The not-so-funny story of baseball’s Miami Ethiopian Clowns.

By Eric Barton

The most successful pro sports team to have ever begun in Florida may have just one surviving video clip. Shot in 1947 in Cincinnati by an unknown person, it’s an eight-minute silent film—and it is not easy to watch.

The star of the clip is Reece “Goose” Tatum, then a baseball player but later famous as the star of basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters. The video starts with Tatum sitting on the edge of the dugout, wearing a floppy hat, chewing on a cigar, laughing with two other players.

The team warms up near the  pitcher’s mound, with players tossing the ball behind their backs and bumping it off their rear ends, a smoothly choreographed routine that continues when the game begins. Tatum is on first, and he hides the ball in the crook of his neck to try to trick a player from the opposing team who’s on base. The routine displays impressive skill as well as comic timing, with one player praying dramatically on his knees at home plate before an at-bat and another being fanned by hats after pretending to pass out. It all may seem in good fun, a high-spirited baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters that combines sports with showmanship.

But there’s a painful truth behind those high jinks. Tatum played for the Indianapolis Clowns, an all-Black team that had started out in Miami a decade earlier, traveling the country and taking on any local group that would play them. Barnstormers, they called them. And they did something no team had done before: They began their games in clown outfits. And painted faces. A minstrel show disguised as baseball, and to modern eyes, a humiliating act of self-disparagement forced upon them by a racially divided society.

Despite the face paint and the outfits and the vaudeville acts, the Clowns would go on to become a top team after they became part of the Negro American League in 1946. They played long after that league disbanded in 1958, well into the 1980s, becoming the last and longest-running of the NAL franchises. But perhaps because of the racist way they started, they’re largely ignored today, a piece of our past that we prefer to forget.

There are reasons, some say, that we need to remember. That we need to consider the importance of a baseball team that started with a name that is difficult to say out loud. When they took the field in Miami for the first time, they called themselves the “Miami Ethiopian Clowns.”

Abel Sanchez sits on top of a picnic table shaded by a banyan tree. Just beyond is a dusty baseball diamond at Miami’s Dorsey Park. He’s wearing bulky cargo shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with a clown face that has stars for the eyes—the logo of the Miami Ethiopian Clowns.

Sanchez admits he wasn’t sure at first about having the shirt made. “I did wonder if I was going to get canceled for it,” he says.

Sanchez was born in New York but considers Miami home, his family having moved here when he was 5 years old. There’s a joke in his family, he says, about how his mom was pregnant with him when she would see games at Shea Stadium, and that might explain his obsession with baseball today.

He does e-commerce as a day job, but baseball, and the history of the sport, that’s his passion.

The history of the Clowns, he says, is complicated. And maybe that’s why Sanchez is so fascinated by the team. The Clowns began life as the Miami Giants, probably in 1935. They ran out of money during a barnstorming tour in 1936, with not even enough cash to make it back to Miami. That’s when Syd Pollock bought them.

Pollock was a baseball promoter, and from his office in upstate New York, he managed and promoted Negro league teams. Because Black players were not allowed to play on professional baseball league teams, in the 1920s a Negro league was formed; over the next three decades seven professional Negro league teams signed on players at various times. Pollock would send his teams around the country, using stereotypes and racist tropes as their schtick. He would mail letters to the local newspapers to promote the games, helping to draw crowds to see teams like the Zulu Cannibals, who played bare-chested in grass skirts.

With his new Miami team, Pollock went farther. He had the players take the field before the game and perform slapstick routines, their painted faces recalling vaudeville-style minstrel acts that had largely been abandoned by the 1930s.

He needed a name for the team that could sell tickets in cities across America, something more eye-catching than the Giants. He’d also need to connect them to somewhere more interesting than that sleepy, swampy city at the bottom of Florida. Italy had invaded Africa in 1935, and so Pollock cashed in on the headlines. He named the team the Miami Ethiopian Clowns.

