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Max Patkin: What the Clown Prince of baseball once did for me
Max Patkin played professional baseball for three seasons. His career began in Wisconsin in 1941, was put on hold during WWII, and ended with the Wilkes-Barre Barons in 1946. More than four decades later, I waited for him to arrive at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International airport. He was not coming to play in an old-timers game, but instead to perform at a minor league baseball stadium that I worked at.
Because of my front office position with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, I was one of the only people who knew that Patkin had paid his own way to his performance. What he was able to make in autograph sales that night would become his pay, less expenses.
Patkin's three-season pitching career wasn't long remembered. He went 14-13 and had the same number of strikeouts, 134, as he did walks. He also appeared in the outfield once and recorded an assist.
After not finding success as a player, he worked as a coach/comedian for Bill Veeck. As baseball's version of P.T. Barnum, Veeck allowed him to perform a comedy routine on the field during games. Patkin's antics were so successful that he decided to barnstorm at stadiums around the country.
The Red Barons
At the start of my career in 1990, I worked for the Phillies Triple A team that was formerly located between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in the tiny town of Moosic, Pennsylvania. (In 2007, the franchise became part of the Yankees farm system.)
Like Patkin and Veeck, my bosses knew that minor league baseball was not just about the games that were played on the field. Red Barons General Manager Bill Terlecky and his Assistant General Manager Rick Muntean, opened the team's new stadium when the franchise first began play in 1989. Their creative marketing efforts were part of an entire entertainment package that drew huge crowds to every game for many seasons. They also had a loyal staff, because we appreciated how well they treated us.
The Red Barons name was a combination of the old Scranton Red Sox and Wilkes-Barre Barons minor league team names. Both of those organizations had ceased operations many years prior to the birth of the newly named franchise.
I worked in a variety of roles for the team during business hours. I wrote team newsletters, coordinated public player appearances, and handled a variety of publicity functions. During games, I helped coordinate giveaways, chaperoned anthem singers, made sure VIP's had their needs met, and assisted in the press box.
On the day Patkin was going to perform, I had been instructed to pick him up at the airport. After doing so, Patkin began reflecting on his time in Wilkes-Barre and how the area had changed since he had played there. He then asked if I could stop at a restaurant so that we could have lunch. His use of the word "we" foreshadowed his paying for my meal.
We talked at the restaurant about his career and how he had played himself in the movie Bull Durham. He said that stars' Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins were great people to have worked with and that he had also been particularly fond of Susan Sarandon.
I told him that I thought his act was decades ahead of what came to be known as sports entertainment. He liked that analysis. I liked everything that he told me about the places he had been to and the people he had met during his career.
After lunch, I took him to his hotel. A few hours before game time, I returned to take him to the stadium. My assignment was to stay with him during the entire night. It was an easy task being around someone who enjoyed making other people laugh for a living.
Patkin performed prior to the game and in-between various innings in his classic oversized baseball uniform and off-center cap. He clowned with players and umpires who enjoyed being part of his show on the field. The crowd roared with approval during each of his pratfalls, mimics and gestures.
Throughout the night we toured the lower and upper decks and visited the corporate suites. We also held an autograph session during the later innings of the game.
A friendly mob of fans was waiting for us by a folding table and chairs that were set up in the main concourse area. Each fan gave me a dollar, that I put into a cardboard box, and then received his autograph. The seventy-year old performer also took time to speak with every fan who did not pay for an autograph, but just wanted to say hello. He especially liked talking with the children who came to see him.
After the session had ended, Patkin said that he would like to visit with the office staff. After doing that, we went by ourselves into a conference room with the money box that I had been holding in my hands.
Patkin took the box, opened it and counted 50 one dollar bills. He gave them to me, prior to totaling the rest of the take, and said that it was my tip. I was speechless for a few seconds and then thanked him.
This legend, who had bought me lunch and treated me royally during my entire time with him, also gave me money from his own pocket. Who better to know what life was like for a young guy working in the minor leagues than him?
Patkin died in 1999. Five years before he passed away, Philadelphia sports writer Stan Hochman had collaborated with him on a book. The Clown Prince of Baseball detailed Patkin's life and his more than 4,000 appearances around the world. Thank you Max for what you did for me during one of them.
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