Return to Top

Al Schacht: Send in the Clown

By Gabriel Schechter , June 28, 2013
Al Schacht (in the center, standing) is known primarily for his many years as a clown on the baseball diamond. Here he is with his longtime partner and sometime friend, Nick Altrock. The “umpire” on the left is “Tug” Wilson, the football Coach at Northwestern University. In this feature, our historian Gabriel Schechter tells us that Al was much more than simply being a clown, for he helped spread the popularity of the game to fans for generations.

Alexander Schacht’s pretensions to greatness came naturally since he was born in 1892, the son of Russian immigrants, on the future site of left field at Yankee Stadium. As a kid, he sneaked into morning practice at the nearby Polo Grounds to hang around the players and became Christy Mathewson’s favorite fetcher of sandwiches. 

While growing up in New York City, Al Schacht worshipped Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants. As a 12-year-old youngster he would fetch things for Matty at the Polo Grounds, the storied ballpark that was a stone’s through from Al’s boyhood home. Here is the great pitcher in 1905, the year that a young Al met his idol by sneaking into the park.

A 130-pound, right-handed pitching sensation in local amateur ranks while in high school, Schacht was accused by a rival coach of accepting money to play and responded by dropping out of school. “I deserted higher learning,” he wrote in one of his several memoirs, “and have been a successful ignoramus ever since.” In fact, he was quite intelligent and shrewd, capable of holding his own in repartee with close friend Moe Berg as well as promoting his talents into a million-dollar career.

Schacht’s aptitude for humor manifested itself early in his minor league career when he was playing in Newark. Scheduled to start the second game of a doubleheader, he hired a horse, assembled a costume and made a grand entrance astride the horse, wearing a “kiddy dress” with bright ribbons in his hair. The crowd went wild, but then he got knocked out in the third inning. He later claimed, “That day I discovered it was easier to make people laugh than it was to retire those hitters.”

He spent seven years in the International League, another playing ball in the Army and by 1919 was pitching the best ball of his life for Jersey City of the IL. He mounted a letter-writing campaign, bombarding Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, whom he had first hounded in 1911 in Cincinnati with anonymous testimonials to this superb pitcher named Schacht who was ready to star in the majors. 

By chance, Griffith chose to check out the prospect himself on a day when Schacht set an IL record with his 10th shutout of the season. Griffith signed Al, and the scrawny 5-feet 11, 142-pounder won his two starts in 1919 and spent the next two full seasons with the Senators.

In 1920, he shut out the Athletics in his first start, driving in two runs, and went 6-4 in 22 games with a 4.44 ERA. He followed up with a 6-6 mark in 1921, bringing his final major league record to 14-10. After two more seasons in the minors, the injury bug he had fought all along caught up with him, and when he blew out a knee, he retired as player at just 31. But Griffith had already promised him a job for life, and therein lies a tale. 

On July 1, Senators ace Walter Johnson pitched his only no-hitter, beating the Red Sox 1-0 at Fenway Park. Griffith then told reporters that Johnson would pitch one of the games of a July 5 home doubleheader, expecting to draw a capacity crowd, but Walter came up with the only sore arm of his career. Schacht had to work instead, and Griff promised him employment forever if he beat the Yankees. Al did, 9-3, and the Old Fox kept his promise.

So in 1924 Schacht inflicted himself once again on the Old Fox, who made him the third-base coach. In that post, Schacht’s energy, clowning, and sound judgment made him a valuable presence over the next 11 seasons, during which the Senators won their only three pennants.

In the early 1930s, because of Al Schacht’s extraordinary popularity, the Goudey Gum Company decided to feature him on his own baseball card. This rare ‘Wide Pen Premium’ was later signed by Al.

 In 1935, Al joined his pal Joe Cronin in Boston for two more seasons as a coach. By that time, however, it had dawned on him that he’d been clowning for 15 years at a coach’s salary. He was 44, and it was time to shape his own future.

