I know that you hate me and laugh in derision,
For what is the Clown? He plays but a part.
Yet he has his ream, and his hope and his vision,
The Clown has a heart.
And ah when you pass me, uncaring, unseeing,
You know not my sorrow, so cruel and sweet.
I give you my spirit, my life, and my being, I die at your feet.
This is an article from the June 6, 1988 issue
Max Patkin is Dying. No, he has not been placed on irrevocable waivers or anything like that. On this particular summer night, he is dying in the comedic sense. It is warm and drizzly in Gastonia, N.C., and nothing is working for the Clown Prince of Baseball. Not the imitation of a chicken, not the shadowing of the first baseman, not even the countless (actually 24) geysers he sends into the air from his five-toothed mouth. "What a crowd!" Max tells the crowd. "I had more people in my bed last night."
This is a slight exaggeration, not because Max had company in bed the night before, but because there are 47 people in the stands at Sims Park. It seems that the owner of the Gastonia Rangers in the Class A Sally League, a gracious man named Jack Farnsworth, had forgotten that Max was coming and so neglected to promote his appearance. Farnsworth, who made a fortune selling Bibles and who operates one of the few dry ballparks in all of baseball, had recently undergone brain surgery, so you could hardly blame him.
There are a few people laughing at Max's gyrations on this night, but too few for him to hear. So when the public-address announcer, who is about half the age of Max's uniform (the one with the question mark on the back), blows the introduction to the Rock Around the Clock number, Max stalks off the field in a huff. Ever the trouper, he returns to finish off his act and squeezes out a few more chuckles. One of the people laughing hardest is a man who is taking notes behind home plate and who looks like a schoolteacher. He is Joe Frisina, a scout for the Montreal Expos and, in fact, a former schoolteacher. Frisina says. "I've seen Maxie 50 times over the years, and I still laugh."
Everybody in baseball knows Max Patkin. Some of them may try to hide when they see him coming, but there are probably only a handful of major leaguers in uniform who haven't seen the Clown Prince of Baseball at one time or another. And if they haven't laughed, they're not human. The funny thing about Maxie's act is that it is still funny. It's the same corny shtick that he has done for 40 years in 400 ballparks on 4,000 different days or nights over the course of four million miles. "If it was a class act, I would have been out of business a long time ago," he says.
Max is 68 now, and suffering from glaucoma, bad knees and a herniated disk in his back, but he's strong as a horse and has every intention of taking his act into the '90s, which would be its sixth decade. In all that time, and over all those miles, he has never missed a performance. He has jumped out of a burning plane, dodged tornadoes and been mistaken for a fugitive from justice—"I feel sorry for the guy if he looked like me," says Max. He nearly bought the farm 30 years ago in Gastonia, of all places, when he wrecked the De Soto he was driving. Still, the only time he ever had to cancel a booking (as opposed to missing a scheduled performance) was when, in a scene worthy of I Pagliacci, his wife at the time hit him over the head with a hammer. "True story," says Max, who always says that.
It's safe to guess that nobody has given more of himself to the game than Max. He has certainly poured more sweat on the diamond than anyone else ever has. He has taken thousands upon thousands of showers in minor league ballparks in all 50 states and several countries, and almost all of them were lonely showers, since he is usually finished by the sixth inning. His only companion under the nozzle is the tired, dirt-encrusted baseball cap he washes after every performance.
Consider this chunk of his 1987 schedule: Burlington, N.C.; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Wichita, Kans.; San Antonio; Salem. Ore.; Albuquerque: Tucson: Honolulu: Nashville: Charleston. W.Va.; Richmond; Norfolk, Va.; Anchorage, Alaska; Fairbanks, Alaska; Vancouver; Portland, Ore.; Las Vegas. That, ladies and germs, was what Max did in the month of July, returning home to King of Prussia, Pa., on weekends. He doesn't even bother redeeming his frequent-flier miles. "What would I do with a free airplane ticket?" he asks. "Travel?"
