Original publish date: January 3, 2019
My wife and I have developed a Christmas time tradition of visiting Gatlinburg, Tennessee every December. We’ve been traveling to the area on and off for over 25 years. Back then the region retained an atmosphere where one could imagine Dolly Parton walking down the sidewalk but nowadays, one might expect to see Wayne Newton driving past in a limousine instead. It used to be the type of place where kitschy souvenir stores sold Cedar wood souvenir moonshine stills, featured live bears and homey gemstone pits for the kids to dig through. But those days are long gone. Gatlinburg is today home to glitzy storefronts selling Harley Davidson clothes, designer moonshine and Pandora charms.
You can still drive through Smoky Mountain National Park in search of black bears at Cades Cove and find a cozy log cabin to eat a flapjack in. Some things never change. A couple weeks ago we stopped at an antique mall near Lexington Kentucky where I found a shoebox full of old letters just begging for my attention. One of the envelopes contained a Christmas card from the old Indianapolis Clowns Negro league baseball club. I opened it quickly but carefully, saw what was contained inside, and handed it to Rhonda with the explicit instructions, “Don’t lose this.” I knew we were going to be holed up in the room for the next couple days and this would be a fun thing to examine over morning coffee.
I’m an early riser; Rhonda likes to sleep in and I’m okay with that. It was time to examine my find. The envelope contained a Christmas card from the 1961 Clowns baseball team after they relocated to Hollywood, Florida in the late 1950s. The Christmas card looks like any other; bright red, white & green with “Season’s Greetings” on the front. However the magic happens when you open it and the contents are revealed. The interior features a great real photo image of the entire uniformed team captioned: “Indianapolis Clowns Baseball Club” at bottom. The photo is actually a B&W snapshot that was individually inserted into a pocket window frame inside the card. It is easy to imagine a room full of elegantly dressed women chatting gleefully away as they carefully stuff each photo in place in the Clowns’ front office. Or maybe it was a room full of bat boys and ticket takers. Regardless, it makes for a romantic holiday image.
The card reads: “Greetings of the Season and Best Wishes for a Happy New Year. Baseball’s Professional Clowning Champions- 35th Consecutive Annual Tour! Indianapolis Clowns Ed Hamman, Bus. Mgr. Syd Pollack, Gen. Mgr. Box 84- Hollywood, Florida” inside. The original mailing envelope has the return address on front and same on back via an embossed stamp on the back. The Christmas card was sent to the Babe Ruth Baseball League in Vero Beach, Florida. True baseball fans will recognize Vero Beach as the spring training home of former Negro leader Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers and later the Koufax/Drysdale Los Angeles Dodgers. For a baseball fanatic, there is a lot going on in this little Christmas card.
The team photo pictures 10 players in old wool baseball uniforms standing in a line with another four players dressed in comic field costumes including a female player holding one of the Clowns’ trademark props, a grossly oversized baseball bat. The Clowns were one of the first professional baseball teams to hire a female player. They featured three prominent women players on their roster in the 1950s: Mamie “Peanut” Johnson (1935-2017) a right handed pitcher who went 33-8 in 3 seasons with the Clowns, Constance “Connie” Morgan (1935-1996) who played 2 seasons at second base for the Clowns and the first female player in the Negro Leagues, Marcenia “Toni” Stone (1921-1996) who once got a hit off of Satchel Paige.
Most of my interest in the Clowns centers around the fact that they’re from my hometown. But also because they were the first professional team for one of my baseball heroes; Hank Aaron. On November 20, 1951, Aaron signed his first Pro contract with the Clowns. The 6 foot, 180 pound Aaron would play three months at shortstop, batting cleanup for the Clowns. He earned $200 per month.
While with the Clowns, his teammates called him “Pork Chop” because it was the only thing the kid from Mobile Alabama knew how to order off the menu. Aaron first experienced overt northern style racism while playing with the Clowns. The team was in Washington, D.C. and a few of the Clowns’ players decided to grab a pregame breakfast in a restaurant behind Griffith Stadium. The players were seated and served but after they finished their meals, they could hear the sounds of employees breaking all the plates in the kitchen. Aaron and his teammates were stung by the irony of being in the capital of the “Land of Freedom” whose employees felt they “had to destroy the plates that had touched the forks that had been in the mouths of black men. If dogs had eaten off those plates, they’d have washed them.”
Aaron finished with a .366 batting average in 26 official Negro league games; 5 home runs, 33 RBI, 41 hits, and 9 stolen bases. At the close of his three months with the Indianapolis Clowns, Aaron received two offers from MLB teams via telegram; one from the New York Giants and the other from the Boston Braves. Years later, Aaron recalled later: “I had the Giants’ contract in my hand. But the Braves offered fifty dollars a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates – fifty dollars.” The Braves eventually purchased Aaron’s contract from the Clowns for $10,000.