Soon newspapers were enthusing about upcoming Ethiopian Clowns games with headlines like “If You Want to Laugh, Scream, Howl See These Baseballers Play.”

Their homefield was Dorsey Park in the middle of what was then called Colored Town, the Black neighborhood of Miami that was renamed Overtown when highways cut through the heart of it in the 1960s. The first day the Clowns took the field here, they crowded into an old Chevy and drove through the city, using a bullhorn to promote that night’s game. A wall surrounded most of the park, and on game days vendors sold grilled hot dogs to fans who would gather out front.

“Everybody was hustling back in the day,” Sanchez says, standing just beyond the third-base line. Black spectators would fill the stands that ringed home plate. A separate section, bleachers down the third-base line, was reserved for whites. Players would kick up dirt as they walked out on the field, and winds that whipped past the train tracks in the outfield swirled the dirt up and into the stands, earning the place the nickname “Dust Bowl.”

Miami's Dorsey Park, once the homefield of the Clowns, today displays murals honoring Black baseball legends.

When the team began their new routine, wearing painted faces and clown outfits, it wasn’t seen, at least by most folks, the way it is today, Sanchez says. “It was entertainment. Right?” And those players, they had no other choice, he says. “There were few options for Black players to play anywhere, and so at least everybody was eating.”

But even in those days, some people criticized the antics. Wendell Smith, the influential sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote in 1942 that the Clowns were a “fourth rate Uncle Tom minstrel show.” He was one of those who saw the team as a step back in the road to integrate not only the game but also the nation.

Dr. Louis Moore, a history
professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, agrees with Smith’s assessment.

“It was a minstrel show, and we have to be clear about that,” Moore says. “But the question we have to ask is, why?”

Moore grew up in the Magic Mountain area north of Los Angeles and remembers as a boy finding a baseball card for Negro Leagues center fielder James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell. That card started a fascination with the Negro Leagues, the idea of legendary ballplayers such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson toiling away for pennies. When teams like the Clowns took the field in painted faces or the Zulu Cannibals batted in grass skirts, they were continuing the acts enslaved people were forced to perform for their masters, Moore says. Later, free Black performers adopted those same painted-faced acts as protection. “The thinking was, if I put on this show, maybe they’re not going to lynch me, because I’m clowning around and not seen as a threat,” Moore says.

Black baseball fans probably understood all too well what was going on, but they also appreciated the chance to finally see Black athletes prove themselves on the field. When the Clowns would appear at ballparks around the country, the stands filled with Black factory workers and sharecroppers spending some of the little money they had on tickets. They’d cheer as the Clowns ran out of the dugout in their outlandish costumes and bushy red wigs. The players would smear their faces and bare chests with African tribal paint and step up to bat with what looked like war clubs. Instead of their real names, their jerseys would read “Limpopo,” “Kangkol” and “Tankafu.”

When the Clowns appeared in June 1936 in Greenville, Pennsylvania, the local newspaper published an ad with a photo of the team, its players in whiteface and flanked by “warriors” wielding shields and spears. When the Clowns visited Indiana in June 1941, the Indianapolis Recorder declared they were “the most popular attraction in baseball” thanks to their “monkey-shines” routine.

Uncomfortable as those past words and images may make us, Moore says, we need to remember what happened. “The problem with the times we live in now is that we’re trying to erase that history,” he says. We must instead recognize, he says, not only what Black athletes were forced to endure just to play their game, but also the significance of performers such as Amos and Andy, or the white actors impersonating Black musicians in the 1986 movie “Soul Man,” or Robert Downey Jr. in 2008 imitating a Black man in “Tropic Thunder,” or the photos that emerge of celebrities and civic leaders in blackface at costume parties. “In many ways,” Moore says, “this [all] tells us who we were.”

t would be easy, considering the pregame antics and painted faces that they continued to wear through nine innings, to think that the Clowns weren’t serious ballplayers. But they were, at the time, some of the best players in the game, and during their pre-league years of barnstorming tours, they’d often lose just a handful of games out of 100 or more appearances.