What does baseball give Max in return? He gets anywhere from $900 to $1,500 a performance, depending on the size of the ballpark, or $200 if the game is rained out. The Chicken, his main competition for minor league yuks, gets $5,500—guaranteed, rain or shine—for a Class A game. $7,500 for Triple A. "Don't get me wrong, I like the Chicken." says Maxie. "But he's a little thief."
Max is not especially interested in making a lot more money. He drives a Cadillac of recent vintage, and he lives comfortably with his brother Eddie, and close by his daughter, Joy. But he could use a little more recognition. He's not necessarily talking Hall of Fame, although there are a few unofficial clowns there already. What the Clown Prince of Baseball would like to be, one time only, is the King of Baseball. At baseball's annual winter meetings, you see, the National Association, which is the governing body of the minor leagues, honors someone as the King of Baseball at its big banquet. In a sappy little ceremony, the honoree is led to the dais, placed on a throne and given a crown, a robe and a scepter. Just once you would think they would put the jester on the throne. Oh well, says Max, "screw 'em if they can't take a joke."
On May 29, he embarked on his 43rd season of one-night stands. First stop, West Palm Beach; last stop, Vancouver: with 70 stops in between. He will also appear in a baseball movie, Bull Durham, which stars Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon. In the movie, Max plays a clown coach, and he gets to dance with the leading lady.
That night last summer in Gastonia wasn't the first time Max died before an audience, and it won't be the last. But every once in a while, when the mood hits him and the crowd is really into his act, Max feels like he's 24 again and chasing Joe DiMaggio around the bases, which is how the whole thing got started. On a really good night, he can look over into the stands and see Connie Mack laughing at him again. Sometimes he can stand in the first base coaching box in Butte or Birmingham or Buffalo and see Eddie Gaedel take ball four and scamper down to first.
The day that Max Patkin stops kissing base runners or crawling through catchers' legs or covering himself with dirt or getting the heave-hohoho from umpires, chances are that's the day he takes the Big Pratfall. And if Maxie has his way, that still wouldn't be the end of his act. "When I die," he says, "I want to be buried in the first base coaching box in some bush league ballpark, and I want my nose sticking out of the ground. That way, every once in a while, some poor guy will trip over me and yell. "It's that sonofabitch Patkin again!' "
A song of tender memories deep in his listening heart
An hour or so before an Appalachian League game between the Johnson City (Tenn.) Cardinals and the visiting Kingsport (Tenn.) Mets, Max walks onto the field and gets a familiar greeting. "I can't believe you're still doing this, you sonofabitch," Chuck Hiller, a Mets instructor, tells him.
"Forty-two years, haven't missed a performance yet," says Max.
"When did you first catch Max?" Hiller asks another Mets coach, Joel Horlen.
"Lincoln, Nebraska, 1959," says Horlen.
"Remember the tornado?" asks Max, and Horlen nods.
"I first saw you in Cocoa, 1957," says Hiller.
Don Blasingame, a Cards instructor, walks by, shakes Max's hand and says, "Winston-Salem, 1953, my first year."
This is one of the nicer parts of Max's job: the pregame reunion with the old guard. The camaraderie usually doesn't last very long, because he has to brief both teams and the P.A. announcer on his routine. But a ferocious storm turns this night in Johnson City into a rainout for Max, which leaves him without a lot of money but with lots of time for stories.
A long, long time ago Max was a wild righthanded pitcher. He grew up around Philadelphia, the son of a Russian immigrant. "Sam Patkin from Minsk," he says. "He would come out to see me pitch, and yell, 'Strike 'em out, Maxie!" Once when I was playing third base and another pitcher wasn't doing so well, my father stopped the game, walked onto the field, took the ball from the other pitcher and gave it to me." Playing on a semipro team with Elmer Valo, Max was 6'3", 150 pounds, and, he says, "I looked like a nose on the end of a lollipop stick."
