as one of baseball’s favorite entertainment attractions during the 1930s. Though the Clowns always played a credible brand of baseball, it’s been written that their Harlem Globetrotter-like clowning routines were what paid the bills and brought them national attention.
In 1943, the team toned down its clowning routines to become a member of the Negro American League. In 1946, the team relocated from Cincinnati to Indianapolis. The Clowns were called the last of the baseball barnstormers, disbanding many years after the Negro League shut down.
More than a decade ago, I had a chance to sit down and chat with former Indianapolis Clown Hubert Wooten, who took some time to talk with me about his days as a barnstormer.
Wooten said he doesn’t have any photos of himself from the old days, when times were tough and glorious all rolled into one. He has no baseball cards that captured the likeness of a much younger Wooten – Daddy Wooten – as he was called four decades earlier, and no statistics showing that the kid could hit, run and throw.
What he does have are golden memories.
Memories of the long nights on the old bus, Big Red. Memories of the four years he was with the “Harlem Globetrotters of baseball.” Memories of playing with and managing baseball great Satchel Paige, the ageless Hall of Famer who was perhaps 50 years his senior.
And memories of a dream.
“If we had any sense, we would have kept stats, and we would have taken pictures of the guys,” says Wooten, who was 61 when I interviewed him. “But we were out there just trying to get to the next level. We wanted to make it to the big leagues, and the rest of it didn’t matter.
“As long as we played that day.”
Wooten, who was born in Goldsboro, N.C. on Sept. 6, 1944, played from 1965-68 with the Indianapolis Clowns.
Wooten said the Clowns were best known for their comedy routine and were the longest-running franchise in the Negro League. By the mid-1960s, they were the only team left. So they were always on the move, taking seemingly endless road trips.
“We had this bus called Big Red, I’ll tell you we slept on it,” Wooten recalls. “We’d play a game, say in Milwaukee, then we’d go like 300 miles, check into a motel long enough to take a shower and go to the field for a doubleheader. We’d play one at two, then played another that started at seven that night. We’d go back to the motel, go to sleep, check out early that morning, get back on Big Red and jump 200, 300 more miles.
“Always on the bus.”
Like the Globetrotters, Wooten said the Clowns always had a big following.
“When we pulled up in a town, people were all around Big Red, wanting to see the Clowns,” he says with a smile.
They were there to see the talented players, and they were there for the show. A show where the catcher would perhaps play his position from a rocking chair, where buckets of confetti were thrown into the stands and where firecrackers found their way behind an unsuspecting umpire.
And there was the world-famous shadow ball, where the Clowns would play the game in slow motion – with crazy antics, at times – with an imaginary ball.
“We’d put on a show,” Daddy Wooten recalls. “After seven innings, we’d do the shadow ball, we’d do a little dance to the Harlem Globetrotters music, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’ We had special guys who were really good at that, like Nature Boy, Birmingham Sam, Bobo, Steve Anderson, the one-armed fellow. We had firecrackers that we’d light behind an ump; they would explode and he’d jump up.
“It was really comical, and people really enjoyed it. We also had a good time, and we had a chance to play every day.”
Let’s pause for now, and we’ll continue next week with the life and times of Hubert Wooten, one of the boys of summers past.
Steve Roush is a vice president of an international media company and a columnist and contributing writer for The Highland County Press.