The clowning begun in earnest once it became clear that he wasn’t going to star as a major league pitcher. The Senators had an established clown in Nick Altrock, a roly-poly southpaw who was 16 years older than Schacht. Their styles meshed quickly, and their act was good enough to draw a salary of $1,000 apiece to perform before World Series games in 1921.

That was the first of 27 Series gigs for Schacht, who continued to perform a single act long after Altrock had left the scene. During the winter, they would work the vaudeville circuit together. At the 1922 World Series, Al and Nick struck gold with their version of the Rudolph Valentino silent movie hit, “Blood and Sand.” Schacht played the bullfighter (battling and subduing a rented goat) and Altrock the senorita with the rose between her teeth. Most of their routines lampooned other sports, including tennis, golf, boxing, swimming, rowing and tightrope walking, and their encore was a send-up of “The Dance of the Seven Veils.”

There is little in ballpark clowning today that doesn’t derive from the elaborate pantomimes created nearly a century ago. The lineage goes Altrock/Schacht-Max Patkin-San Diego Chicken-Phillie Phanatic and many pale imitations of the real thing. 

Much to the delight of the fans at the ballpark, even Babe Ruth, a pretty fair draw himself, would get into the act when Nick Altrock, Al’s longtime partner, was entertaining. Here Nick is sitting on a beer barrel studiously typing with his typewriter balanced on three bats, while the Bambino points to the center field stands.

During the war years, besides clowning, Al opened and ran a restaurant in New York City bearing his own name. ‘When it comes to food, I’m not clowning,’ Al exclaimed while he promoted the business. He was right. It became a popular watering hole on Lexington Avenue for ballplayers and fans from all over the world. This menu from the steakhouse, shows Al, clowning naturally, on the cover standing on a diamond while some of the games greats adorn the back. It was signed by several of his ball playing friends, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Tris Speaker and Pie Traynor.

In the middle of building up his business to reap a fortune from steaks and chops, Schacht went from being baseball’s Marco Polo to its Bob Hope. For the rest of the war and later during the Korean War, he made numerous trips oversees to entertain the troops. He went wherever the government asked him to go: North Africa, Sicily, New Guinea, Dutch East Indies, the Philippines and Japan. During World War II alone, he staged roughly 500 performances, visited 130 hospitals, and escaped bullets, blasts, and flying shrapnel more than once.  

Every time he returned home, he made hundreds of phone calls to relatives of soldiers he had met, relaying messages from the front. For his wartime work, he was honored with the Bill Slocum Memorial Award for service to baseball — an award previously won by the likes of Babe Ruth, John McGraw, Connie Mack, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and Ed Barrow. 

His steakhouse continued to thrive, growing to a seating capacity of 250 and a staff of 68, and in 1964 he turned down a $1 million offer to sell it and another offer to operate a restaurant at the World’s Fair. Yet despite his huge investment of time and money in the hangout, he did not want to give up clowning, and merely became more selective about traveling. Into his 70s, he was still working a dozen or so events a year, notably Old-Timers Games for the New York teams. 

In 1963, Schacht celebrated a half-century of clowning, having compiled an array of mind-boggling numbers: 1,580 shows, 27 World Series, 18 All-Star Games, 670 performances for soldiers, 310 hospital appearances, 1.4 million miles driven and audiences estimated by Variety at 75 million. His passions for baseball, laughter and people had merged into a lifetime of celebration. He lived long enough to withdraw from the public eye, dying in 1984 at 91.

Remembered as the greatest baseball clown of all, Al Schacht was not merely that. His good heart is best understood by the tipping system in the men’s room at his restaurant. There was no attendant, only a box with a sign: “The Damon Runyon Cancer Fund is our attendant.” That approach raised a ton of money for the Fund named after the Broadway chronicler who died in 1946 of throat cancer, and which remains one of the nation’s largest fund-raisers for cancer research. Al Schacht, who was always thinking of the other guy, distributed even more good will than laughs. 

 

If anyone has any additional information or questions about our artifacts and columns,
please do not hesitate to contact us at
http://www.thenationalpastimemuseum.com/contact or info@tnpmuseum.com.