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.