Baseball's Comic All-Star

By Gehring, Wes D. | USA TODAY, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Baseball's Comic All-Star


Gehring, Wes D., USA TODAY


COMEDIAN JOE E. BROWN (1892-1973), the oversexed millionaire who falls for Jack Lemmon's in-drag character from Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1959), was a huge baseball fan. Not only was he a fine player, he enjoyed and excelled at the entertainment and spectacle aspects of the game. Moreover, since the World Series was born during his childhood, the sport became a central defining component for him. In fact, baseball surfaces throughout Brown's life and career in 10 meaningful ways.

First, there was simple joy of playing the game, which lasted long after his youth. As late as the 1930s, his Warner Bros. film contract stipulated that his employers fund a studio team. (Friend, fellow comedian, and baseball aficionado Buster Keaton often provided the rival diamond nine.)

Second, the new national game was so popular in the early 1900s that semi-professional teams popped up everywhere. One of young Brown's perennial part-time jobs was playing for various clubs.

Third, Brown was a good enough ballplayer that the New York Yankees considered adding him to their minor league farm system.

Fourth, as a touring vaudevillian, Brown frequently found himself in the company of on-the-road baseball players. Thus, like his friend Will Rogers, Brown often worked out with different major league teams at various ballparks.

Fifth, the comedian's greatest films arguably were the baseball trilogy of "Fireman Save My Child" (1932), "Elmer the Great" (1933), and "Alibi Ike" (1935).

Sixth, the comedian was so identified with the sport that, when he entertained troops during World War II, popular demand required that part of his stand-up shtick be diamond-directed. When one such wartime performance later involved some Japanese prisoners, those "who could speak English said they had seen his 'Elmer the Great' movies. [And] they wanted to talk baseball," according to Brown.

Seventh, not only was baseball material something Brown never tired of, it also was a way of periodically recharging his batteries. In 1940, for instance, he returned to the stage in a production of "Elmer the Great." In 1947, Brown recorded a double-album entitled "How to Play Baseball," with the comedian explaining the national pastime to a youngster named Elmer.

Eighth, the man with the famous mouth long maintained professional ties with the sport, from being a 1953 New York Yankees television announcer to doubling that same year as the president of the national Pony Leagues (for 13- and 14-year-olds).

Ninth, the ongoing significance of the sport was such that, throughout Brown's life, his conversations were peppered with baseball references and stories. Fittingly, a sizable portion of Brown's 1956 autobiography, Laughter Is a Wonderful Thing, concentrates on baseball. For example, he wrote at length about his hometown (Toledo, Ohio) Trolley League. …

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