When most people think of the history of baseball, they think of it in terms of a Ken Burns documentary – soaring music, sepia tones, and a certain reverence for the deeds of players engaged in noble competition. But there are other sides of the game, not the least of which is humor. From the bungling, prank-playing Brooklyn Dodgers of old to the modern day, there have always been jokesters, pranksters and clowns both on and off the field.
Which brings us to Baseball’s Funnymen: Twenty-Four Jokers, Screwballs, Pranksters and Storytellers, which aims to tell the stories of two dozen of the clown princes of the diamond. Written by legendary baseball writer Lew Freedman, the book is densely laid out and formatted in a way that makes it feel more formal than light hearted. But for those who persist, a good deal of delight awaits.
The list of personalities included is the first pleasant surprise of the book: the usual suspects are included, but so too are more obscure figures of historical note, and lesser ballplayers who, in their day, attracted as much notoriety for their shenanigans as for their play.
The book begins with Nick Altrock, the first of the full-time baseball clowns. The chapter is a concise summary of the man’s playing career and transition into joking around, with a near-scholarly level of attention to detail. There’s genuine information here, not just an off-hand list of biographical bullet points and career (or stage) highlights.
The pattern follows for the remaining 23 entries, each of which is stuffed full of both factual detail and anecdotal evidence as to what made these funnymen, well, funny. Nor is the list restricted to players. Included in the book are noted baseball funnyman and entertainer Max Patkin, wildly inventive renegade owner Bill Veeck, umpire Ron Luciano, and announcer Harry Caray. They sit comfortably next to all-time greats like Dizzy Dean, Satchel Paige and Yogi Berra, legendary raconteurs like Joe Garagiola and Bob Uecker, and lesser on-field lights like Jay Johnstone and Steve “Psycho” Lyons, whose pants-related endeavors won him baseball immortality far more than his exploits with bat or glove.
And beyond that, the book does an excellent job of elevating some figures who might not be familiar to the modern fan. Minor league owner Joe Engel is not a household name these days, but his exploits and creativity certainly merit a place in the book. So, too, does Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez, known for his on-field achievements but whose wicked sense of humor has largely slipped out of accounts of his excellence.
The book is best read and savored a chapter at a time. Each is a full meal of information, lovingly assembled and presented to show the human side of baseball through its best practitioners of humor. Each chapter is thoroughly researched, with the back of book Chapter Notes providing an extensive list of original sources for the stories, anecdotes and shaggy dog tales related herein. Even a dedicated fan will find something new here, whether it be about pioneering clown Al Schacht or nitty gritty details about the meteoric career of wisecracker Bo Belinsky. Ultimately, the book is an enjoyable read, accessible to new fans while providing fresh material for old ones.