Max passed a tryout with the Chicago White Sox in 1940, and they sent him to spring training with their Waterloo, Iowa, farm. But the general manager of the Waterloo club, Joe L. Brown, didn't like his looks, which is sort of funny because Max was often mistaken for Brown's father, the comedian Joe E. Brown. Anyway, Max was sold for $100 to Wisconsin Rapids, where in 1941 he won 10, lost 8, struck out close to 200 batters and nearly killed one sportswriter. 'The press box there was real low," he says, "and one day a pitch got away from me, sailed into the press box, bounced off the wall and hit this guy in the back of the head, knocking him out cold. True story."
He had 32 wild pitches that season, but the world was also out of control, and the following year he joined the Navy. He was assigned to former heavyweight champ Gene Tunney's unit in Honolulu as a physical instructor. Bobby Riggs was also there at the time, attached to a special entertainment troop, and one day he challenged Max to a little Ping-Pong match. Unbeknownst to Riggs, Max was a pretty fair table tennis player, so when Riggs gave him 14 points a game, the hustler lost $100. And kept losing, even though the handicap was eventually reduced to 10 points a game. "We played day and night for three days until he got shipped out," says Max. "He ended up owing me $2,000, and the other guys wouldn't let him out of there until he paid up. He paid me $500, and every time I saw him after that, he bought me dinner, although not $1,500 worth of dinners. True story."
His career took a comedic turn in the Army-Navy baseball game in Honolulu during the war. Playing on the Navy team, Max had to pitch against none other than Joe DiMaggio. Struck him out the first time. But the second time up. DiMaggio hit the longest home run anybody had ever seen. "I don't know why I did it," says Max, "but as he was running around the bases. I fell in behind him, imitating that lope of his. When we got to home plate, his whole team came out of the dugout to shake my hand and walk me back to the mound. True story."
Max got the hint. He began to expand his comic repertoire: He turned his cap sideways, developed a loose-limbed dance, imitated a dying fish when working in the coaching box. He still harbored a dream of pitching in the majors, but when the war ended and he was with the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Barons, Max came down with tendinitis of the shoulder. Released by Wilkes-Barre in 1946, he caught on with Harrisburg. Pa., and during an exhibition game with the Philadelphia Athletics, old Cornelius McGillicuddy himself, stiff collar and all, cracked up at Max's antics in the coaching box. "That's when I knew I was funny, when I made Connie Mack laugh." says Max.
The Cleveland Indians also came into Harrisburg, and Max was so laughable that player-manager Lou Boudreau recommended to his owner, Bill Veeck, that he hire the clown as a coach. The $1 contract he signed to coach the Indians began the most meaningful association of his life, because Veeck became a friend as well as a frequent employer. Of Max, Veeck said, "He looks like he was put together by somebody who forgot to read the instructions." But Veeck accorded him as much respect as anyone Max has ever known. "He never made fun of me, and always treated me as a human being," he says. "You know, it's a helluva thing when someone comes up to you and says, 'Be funny. Max; make a funny face.' I may be a clown, but I have my dignity."
Max remembers his major league debut in 1946: "They had 80,000 people in Municipal Stadium for my first game. Of course, it may have had something to do with the fact that they were honoring Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker that day. I was scared to death. The thing I remember most about that day is this: Al Schacht, who was the original Clown Prince of Baseball, performed before the game. Now, most everybody in baseball disliked Schacht, even his partner, Nick Altrock. Well, Schacht is out there on the field, and Ruth, who's watching from the dugout, says to Mel Harder, one of our old pitchers, 'I hate that sonofabitch. Go out and throw some to me.' Now, this is in the middle of Schacht's act. But, of course, when Ruth walks out, the fans just rise as one, and Schacht has to disappear. Babe knew what he was doing.
"Anyway, Ruth goes up to the plate, rolls up his trouser legs and damn if he doesn't hit a single off Harder. Babe is two years from dying, but he takes about 15 swings, each one weaker and weaker until he quits, a tired old man. Honest to God, it was the most tender scene. There were 80,000 people with tears streaming down their faces. True story. That's what I remember about my first game in the majors. God, I hope people don't dislike me as much as they hated Schacht."