The Ethiopian Clowns continued into the 1940s, but many of the country’s Black newspapers began to refuse to promote their games. Pollock needed to rethink how he was selling his players. He moved the team in 1943, first to Cincinnati then Indianapolis, joining the Negro American League and ditching the painted faces and clown outfits. The team dropped “Ethiopian” from its name and became the Indianapolis Clowns. In the early 1950s, managed by Oscar Charleston, a former center fielder who NAL star Buck O’Neill called the best all-around player who ever played the game, the Clowns racked up a series of big wins, bringing home the NAL pennant in 1950, 1951 and 1954 and winning the Negro Leagues World Series in 1952.

By then, baseball teams were beginning to integrate, and as the top Black players joined formerly all-white teams, the Negro leagues diminished in quality and attendance. But the Clowns played on, even signing such rising stars as Hank Aaron, who had his first pro job playing for them as a shortstop and clean-up hitter for a few months in 1952. They officially ended playing for the NAL in 1955 and went back to barnstorming the country and taking on all contenders until well into the 1960s.

By 1966, they were the last former Negro Leagues team still playing. In 1967, Satchel Paige pitched for them in his last year as a player. The Clowns continued for two more decades, although now staging exhibition games that featured comic entertainment rather than competitive baseball. When they finally called it quits in 1989, they may have been the last Negro League team in the nation. (They also had the distinction of having featured three female players over the years.)

It’s important to remember, says Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, that during their days of touring the country in their painted faces and clown outfits, the Clowns were enormously popular, often filling the stadiums they visited. Many fans, both white and Black, “absolutely loved” the costumes and antics. He mentions that when he gives tours of the museum, pointing out photos of the Ethiopian Clowns. Then he talks, too, about how a white man owned the team and profited from the minstrel show he forced on his players.

“But you know it’s part of the story of Negro Leagues baseball. And it’s part of the challenges that these athletes had to face,” Kendrick says. “Young men who wanted to pursue baseball careers had to demean themselves.”

For decades, this country did little to recognize the Negro Leagues players. That’s changing, Kendrick says, but there’s still little attention on what gifted Black players were forced to do.

“You have to talk about all facets and all the things we as a people had to do to survive,” Kendrick says. “Then you realize it’s a story of courageous athletes who rose above social adversity.”

Still, little has been done to recognize the original Miami Ethiopian Clowns. A 1976 film, “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” starring James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams, is said to be loosely based on the Clowns’ barnstorming days; and in 2006, Nike issued an Ethiopian Clowns Air Force 1 Low sneaker. (You can purchase a pair for $360 online.) When the Florida Marlins donned throwback uniforms to honor the Negro Leagues in 2020, they wore the word “Giants” across their chest. Not “Clowns.” Asked if the Marlins would likely ever wear the Clowns’ white, red, and blue uniforms, Sanchez says, “That would be amazing, but it’s not likely.”

These days, the field that the Clowns called home sits on the edge of Overtown, with the view of a row of waterfront skyscrapers rising up from the other side of the railroad tracks. Few people use the field, and no teams call it home, not even Little Leagues. Instead, it’s used mostly by people who set up soccer goals in the outfield.

The only remnant of baseball now is the dusty diamond and the murals that adorn the last pieces of the wall that once surrounded the park, memorializing many of the Negro Leagues teams and players. Behind home plate there’s a logo, no bigger than a catcher’s mitt. In cursive letters in front of two criss-crossed bats, is the name of a team so many people tried to forget. The Clowns.

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Freelance journalist, Eric Barton has contributed to Outside, Food & Wine, and Flamingo. Barton grew up rooting for the Red Sox in a very Yankee household and developed a deep appreciation for the Negro Leagues after a visit to the museum in Kansas City. He lives not far from the stadium that the Miami Ethiopian Clowns once called home. 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.