Clowns, once members of the Negro League, added comedy acts and
vaudeville skits to their performances when the team struggled to
make money during the Depression. Over time the game took a backseat
to the high jinx on the field. The Clowns became the Harlem Globetrotters
Their regular roster included an interesting lineup of athletes,
comedians and characters.
"Birmingham Sam" Brison, athlete and pantomime artist, played shortstop.
At 6'2" and skinny as broom straw, Sam performed slapstick and joked
with the crowd. An excellent all-around athlete, Sam spent the winter
months playing basketball with Goose Tatum's Harlem Road Kings and
later the Harlem Globetrotters.
In 1976 Sam had a small part in the movie Bingo Long's Traveling
All-Stars and Motor Kings starring Billy Dee Williams, Richard
Pryor and James Earl Jones. The story of the Indianapolis Clowns
inspired the movie.
Another player, Dero Austin, just 31 inches tall, paid his way through
college playing baseball for the Clowns. Many games started with
Birmingham Sam unpacking Dero Austin from a suitcase at home plate.
Like a Marx Brothers film, a Clowns' game featured one gag after
another. The catcher would intentionally block the umpire's view
and call his own balls and strikes. Pitchers threw between their
legs or behind their backs, with amazing speed and accuracy. The
entire team participated in a goofy dance contest at home plate
to close the show.
By 1967 the Clown's roster included white players as well as Black
players. At least 2 women played for the clowns over the years.
Several major leaguers played for the Clowns at one time or another.
In 1952 the team signed a 17 year-old shortstop and cleanup hitter
from Alabama named Hank Aaron.
But no star in the shadowy world of Negro baseball shined brighter
than Satchel Paige. By 1967 every baseball fan in America knew his
name. He had not yet been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame,
although he soon would be.
The details of his long career are fuzzy. No one knows how many
games he won or how fast he threw. In fact, much of the fascination
with Satchel Paige lies in the mystery. Like folk heroes Daniel
Boone and Casey Jones, the truth and the myth of Satchel Paige prove
difficult to untangle.
Even the date of his birth is a mystery. He always said his mother
wrote his birthday in the family bible but the goat ate it.
They say that in the old days Satchel, for fun, would sometimes
call in the outfielders and have the infielders sit on the grass
behind him while he struck out the side. Of course that might be
In his 60s when he came to Fredericksburg,
Paige could still fire up the crowd with an arsenal of pitches developed
over a half century of playing baseball in the United States, Mexico
and the Caribbean.
As a young man he threw a sizzling fastball, a looping curveball
and a knuckleball that moved like feather in a hurricane. As the
years passed and his velocity declined, he relied on trick pitches
like the Midnight Creeper, the Hesitation Pitch, the Bat Dodger
and several other pitches "that ain't never been seen in this lifetime."
That evening in Fredericksburg
he pitched one or two innings (recollections vary), but no one went
away disappointed. Just getting the chance to watch Satchel Paige
do his thing, even for a few magic moments, was like seeing a ghost
from baseball's glorious past - every bit as sweet as watching Babe
Ruth swing the bat or Ty Cobb steal home.