It may seem odd now that the Indians would employ a clown coach, but back then baseball and vaudeville had a sort of partnership. At one time, there were about a dozen baseball clowns. And in the wintertime, players like Lefty Gomez would hit the boards. Besides, the Indians were so bad then that they employed not one, but two clowns. The other one was Jackie Price, who was the cleverest of them all, according to Max. Price used to hang upside down from the batting screen and hit pitches; he would shoot baseballs up in the air with a bazooka, jump in a Jeep and catch them.
Price and Patkin didn't last very long with the Indians—not because they weren't funny, but because the team was getting serious. In 1947 the Indians had the makings of the team that would win the world championship a year later. The clowns' departure was also accelerated during a train ride that spring from Los Angeles to San Diego for an exhibition game when Price let his pet snake loose in a car full of women bowlers. As the women screamed and scrambled through the train, Boudreau decided this was no way to run a ball club.
So Veeck sent Max into the hinterlands to perform. His next major league stop was with the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Veeck, who had just purchased the Brownies, decided to put together a fun show for an Aug. 19 doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers; the Browns were 36 games behind the Yankees at the time. Between games the fans were treated to jugglers, acrobats, fireworks, a band led by Satchel Paige and a routine by Max. There was a huge cake on the pitcher's mound, and out of it popped a 26-year-old midget named Eddie Gaedel. The rest, of course, is history. In the second game, bottom of the first, the announcer intoned: "For the Browns, number one-eighth, Eddie Gaedel, batting for Frank Saucier." Says Max, "Imagine getting upstaged by someone who didn't weigh as much as my nose."
Max didn't stick with the Browns for long: Veeck's new manager, Rogers Hornsby, figured he had enough clowns on the field. So Max continued working the minor league parks. And his act wasn't restricted to the baseball field. He toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, performed with Vaughn Monroe and his orchestra, traveled overseas for the State Department, made 'em laugh on the pro tennis circuit and did ice shows, changing costumes to fit the occasion. In the early '50s, he was on the sports trade-show circuit with Jim Thorpe, who bequeathed Max the baseball glove he still uses in his act. Max worked with Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Ed Sullivan, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart and even ZaSu Pitts. Once, in the middle of his routine with the Harlem Globetrotters, in St. Louis, he inadvertently mooned the audience and brought down the house. "I shoulda kept it in my act." he says.
In the meantime, all the other baseball clowns were dying off like dinosaurs. Max kept going because 1) he was strong, 2) he gambled away a lot of his money and clowning was what he knew how to do, and 3) he had a good act. The road was a lot rougher in the old days—trains and buses instead of planes, hotel rooms without air-conditioning and with bed bugs, occasional bouts with anti-Semitism. But still Max did his one-night stands.
From time to time Patkin would pop up in the majors. When Veeck owned the White Sox, he brought Max to Chicago a few times, and Toronto booked him in the early days of the Blue Jays. In 1973, George Steinbrenner, of all people, had him perform with the team he had just bought, the Yankees. When he was a kid in Cleveland, Steinbrenner had loved watching Max. Unfortunately, the Boss did not clear Max with the Major, Ralph Houk, who was managing the team. Max says. "Houk sees me and says, 'Get out of here. We're fighting for a pennant, and we don't need your crummy act.' This is in May, mind you. Once they get him to calm down, they make him rub my nose for luck. The Yankees then win four straight. They pay me $600 for four performances, the cheapskates, and this is right after they signed Catfish Hunter. True story." Actually, Max gets his facts mixed up sometimes. The Yanks didn't sign Hunter until 1975. But what the heck.
One of the reasons his act is so good is that it's a game act. He does it in the middle of the ball game, so there's an inherent sacrilege and an element of danger that can be very appealing. When he stands in the first or third base box, yelling, sleeping, blowing kisses, spraying water, there is an actual baseball game going on, and some managers—Gene Mauch and the late Paul Richards, for instance—tried at various times to keep Max from taking the field. Over the years, he has worked through at least 10 no-hitters. Although Max says he has never really affected the outcome of a game, he has been accused of doing so. Once when he was coaching third for the baby Blue Jays and Jim Palmer of the Orioles was pitching to John May-berry, Max shouted "Fastball!" just as Palmer was about to throw. Sure enough, it was a fastball, and Mayberry walloped it over the fence. "I'm standing in the box, and Palmer is staring at me with those penetrating blue eyes of his," says Max. "He didn't say anything. He just stared until I felt about as big as Eddie Gaedel. True story."
