Clowns could put on show, but talent wasn't a baseball joke, Cohen recalls

John Steadman

March 31, 1993|By John Steadman

No team ever brought more smiles to a ballpark than the Indianapolis Clowns, a vista from the past, gone but hardly forgotten, and put out of business when the color barricade was lifted by Major League Baseball. Meet Jim "Fireball" Cohen, who spent seven years of his life touring America with the Clowns, or as he says, "any place they had a ballpark."

The Clowns were the most widely traveled organization in the history of baseball, the Harlem Globetrotters in knickers. In most seasons they were on the road for 175 dates, making more barnstorming stops in towns and villages than official contests in the Negro American League.

In fact, they made only rare appearances in Indianapolis. Being called Clowns wasn't demeaning to them because this was TC team of entertainers. They could score runs and keep the opposition from doing the same, as epitomized by their league title in 1951. Cohen, a grand gentleman of 75, has pleasing memories of "how it used to be."

It's obvious the players on the Clowns enjoyed it as much as those who paid to see them. They put on a show before the first pitch was thrown, what became known as the "shadow game." The infield would be in place and the fungo hitter at home plate would go through the motions. Strictly simulation. Crowd reaction approached pandemonium.

"The Clowns were so good at it," he insists, "some fans believed they were actually catching and throwing to all the bases. They'd pivot and make phantom tags. It became a traditional thing with us, our regular opening before every game."

Then there was King Tut and a dwarf, colorfully known as Spec Beebop but whose actual name was Ralph Bell, and also Reece "Goose" Tatum, a famed Globetrotter who played first base. "At different times we had two girl players, pitcher Mamie Johnson and second baseman Toni Stone. They could play. We were a top draw all over America."

After the Clowns and the other Negro teams shut down because Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Willie Mays and so many others joined the white major leagues, Cohen became a postal worker for 35 years in Washington and raised a family.

"As you can see, I'm not Jewish," he said. "The best my daddy could figure out, how we became Cohen, is our ancestors were from Florida. In the time of slaves, it was a practice to take the name of the plantation owner. That's all I know."

Cohen, after graduating from Derry Township (Pa.) High School in 1936, the only black in his class, became a coal miner. In World War II, he was a platoon sergeant at Camp Lee, Va., and played on the base team. This led to an entree to the Clowns and a different environment than he ever imagined.

What about other routines the Clowns performed? "At the

seventh-inning stretch," explained Cohen, "King Tut would take a chair to the mound and pretend to be a dentist. He'd have pliers and a hammer. Then Spec Beebop sat down, as a patient, and King Tut would act as if he was hammering on his teeth or pulling one out with the pliers. Beebop would instantly blow a whole lot of popcorn from his mouth to give the illusion of teeth coming out."

It was in 1952 that a quiet 17-year-old shortstop named Henry Aaron, called "Pork Chops" by older teammates, joined the Clowns. He also batted cross-handed. "His mother told us to take care of her 'baby' when he came from the Mobile Black Bears," recalls Cohen. "He never used a curse word. All he ever said was 'shoot, shucks and doggone.' "

Before the season was half-over, the Boston Braves made a down payment of $2,500 on a purchase price of $10,000 for his contract. The rest, as has been said before, is history. Salaries in the Negro leagues ranged from $250 to $700 a month, except if you were Leroy "Satchel" Paige, Josh Gibson and other "name" players. Meal money was $2 a day.

Cohen is impressed with the work of Robert Hieronimus and wife Zohara. In conjunction with the Associated Jewish Community Federation, they are sponsoring Little League teams wearing uniforms bedecked with the Black Sox and Elite Giants. "It's just beautiful," he says.

No regrets or hard feelings left over for Jim "Fireball" Cohen, an Indianapolis Clown, who savors the good times and whose laughter mirrors a life of contentment in a bygone era that -- most emphatically -- will never be played back again.

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