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.
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."