This evening at seven of the clock I invite you
To see our performance, I know 'twill delight you.
"So be sure to watch for Max in the third inning." The public-address announcer for the Columbia (S.C.) Mets has just finished his introduction before a Sally League game with the Macon (Ga.) Pirates. At first glance, you might think that the well-groomed man in the stands along the first base line had just come off the golf course. If not exactly handsome, he is at least presentable. But then he walks over to a group of teenage girls, extends his neck and makes a funny face out of what Jim Murray once described as "the world's biggest hunk of bubble gum." The girls giggle, and Max says, "What'd you expect, Robert Redford? I may not be good-lookin', but I'm tall."
Having put his game face on, Max retires to the clubhouse to don the rest of his uniform. He naturally likes to work games in which the home team is winning, but the Mets are not cooperating on this night. By the time Max slinks into their dugout in the top of the third, they trail 5-1. Luckily, though, he finds a willing and savvy assistant for his act, a young outfielder named Cliff Gonzalez, who puts him in a good mood. "You were a pitcher?" Gonzalez asks Max, who then proudly recounts some of his early exploits.
Singing, "Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh." under his breath. Max goes over behind the Macon first baseman and does his shadow routine. He perfectly mimics the first baseman as he warms up the other infielders, even when the Pirate fakes a throw. Then Max hits him over the head with his glove—the one Jim Thorpe gave him. Max, of course, has briefed the kid before the game. And the crowd can't tell that he is whispering instructions to the first baseman. But it's still one of the funnier parts of his act. (At one time or another, Max has aped almost all the great first sackers, as well as a former first baseman for Yale named George Bush.)
After that routine is over, he throws aside his glove and takes his position in the coach's box. He flashes an incredibly elaborate, ridiculous series of signs. He takes a handful of dirt and sprinkles it all over himself. "What I'll do for a lousy $5,000," he says in a stage whisper. When a Mets runner reaches first base, Max kisses him on the mouth and says, "Did that the other night, and the kid followed me home." He keeps up a running commentary on the game, shouting things like "All we need is a touchdown" and "Don't take too long a lead—you don't get on base that often." And, sure enough, he tells the crowd, "What a crowd! I had more people in my bed last night." When the Macon catcher goes out to talk to the pitcher, Max walks over to eavesdrop. As the last Mets batter of the inning runs past first base, Max kicks his leg over him. All that in the bottom of the third.
Before the fourth inning starts, Max does his imitation of a chicken. This has nothing to do with the San Diego Chicken; Max was doing this comic prance long before Ted Giannoulas was even an egg. And he does it so well on this night that the Columbia fans give him a hand. He recedes into the Mets dugout for the top of the inning but then reemerges to do his Rock Around the Clock bit, in which he goes through all sorts of silly baseball gyrations to the tune of Bill Haley's 1955 hit.
In the bottom of the fourth, Max goes over to the third base box and does a few cute, throwaway gags like falling asleep on the bag and playing hopscotch in the box. The bottom of the fourth is basically a rest period for Max, especially if there isn't much traffic at third.
In the top of the fifth, he throws a soda can to Gonzalez and tells him, "Go fill this up with water." Gonzalez takes him aback by saying, "Yessir, Mr. Durante," then hustles over to the water cooler. The water comes into play in the bottom of the fifth, and this is the most amazing part of Max's act, the thing that makes people say, "How does he do that?" He goes out to the first base box and knocks back the can of water. (A few times, practical jokers have filled the can with urine, and Max did the act anyway. "Tastes like weak beer," he says.) Then in the course of the next three outs, he sprays geysers of mist into the air. He'll pat his body progressively upward, as if squeezing a tube of toothpaste, then lets go. Once, twice...20 times. He has never kept count, but on a really good night he can do 30. "There's no real trick, and it's the easiest part of the act," he says. "I just hold all the water up in my mouth and let it out a little at a time."
