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Grass skirts, ‘Grins & Lies,’ baseball clowns

Imagine: black men, barefoot, wearing grass skirts, shirtless, with war-painted faces, uttering gibberish, affecting a crude stereotype of African tribesmen, straight out of Tarzan movies. These were the Zulu Cannibal Giants, African-American baseball players in the 1930s, making a living, clowning, barnstorming the country, delighting white patrons.
Later, this team evolved into the Ethiopian Clowns, and finally the Indianapolis Clowns. The Clowns were a powerful force in black baseball from 1935 to the mid-1950s.
The Indianapolis Clowns played in the Negro America League in the 1940s, along with the Chicago American Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, and Cleveland Buckeyes. In league games, they mostly played straight baseball. On the road, they clowned. They were a big draw in white, and black, communities.
The clowning had a purpose and history. As Negro league historian Donn Rogosin explained in his history of black baseball, “Invisible Men, Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues”:
“(Black teams) had a profound problem: how to keep interest in a baseball game in which they were embarrassingly superior to the opposition … All the black teams incorporated comic elements into the game.”
The discussion of the place of clowning in black baseball during segregation, and in the 1950s, was a major undercurrent at this year’s SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference in Indianapolis, which I attended last week.
Each year this conference is held in a city with an important history in black baseball. The group has been meeting annually for 16 years, though this was only my second conference. I attended last year in Birmingham, Ala., and vowed never to miss another one.
Larry Lester, one of the foremost researchers of the Negro league legacy, is the masterful master of ceremonies at the conference. He is ably assisted by many in organizing the conference, none more so than author and scholar Leslie Heaphy. She edits the twice-yearly publication, Black Ball, A Negro Leagues Journal, an invaluable resource for those of us interested in the history of black baseball.
The conference features research presentations; “field work,” a baseball game — this year an AAA minor league game between the Indianapolis Indians (Pirates) and the Rochester Red Wings (Twins); a Players Panel and Authors Panel; and various other ceremonies and activities.
It concludes with a banquet and a memorabilia auction, the proceeds of which help fund various projects, including the Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project, which endeavors to find the unmarked graves of Negro league players and provide acknowledgement with an appropriate graveside marker.
Our host, the Central Indiana Chapter of SABR, is named after Indiana’s greatest black ballplayer, Oscar Charleston, a Hall of Famer now and inarguably one of the greatest players who ever played the game. Charleston was born in Indianapolis and started his playing career with the ABCs.
Charleston has been called the “Willie Mays of his time.” He could do anything on the field: As a hitter in his time, he was compared to Babe Ruth; as a runner, to Ty Cobb; and as a fielder, Tris Speaker.
The first presentation of the conference focused on Reece “Goose” Tatum, the great showman for the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team in the 1940s and 50s. Tatum was also an all-star first baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1946-49. The case was made for Tatum as a baseball player, one of the greatest fielding first sackers of all time.
This study of Tatum introduced the conflicted discussion of the place of clowning in the black game. The dichotomy lies in whether the clowning was undignified and humiliating, reinforcing negative views of blackness — or a business, a legitimate commercial outlet for black men at a time when employment opportunities were few, and discrimination and prejudice were rife.
It was both, of course — and there were many forms and degrees of clowning on the field, from the clearly insulting Zulu Cannibals to modest expressions of comedic elements by highly skilled players in league games.
I saw Tatum as a child in Lewiston, Maine, and laughed at him and his Harlem Globetrotters’ teammates until my sides ached. Their routines were hilarious and Tatum was the star, a natural comic entertainer and an absolutely compelling presence. Clearly, he was a great athlete, an elastic 6’6”. He dropkicked the basketball into the hoop from midcourt!
Later, I came to question whether everything I learned that day was positive. It was without question spectacular entertainment. Yet it also had the quality of the minstrel show. For this boy from Maine, black people remained exotic, “other,” happy-go-lucky, ebullient, naturally comedic.
Goose Tatum symbolized this dichotomy. Off the field he was markedly different from his professional persona. He had contempt for the crowds who responded to his antics, was said to be moody and violent, spent some time in jail, and died young, at 45.
Tatum wore the “mask” of doubleness that Paul Lawrence Dunbar described in his poem, “We Wear the Mask”:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, —
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

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