The circuit-riding clown who's made ballparks roar
Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, has a multijointed body that is made almost entirely of rubber. And a face, when he's working, that looks as though it had spent the night hanging on a nail.
But it's his keen mind, his sense of theater, his timing, that make people laugh -- and he's been getting guffaws at major and minor league parks all over the country for more than 35 years.
The only gimmick Patkin has ever had is himself. He wears an oversize baseball uniform when he performs, not a chicken suit or some other man-made costume from the animal world. He's got a personality that spills into the stands, the handshake of a steelworker, a telescoping neck, and a mouth big enough for another set of teeth.
Originally, Patkin had hoped to be a major league pitcher, a dream he nurtured for five years, until a collision at home plate took the hop off his fast ball and removed the bend from his curve.
His sense of humor remained intact, however, and eventually led him into the career that has kept him busy ever since (though of course he hasn't had much opportunity to work major league ball this summer because of the strike, which is now in its second month).
Max was stationed in Hawaii with the US Navy during World War II, pitching service ball on weekends, when he looked at home plate one day and there was Joe DiMaggio, hitting cleanup for the Seventh Air Force, a team of Army all-stars.
"Joe hit my fast ball so far out of sight that it must still be bobbing somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean," Patkin told me in the shadow of Spartacus Square at Universal Studios in Hollywood. "On a sudden impulse, I decided to follow DiMaggio around the bases, and by the time I got to home plate there were 20 guys waiting to shake my hand. For the record, I credit Joe with starting me on a new career."
While in Hawaii, Patkin also got into a three-day table tennis tournament with Bobby Riggs, during which he actually outhustled the King of the Hustlers.
"Riggs thought he was the best table tennis player in the world, and maybe he was," Max said. "But once I got him to give me 13 points a game, I knew I could hit enough winners on my own to take him, and I did."
Although Orson Welles would have trouble filling all of Patkin's uniform, Max keeps his trousers up by centrifugal force, his shirt billowing from having studied the intricacy of wind currents, and his cap in place by wearing it over his ears. The bill is always pointed in the direction of the Statue of Liberty, and the back of his uniform carries a question mark istead of a number.
Nobody believes any of his explanations, of course, but most people are too busy laughing at his antics to argue.
One of Patkin's best sight gags is to stand near a superstar during infield practice, like third baseman Brooks Robinson when he was with the Baltimore Orioles, and mimic his moves to perfection. I mean, in that situation, Max is good enough to give lessons to Cantinflas.
But as clever as Patkin is, he did get upstaged back in 1951 at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, when owner Bill Veeck of the Browns sent up Eddie Gaedel, a 4 ft., 3 in. midget, to pinch-hit against the Detroit Tigers.
"I didn't think it was fair for Veeck to bring in a new act right in the middle of mine, and I've always kidded him about it," Max said. "In fact, I reminded him that noses run in my family and that my beak weighed twice as much as that midget. But the laughs went all the wrong way for me that day."
Most years Patkin, who lives in King of Prussia, Pa., near Philadelphia, has traveled between 150,000 and 200,000 miles while making 75 to 80 ballpark appearances. He claims he has been to places that even postage stamps don't go, and he always carries his gear (three 21-year-old uniforms that he rotates and a glove even older) in a well- worn Navy parachute bag. Before the start of the 1975 World series between Boston and Cincinnati, he appeared live on Joe Garagiola's pregame television show before millions of people.
Patkin says the toughest thing he has to face as a baseball clown is when bad weather threatens the game and limits the crowd, the home team hasn't won in two weeks, and the hot dogs are undercooked.
"But even when conditions aren't what they should be, I can still turn my kind of slapstick on and off like a faucet," Max explained. "I guess this is because I like what I'm doing, I feel nobody in baseball clowns as well as I do, and I really love to see kids have fun. I play to them more than anyone else.
"What's hard is the constant traveling, all that dead time between shows, unappetizing food, plus reaching the point where after a while all hotel rooms look the same. Sometimes when I wake up the next morning after a show, I can't even remember what city I'm in."
Veeck, who at various times in his career owned parts of three big-league franchises, including two stops with the Chicago White Sox, has probably been Max's most consistent employer.
Bill, who is never anything but candid when he talks, says that when Patkin is performing he looks like a guy who was put together by someone who mixed up the parts and then didn't bother to read the directions. And this may explain why Max, standing flatfooted, can still bend over far enough to touch a baseball with his tongue.
To Patkin time is a circus; he's always packing up and moving away.