On this night, Max does it 25 times. Meanwhile, the Mets rally and score two runs. So there's a wonderful energy in the air, a combination of excitement that the home team is back in the ball-game and amazement over Max's Old Faithful routine. "If you think this is good," he says to the fans, "you should have seen me when I was alive." (In fact, over the years Max has had to drop about 25% of his act because of the physical toll. "I used to do a bit where I took off my shoe, smelled it and fell over backward. Sounds simple, but my back just couldn't take it anymore.")
And now, the finale. Max announces to the crowd that he is going to show the Mets how to hit. He hoists a huge load of bats over his shoulder, walks toward the plate and takes a pratfall. Then he comes up behind the opposing catcher and crawls through his legs. It's staggering to consider that Max has done that to almost every catcher from Yogi Berra to Johnny Bench to Benito Santiago.
The opposing pitcher, who has been briefed, throws the ball high and tight, and Max falls over backward, then rows himself back into the box, using the bat as an oar. He gets up, knees shaking, and watches nervously as the next pitch plops into the catcher's mitt. Then he knocks the catcher over, and the catcher bounces up and raises the ball at Max, as though angered. Max is supposed to hit the third pitch, but he has been in a slump for several years, so it may take him a few more cuts than that to get a solid hit. On this night, he hits the fifth pitch and runs to third. When he gets there, he points up in the air, the third baseman takes the fake, and Max slides headfirst into the bag. But the umpire calls him out. Max argues, the umpire gives him an exaggerated thumb, and that's usually the end of the act, but there have occasionally been one or two wrinkles to the finale. Many years ago, when Max was working a game in the Pacific Coast League, umpire Bruce Froemming, who's now in the National League, gave a starter's pistol to the third base ump, who shot Max while he was arguing. Ad-libbing, Max keeled over backward.
As Max walks off the field, he gets a very nice ovation. "He's funnier than Pee-wee Herman," Blake Derrick, 7, tells his friend Michael Vande Kamp, 7½. High praise indeed. Even though the Mets eventually lose, the fans go away happy. But Max still isn't satisfied. "On a scale of one to 10, I'd give that a six," he says. "Honestly, you should see the crowds I get in Latin America. They love me down there. El Max. I once got off an airplane in Cuba, and they had a red carpet rolled out for me. True story."
Laugh, Punchinello! The world will cry "Bravo!'
Go hide with laughter thy tears and thy sorrow,
Sing and be merry, playing thy part,
Laugh, Punchinello, for the love that is ended,
Laugh for the sorrow that is eating thy heart.
True stories. Maxie has a million of 'em. There's one true story that's a heart-breaker, though.
In 1953 Max started dating a cigarette girl in a Philadelphia nightclub. She was some 15 years younger than Max, and they went together for seven years before they got married. They adopted a baby girl in 1963.
"We had some good times together," he recalls one afternoon before a performance. "God, she was a good-looking blonde. But she was leading a double life while I was on the road. I was blind. Look, I was probably no picnic to live with, but all the time I was on the road, she was fooling around.
"I didn't catch on till she told me she wanted a divorce. Then I caught her with the 19-year-old caretaker at our home. I chased that sonofabitch out of the house into the garage. I cornered him behind the freezer. There are my golf clubs. I took out my three-iron. I swung and I missed. I swung and I missed. I swung and I missed. I like to tell people I bogeyed that hole." Max is telling a joke here, but his eyes are sad.
"Things got so bad, I was sleeping alone in a room in my own house. One day I came out of my room, and she hit me over the head with a hammer. She laughed. My daughter saved me. She picked up the bloody hammer. I stumbled out onto the lawn with a slightly fractured skull. Fortunately, my neighbor, who was an FBI man, took me to the hospital.
