Max Patkin, Clown Prince of Baseball

Here’s a lengthy pastiche of several different stories from the late ’80s to 1995 on Max Patkin, whose fame these days probably comes as much from the Bull Durham movie as from the act he did for decades in baseball stadiums around the country. If you remember the man or saw his routine, read on. This, from an L.A. Times article on New Year’s Day 1987, on the start of Patkin’s clown career:

Finally, one day in Pearl Harbor, he realized his comic potential and realized he’d better go with the screwball and leave the curve at home.

It happened in an inter-service game. Max was pitching to a guy named Joe Dimaggio. Pitching hard. Except Dimaggio nailed a pitch that is probably still bobbing somewhere in the Pacific. To this day, Max doesn’t know why he did what he did. Call it destiny. But as Dimaggio began to trot around the bases, Max followed him, cap sideways, matching the great one stride for ridiculous stride.

A clown was born. “His whole team came out of the dugout,” he recalls, “but to shake my hand. I’ll never forget Dimaggio sitting alone in the dugout while 20 guys walked me back to the mound.”

Max honed his craft at Wilkes-Barre, where he still imagined himself a pitcher, although rather a funny one. Lou Boudreau got a load of his act and tabbed him to his boss, Bill Veeck. Veeck, who, from time to time, had treated baseball as lightly as he could, recognized a co-conspirator. Patkin was instructed to forget his pitching career and pretend baseball had just named Barnum & Bailey as co-commissioners.

Those were the days. Of course, with Veeck things could go from the sublime to the ridiculous with the swing of the bat. It was so bad once that Max had to play second fiddle. “He had that midget,” Max sniffs at being upstaged. “Didn’t weigh as much as my nose.”

The establishment was not always amused. See, part of the problem with being funny is that, on any given day, some people are not going to laugh. Like your old-line managers. “In the beginning, when I left the Indians and I was coaching in the minors,” he recalls, “some managers thought what I did was sacrilegious. Some old-time managers were just murder on my. Gene Mauch was the worst. He blew his top every time, tried to refuse to let me perform. He got me four times. Well I’ll be a s.o.b. if he didn’t lose all four games.”

Without Veeck, the major leagues had restored some measure of solemnity to the game. Max didn’t often work that circuit, preferring the minors, where his act meant box office. But one day, George Steinbrenner, who had been a Patkin fan while growing up in Cleveland, gave Max the call. Come play for the Yankees.

Well, knocking down the house Ruth built had a certain appeal and Max broke some dates to work a Yankees’ game.

“But who’s greeting me at the front door? Ralph Houk. He starts screaming. `I’ve had enough of your act in the minors. I’m in the big leagues now. We’re fighting for a pennant.’ And so on. I mean, it was May 15.”

In the years since, it hasn’t been all laughs, at least not for Max. His wife woke up one morning and said she couldn’t stand any more of his face.

“The travel didn’t help any,” he admits.

And working conditions are not always the best.

“Once,” he once said, “I had to get out of a burning plane and take a Piper Cub with a one-eyed pilot who had asthma to make a game in Arkansas.”

“I’m the last of a breed,” he says. “They’ve got the Chicken now. I’m not jealous, but I am envious of the money he makes. Me, I’m no duck. I’m 100% baseball. They’re laughing at me, my face, my body, when they laugh. The suit I wear, I grew.”

This, from the Omaha World-Herald in 1989:

Max Patkin is hardly your average matinee idol.

“I used to be one ugly guy until I got my teeth fixed,” said the man with the rubber face, flashing a grin that features a single front tooth staring beneath his beak nose.

Yet it was Patkin’s appearance on the silver screen, playing himself in the movie “Bull Durham,” that has put a smile back on the face of baseball’s “Clown Prince.”

“I’m having one of my best years ever, and the movie has a lot to do with it,” Patkin said Tuesday night shortly before going out to perform the act that has made him a minor-league legend.

“You know, I’ve never missed a show,” he said proudly. “I’ve broken my fingers, I’ve broken my toes, I’ve broken my ribs falling with those bats. I’ve pulled hamstrings. I’ve had so many injuries and sicknesses, but I’ve never missed a show.

“It’s a struggle. I’m 69 years old. But the movie gave me a lift. It gave me the desire to want to get through next year. That’s my 50th anniversary in the game,” he added.

“If I make ’90, it will be my golden anniversary in the game. And it will mean that I’ve been in the game for six decades. That would mean a lot to me.”

Patkin had intended to do about 50 shows this season. He’ll wind up doing 75.

“It’s the movie again,” Patkin said. “It’s gotten me bigger crowds and more recognition and publicity. I like the recognition. I think we all strive for it.

“If anyone says they don’t like recognition, they’re liars.”

Patkin’s appearance in “Bull Durham” was short but sweet. He’s shown doing his act at a game. He also is featured in a scene at a bar, where he dances with actress Susan Sarandon.

