By Rebecca Alpert
Today, Harlem Globetrotter star Reece “Goose” Tatum will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. But Tatum also deserves consideration for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Baseball was Tatum’s first sport and first love.
Tatum was a gifted pantomime artist and comedian. Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe claimed to have discovered Tatum in Arkansas and brought him to the attention of Abe Saperstein. Saperstein was impressed with Tatum and sent him to play outfield and then first base for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1941. For most of the 1942 season, Tatum played for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Gophers, a Negro Major League team that also toured with the Indianapolis Clowns and was booked by Saperstein. It was clear to Saperstein and Clown’s owner Syd Pollock that Tatum’s clowning skills were right for the Clowns, and he joined the team in early September. Tatum had been called “the King of showmen” since his days with the Barons. His talents made him a perfect fit not only for the Clowns but, Saperstein realized, also for comedy basketball, and Tatum joined the Harlem Globetrotters. Tatum blossomed in both sports. Except for his time in the Army during World War II, Tatum was the Clowns’ first baseman from 1942 to 1949 while he played for the Trotters in the winter. He was probably the finest comedian to play baseball, as well as a good fielder and hitter. His long frame and arms allowed him to move with great grace at first base as well as on the basketball court. White sportswriter Dick Freeman called Tatum “the best showman I have ever seen on the diamond, and that included Nick Altrock, Al Schacht, Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth, and the rest.” Clown Prince of baseball Max Patkin agreed: “I have to say that Goose Tatum is the funniest man I’ve ever seen. He had those long arms, and a unique gait and a voice that made people laugh.”
Although Tatum did individual routines at first base, he also teamed up with other Clowns comedians Richard “King Tut” and “Peanuts” Davis. Rare footage from 1946 of the Clowns playing against the Monarchs features Tatum playing first base, catching balls while reading the newspaper, using his long arms and incredible footwork to make catches that would be out of anyone else’s reach. He did a Stepin Fetchit–like slow walk, but also performed lighting-fast play. His pepper game is reminiscent of the way he handled the basketball as a Globetrotter. The footage also captured Tatum’s “down-on-knees prayer” pantomime and a shadow ball sequence with Peanuts Davis and King Tut, who is dressed in tailcoat and crooked baseball cap. The clip closes with the routine using Tatum’s foot as smelling salt to revive Tut. All of these routines were standard in baseball comedy, but the Clowns perfected them and made them their trademark.
Goose Tatum became a great draw, and Pollock traded the Clowns’ regular first baseman so that Tatum could play all the time. That did not please everyone. Manager Bunny Downs fought with Pollock about the move. But Tatum’s value at drawing fans outweighed considerations about winning games. Pollock also felt obliged to please Abe Saperstein, who wanted as much exposure for his future Globetrotter star as possible.
Both Tatum and Ed Davis were in the Army in 1944. After the war Tatum resumed his clowning. He drew attention when he was selected to play first base at the East-West All-Star game in 1947. Sports reporter Ric Roberts was surprised that Tatum could both clown and play strong baseball. He described Tatum’s show-stealing role at the East-West game:
He dug scatter-gut heaves out of the dirt with scoops, backhands and traps; his sensitive bag-thumping foot played tick-tag, hot foot or gave out with the Pavlova… a one-man riot of color, clowning, and cold efficiency, and what was more he’s a solid hitter from either side of the plate.
As major league baseball began to integrate after World War II, rumors circulated that teams were interested in Tatum for his playing ability, not his clowning. Ric Roberts thought that Tatum might have to limit his antics if he made it into the majors, but saw no reason why he couldn’t follow in the tradition of Rube Waddell and Dizzy Dean, major league pitchers who were known for their odd behavior. But this proved to be unrealistic. The black players who were selected were not the comedians but those like Jackie Robinson who were familiar with white culture and mores and who would be more able to blend in. Tatum, like most other Negro League veterans, would also not get serious consideration for the major leagues because of his age. The few teams who showed interest in integrating wanted young talent that they could train in the minor leagues.
After the 1948 season, Abe Saperstein’s relationship with Syd Pollock began to deteriorate. The tension would have a major impact on Tatum and the Clowns. In 1948, Tatum began to miss games. Pollock learned that he was playing in Chicago on local teams “closely associated with Abe Saperstein” instead of traveling with the Clowns, to whom he was under contract. Tatum drew crowds, and Pollock grew angry at Saperstein for keeping him away.
Pollock’s only recourse was to ask the league to suspend Tatum for leaving the team. Tatum returned to the Clowns at the end of the season, signed a contract for the following year, and even organized his own all-star team to tour against the Clowns during the winter. Pollock, in his usual fashion, issued a press release to announce Tatum’s return. In it, he included speculation that the Boston Braves were interested in signing Tatum. The release also included a warning, really addressed to Tatum and not the general public, that the Braves would be watching not only his abilities as a showman and a fielder, but also his “general behavior.”
In response, Saperstein told the Chicago Defender that he was encouraging his friend Bill Veeck to sign Goose Tatum to play for the Cleveland Indians. In fact, Saperstein was encouraging Tatum to play year-round for the basketball Globetrotters, which he began to do in 1950. In 1952, many of the major black newspapers carried an interview with Tatum as part of the Globetrotters’ publicity campaign. In it, Tatum suggests that he got an offer from Veeck in 1945 (possibly to play for the American Association team he owned, since Veeck had not yet purchased the Indians). Tatum wanted to be clear that his choice was between a major league career and playing year-round for the Globetrotters, although it is not likely that his baseball talents would have been sufficient for the major leagues. Tatum credited hours of conversations with Veeck and Saperstein for the decision. Tatum’s interview with Wendell Smith the following year recast the story:
the highest paid basketball player in the world…said, wistfully: ‘Yes, I like basketball. That’s how I make my living. But, you know, if I had it to do all over again, I’d try to be a big league baseball player. Baseball is my first love.’
According to this version of the story, Tatum was convinced by Saperstein to make the choice that would provide him with a better salary, and that was true. Tatum credited Saperstein with taking good care of him. “‘I can’t complain. Mr. Saperstein has been very good to me. He picked me up when I hardly knew what a basketball was and taught me all I know about the game.’” But Saperstein was also looking out for his own interests, as Tatum was a brilliant basketball comedian and would go on to be the Globetrotters’ star player and greatest attraction. The relationship between Saperstein and Tatum would end bitterly in 1955, although Tatum never publicly criticized Saperstein. Pollock and Saperstein were running an entertainment business that depended on the labor of talented African Americans, and they did not always treat them with the respect they deserved. Tatum was the finest sports comedian ever to play, and neither the Trotters nor the Clowns would ever regain their brilliance after he left.