"Two weeks I spent in the hospital. I got out just so I could attend this banquet in Norristown [Pa.] for Tommy Lasorda. So there I am with my head all bandaged. Joe Garagiola is the emcee. Don't get me wrong, Joe has been beautiful to me over the years. But when he introduces me, he says, "There's Max Patkin. His head is bandaged because his wife hit him with a hammer." Got a big laugh, too. True story.
"We finally got divorced after 17 years. You know what? She married that caretaker. What really hurt, though, was that in all the years I knew her, she never once saw me perform. Not once. For all she knew, I was an airline pilot. She moved to Phoenix a year or so ago, then committed suicide on her 50th birthday. She must have been a very sad woman.
"God, I thought of committing suicide myself sometimes. My life was so lonely. Once, I stuck my head in an oven for 20 seconds. I tell people, 'I didn't like the smell,' to get a laugh. I almost had a couple of nervous breakdowns. I still get a little edgy, but way back when, I'd really get the shakes before a performance. It's hard to be funny when you're so sad, when you think your life is falling apart.
"Things are better for me now. The loneliness still gets to me sometimes, but I've got Joy and Eddie to go home to on weekends. She's a good girl, and Eddie's a prince."
In I Pagliacci (which is based on a true story), Canio, who is Punchinello in the play within the play, discovers his much younger wife's infidelity and kills her and her lover. The last line of the opera, spoken by Canio, is "The comedy is ended."
But for Max the comedy goes on and on, night after night, flight after flight, ballpark after ballpark, Holiday Inn after Days Inn after Rodeway Inn after International House of Pancakes. His is a life of Addams Family reruns at 6 a.m. when he can't get back to sleep. He could do something else for a living—he used to sell janitorial supplies and shoes in the off-season. He could even retire. Why does he go on being the Clown Prince of Baseball? He can't really explain it, any more than he can explain why he always kisses the motel Bible 14 times before he leaves for the park.
Long live the merry king,
Who keeps us mellow!
He is the blithest fellow!
Long life to him we sing,
This night, it's Burlington, N.C., where the Burlington Indians will be playing an Appalachian League game. The Indians are only a couple of years old, so Max doesn't know quite what to expect when he gets to the ballpark. Tom Chandler, the former Texas A & M coach, is managing the Indians, and he gives Max a warm welcome: "Max Patkin, you old sonofagun. I can't believe you're still doing this."
"Tom Chandler. I can't believe you're still in this game. Where was it we first met?" asks Max.
"Alpine, Texas, 30 years ago. The millionaire who built that ballpark out in the middle of nowhere. Remember?"
"I sure do."
The Indians average 2,100 a game, which is excellent for A ball, but with a well-promoted appearance by the Clown Prince of Baseball, 3,500 fans stream through the gates. The weather is fine, the P.A. announcer is professional and the field at Burlington Stadium is close to the stands. In short, Max has the perfect setting.
And the crowd loves him. A group of senior citizens laughs as hard as a neighboring group of Little Leaguers. When he mocks the first baseman, giggles fill the air. The fans ooh and aah when he does his leg kick over the Indian base runner, and they eat up his chicken imitation. During Rock Around the Clock, they clap in rhythm. Adding to the excitement, the Burlington pitcher has a no-hitter going through four innings.
In the bottom of the fifth, the spray routine goes over very big. "How does he do that?" people ask one another, and he does it 27 times. In the finale, he actually nails the third pitch to him and lines a clean single. The fans bring him back for a curtain call, or in this case, a back-stop call. "I'd give that a nine," Max says later.
He lingers a while after the game to kibitz with Chandler and Miles Wolff, the owner of the Indians. When he walks out to the parking lot, it is almost empty. Suddenly, out of the darkness, comes a rough-hewn man in a John Deere baseball cap. Max stiffens, thinking it might be a holdup.
"I just wanted to shake your hand." the man says. "God bless you. You made the kids laugh. You made we laugh."
"Thank you very much," says Max Patkin. His eyes say, "This is what I live for."
True story, by the way.