“She’s one sexy lady,” said Patkin, a former ballroom dancer. “I had to teach her how to dance.

“But they cut my best parts out. I was supposed to get killed in the movie. It would have been great.”

Without missing a beat, Patkin breaks into one of the scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Reminded that the game was going to begin soon, Patkin stops, then adds, “Well, take my word for it, it would have been great.

“It was going to be my big dramatic part. But they decided that killing me didn’t fit it. It was a fun movie, and I guess they just didn’t want to kill the clown.”

This, from the Sacramento Bee on May 23, 1995:

“The Clown Prince of Baseball” is calling it quits.

He was scheduled to do 35 shows this year — starting in mid-June in St. Joseph’s, Mo., then on to Albuquerque, N.M., and Salt Lake City, then back through the small towns in the Class-A Midwest League and on to the new ballpark in Durham, N.C. It was an itinerary that only a crazed travel agent could dream up.

It’s a killer schedule for a man any age. It makes one wonder how Patkin has been able to do it all these years. He wonders, too.

Doing those one-night stands, traveling by himself, he’s had plenty of time to wonder.

“Being alone is the worst thing that can happen to me,” he said.

When the ballpark lights go on, all is suddenly right with Max Patkin’s world. But the rest of the day — the bus rides, the hours spent in motel rooms and airports and train stations — is no laughing matter.

So Patkin, who lives in King of Prussia, Pa., recently made 35 phone calls, one to each of the minor-league general managers who had hired him to perform this season, and said he was retiring.

“A lot of them didn’t believe it,” he said.

Believe it. There comes a time when not even the sound of laughter can keep a clown going.

“I think I’ve done over 3,500 shows,” he said, “and I’d say I’ve had about 90 percent laughter and acceptance.”

But those other 10 percent left scars on a man who seldom let anybody know how sensitive he really was. And how much he worried in the hours before each performance.

“I get to these towns and have to lay around all afternoon, six or seven hours,” Patkin said. “It gives me too much time to think. There’s nowhere to go. I’ve seen every town there is in the country. It got to the point I had self-doubts about myself. I’d feel like I worked the town to death. How many times can you come back?

“I was never comfortable until I got out there. There was always like a shadow over me. There was many a day I got into these ballparks and I used to pray for rain. That’s why my brother went with me at the beginning. I had no confidence. I was scared to death.”

The presence and support of his brother Eddie always helped. When Eddie died recently, some of Max’s drive died with him.

For decades, he hid his fears behind those funny faces and a barrage of one-liners. “A facade,” he called it.

Then it was show time, and his fears and insecurities vanished.

“When I went out there and hit that coaching line, I was another person,” Patkin said. “It was like you turn on an electric lamp, like a bell rang.

“I loved the adulation,” he said. “I loved being around the ballplayers. I loved being Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball.”

“I gave my whole heart, my whole body and soul to baseball,” he said.

And finally this, from the L.A. Times of August 8, 1990:

What makes baseball clown Max Patkin proudest is that he has never failed to show up for work.

He jumped off a burning plane after it landed in Fayetteville, Ark., to make a date. He once took a cab 300 miles on a flat tire through the middle of Mexico to make a date.

He has performed even when he was so sick others could not bear to stand near him.

“It was in Monterrey, Mexico, 20 years ago, and I had Montezuma’s revenge,” Patkin remembered. “All of a sudden, the guy on first base steals second. No big deal, but then the first baseman steals second. And the umpire steals second.

“I’m standing there all alone when I realize I’ve had an accident in my pants.”

But he finished the show. He always finishes the show.

He has been cursed by minor league managers who won’t let him dress in their clubhouses, victimized by players who rub analgesic balm in his athletic supporter, and yet Max Patkin has always been there at the end.

And now, as he nears the end of the time when he is still physically able to perform, Patkin is still here. He is in the midst of doing 60 shows this summer, in minor league ballparks from central Florida to central Canada, from Burlington to Billings.

He still wears a uniform he wore 30 years ago. He still washes his cap by hand so it won’t shrink.

And by that part of America he still touches, he has not been forgotten.

“We had an autograph session with him this year, and the line stretched from here to the freeway,” said Stan Naccarato, president of the Tacoma (Wash.) Tigers. “The man is an institution within himself.”

Added Larry Schmittou, who owns teams in Nashville and Huntsville, Ala.: “The man is like the Globetrotters. He is part of history.”

Now, if Max Patkin would only believe that. In becoming part of history, baseball’s clown has been disillusioned by it.

“Once I quit, who is going to give a damn?” he said in an interview earlier this summer near his Philadelphia area home. “Really now, who gives a damn about a baseball clown?

“People will think about me and say, `He used to be a funny.’ And that’s it. That’s my story. Used to be funny. Big deal.”

“I know how I look,” he said. “I knew that because of my appearance, I was getting laughed at even when I wasn’t trying to be funny.