During Aaron’s tenure the Clowns were a powerhouse team in the Negro American League. However, the story of the Indianapolis Clowns does not begin, or end, with the Hank Aaron connection. The team traces their origins back to the 1930s. They began play as the independent Ethiopian Clowns, joined the Negro American League as the Cincinnati Clowns and, after a couple of years, relocated to Indianapolis. The team was formed in Miami, Florida, sometime around 1935-1936 and was originally known as the Miami Giants. After a couple years the team changed its name to the Miami Ethiopian Clowns and hit the road to become the longest running barnstorming team in professional baseball history.
Over the next few decades, the Clowns developed into a nationally-known combination of show business and baseball that earned them the designation as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. The team built a national following as one of baseball’s favorite entertainment attractions during the 1930s and the club was the only “clowning team” to earn entrance into black baseball’s “major leagues.” Though the Clowns always played a credible brand of baseball, their Globetrotter-like comedy routines was the stuff that paid the bills, filled the stands and brought national attention.
In 1943, the team toned down its clowning routines and joined the Negro American League. They also moved to Ohio’s Queen city to became the Cincinnati Clowns. The team floated back and forth between Cincinnati and Indianapolis for the 1944 and 1945 seasons before officially moving to Indianapolis after World War II in 1946. While this was an epiphanal moment in the history of Indianapolis baseball, the euphoria didn’t last long.
Baseball’s color barrier came tumbling down on April 18, 1946, when Jackie Robinson made his first appearance with the Montreal Royals in the Triple-A International League. Robinson was called up to the parent club the next season and helped the Dodgers win the National League pennant on his way to winning the first National League Rookie of the Year award. After Robinson’s success, a steady stream of black players representing the elite of the Negro leagues flowed into the majors leagues. By 1952, there were 150 black players in major league baseball. For the Clowns, the result was sadly predictable. Black fans followed their stars to the big leagues, and attendance at traditional black ballparks tanked.
The Negro National League folded after the 1949 season. Some proposals were offered to keep the league alive as a developmental league for black players, but that idea was contrary to the goal of full integration. The Negro American League continued on throughout the 1950s, but closed its doors for good in 1962, the year after this Christmas card was issued. So the Negro leagues, once among the largest and most prosperous black-owned business ventures, faded into oblivion. After the demise, the Clowns continued barnstorming across the country and returned to their clowning routines out of financial necessity. It remains a testament to the strength of the Clowns’reputation that they were able to sign a young Hank Aaron who would, nowadays, come out of baseball’s minor league system.
The years immediately preceding this Christmas card were, despite the demise of the Negro leagues, the most productive for the Indianapolis franchise. In 1950 the Clowns won their first Negro American League championship behind their star catcher Sam Hairston, who won the League’s Triple Crown title with 17 homeruns, 71 RBI and a .424 batting average. Hairston also led the league with 100 hits and 176 total bases.
During the 1951 season the Clowns did not play a single home game in Indianapolis but won their second Negro American League championship. The Clowns captured their third league championship in 1952. The Clowns’ success earned them a steady barnstorming gig during the off-season traveling with Jackie Robinson’s All Stars. In 1954, the Clowns won their fourth league championship in five years. The next year, the Clowns dropped out of the league to pursue a full time barnstorming schedule. The Clowns played 143 games on the road in 1963. Although this sounds like a staggering number, it is the smallest number of games the Clowns had ever played in one year. Along the way the Clowns broke all color barriers by playing in front of both white and black crowds.
Harlem Globetrotter star “Goose” Tatum also played for the Clowns during this time. Goose was as much of a showman on the diamond as he was on the basketball court. Whether fielding balls with a glove triple the size of a normal one, confusing opposing players with hidden ball tricks or playing second base while seated in a rocking chair, Tatum was amazing. During the same era, Richard “King Tut” King played the field using an enormous first baseman’s mitt and occasionally augmenting his uniform with grass hula skirts in the field. King, who spent over 20-years with the Clowns, paved the way for great white baseball comedians like Max Patkin.
Clowns pitcher Ed Hamman would fire fastballs from between his legs and from behind his back while going as far as to go into the crowd to sell peanuts and programs while his team was at bat. Hamman also invented “shadow ball”. Hamman’s brainchild had all nine players going through the motions of a real game from pitching to fielding to batting -all without a ball. Hamman’s name appears on the 1961 Christmas card as the team’s business manager.
By 1966 the Indianapolis Clowns were the last Negro league team still playing. The Clowns continued to play exhibition games into the 1980s, but as a humorous sideshow rather than a competitive sport. After many years on the road as a barnstorming team, the Clowns finally disbanded in 1989. The Clowns were also the first team to feature women as umpires. The 1976 movie “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings”, starring James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Pryor, is based on the Indianapolis Clowns.
According to the official website of the Negro Leagues: “The Harlem Globetrotters have won their place in the world’s hearts as comedians with great basketball skill. The Indianapolis Clowns did exactly the same in segregated America. The Clowns crossed all color barriers with their brand of comedy and earned their place in baseball history with trend setting ideas, actions and great play between the lines. Unlike the Globetrotters however, the Clowns took an opposite road to fame. The Clowns became a legitimate playing team after beginning as entertainers -the exact opposite of their basketball playing cousins.” Seasons greetings everybody through the haze of history and your Indianapolis Clowns.