“On the field I make myself more grotesque than I am, but I know how it is. I finally figured, the man upstairs makes you a certain way, that’s the way it is supposed to be. Maybe the reason I was made this way was, I supposed to make people laugh.”

Said Ron McKee, Asheville general manager: “Max is so ugly, people love him.”

from the start, Patkin was uncomfortable with the difference between laughed with and laughed at.

So uncertain of which applied to him in his early years, Patkin grew depressed. One day in 1951, he put his head in an oven and turned on the gas.

“Feeling that I could not make a living in sports except through my funny appearance, I got depressed, nearly had a nervous breakdown,” he said. “Then one day I could not go on . . . until I smelled the gas-and it smelled terrible. It terrified me. I pulled out. I decided to give my life another try.”

Patkin still gets depressed from time to time as he lies in Ramada Inn or Days Inn or Holiday Inn beds on weekday afternoons in small-town America, waiting to perform at yet another tiny ballpark. He hopes the audience won’t notice how these days, he must pause to catch his breath. He hopes the audience will be kind.

“You know, I am really very sensitive about the way I look,” he said. “I’ll be walking down the street and somebody will call me ugly and I will shoot back with, `I make a living looking this way. What’s your excuse?’

“But it’s not funny. I never have gotten the woman I want. I take a lot of abuse. It’s not funny.”

He thought he had the woman he wanted once, about 30 years ago, and married her. But he said that after he caught her cheating on him, she sneaked up and hit him over the head with a hammer, fracturing his skull. Thirteen years ago, they were divorced.

“You know what the darndest thing about that hammer incident was?” he asked. “A couple of weeks later, I attended this testimonial dinner for Tommy Lasorda. The emcee, Joe Garagiola, looked at me sitting on the dais with my head bandaged. He announced to everybody that my wife had just tried to kill me by hitting me over the head with a hammer.

“And you know what? Everybody laughed. They thought it was a joke.”

The biggest difference between the Chicken and Patkin is that because Patkin’s show involves actual game situations, he has not worked a major league game in 10 years.

“There is too much at stake for them to worry about me coaching third base during a big inning,” Patkin said, slipping into another story. “I remember the time in Toronto, I was working a big game between the Blue Jays and Baltimore. With Jim Palmer pitching against John Mayberry of Toronto in the second inning, I yelled out, `Fastball! Fastball!’ from the third base coaching box. Just a joke.

“But that dumb Palmer, he still throws a fastball! Mayberry hit a homer and Toronto won and I’ll never forget how Palmer just stared at me.”

Of course, if Patkin had remained a major league act, he might have become as sterile as today’s mascots, and thus deprived of adding to his rich and unusual history. He certainly would not have had as many good stories, such as being Lasorda’s roommate.

“I was working a Spokane game when Tommy was managing there, and he let me stay in his room that night,” Patkin remembered. “But he told me, if his team lost, I could not talk the whole night. And sure enough, they lost. So we go home and he doesn’t let me talk for two hours and I’m getting all itchy.

“Finally he says, `OK, I’ll let you say one thing.’ I say, `Tommy, you’re a no-good SOB.’ “

It is the bottom of the fifth inning, Patkin’s final appearance on the Asheville field, and he makes it his best.

Standing in the first-base coaching box, he actually drops his pants. He covers his brightly colored undershorts with dirt. Then, having taken a big swig of water from a soda can, he begins spouting the water in the air. High spouts, and lots of them. It is the feat that, to this day, makes his fans wonder.

“That water thing always amazed me,” Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia said. “I don’t think any of us ever figured out how he did it.”

After the inning, he goes into his grand finale. He runs to home plate, crawls between the catcher’s legs, grabs a bat, holds it at the wrong end, swings at a practice pitch, hits a grounder, runs to third base, gets tagged out and then thrown out of the game by a laughing umpire.

By now, the beers have been set aside, the socializing has stopped, and the crowd is roaring. Patkin leaves the field to a standing ovation.

Patkin has had an operation for a herniated disk. He has bone spurs on his feet. He has refused to undergo an operation for torn cartilage in his knee. He carries a blood-pressure card in his wallet, next to the index cards that remind him of his schedule.

This is a clown’s life?

He lives with his brother, Edward, in a condominium at King of Prussia, Pa. They have two dogs and a cat. The dogs are so old, they can no longer control their bladders, so one room is completely papered for them.

Neighbors complain about the smell, but Patkin ignores them.

“I know it stinks,” he said. “But how can you get rid of something you have had for 13 years?”

Minor league officials often ask him if he is planning to retire.

“I’ve had him here 11 straight years because he keeps telling me that every year is his last,” Asheville’s McKee said with a laugh.

Patkin retirement threat has been just that, but he wonders.

“I’m getting older, my moves aren’t what they used to be,” he said. “I don’t care about the money, I want to be funny. And I worry, are they still liking me?”

Read Patkin’s obituary here and take a look at a bit of his routine here.

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Published in: on August 26, 2009 at 1:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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