Jackie Price at Griffith Stadium in 1950

Jackie who? If that was your reaction, you obviously never heard of the man described in 1950 as “America’s Greatest Entertainer.”

Price, an amazingly acrobatic baseball player, performed his tricks with bat, ball and glove for a capacity crowd before the Senators’ game on July 22, 1950. He “bowed out to the loudest fan salute ever given a pre-game act in Griffith Stadium,“ the Price JackieWashington Post reported in the next day’s paper.

That high praise came from Shirley Povich, the game account author who for years had watched the storied antics of Nick Altrock and Al Schacht, Griffith Stadium’s resident coach/comedians for 15 years in the 1920s and ’30s.

Although often compared with those comedians, Price relied on a jaw-dropping assortment of skills. He was a professional ballplayer who toiled for most of a decade in the minors before appearing in seven games with the Indians late in the 1946 season. By then, he was already known for his baseball acrobatics, which is why Bill Veeck, then the new owner of the Indians, brought him to Cleveland.

Even though Veeck said Price “played good enough shortstop to win the pennant for me at Milwaukee,” the flamboyant team owner was in awe of what Price could do to entertain fans. “I can hardly believe my eyes when I watch that fellow perform,” Veeck said after he acquired Price from Oakland in the Pacific Coast League. “He simply can do things with a ball, a bat and a glove that nobody else in the world can do.”[1]

That was hardly an exaggeration. As Hall-of-Famer Tris Speaker, who occasionally accompanied Price on public appearances on behalf of the Indians, said, “If I hadn’t seen these things, I wouldn’t believe them. And I’m still not sure that I do.”[2]

Price was born on a farm in northern Mississippi, near Memphis, in November 1912. He was a good enough shortstop playing ball the normal way that, after a couple of years of semi-pro ball, he was signed by the Cardinals.

Jackie began practicing tricks in high school, but became serious about becoming a baseball performer after watching Joe E. Brown in a 1933 film version of “Elmer the Great.”[3]

“Joe had a trick way of somersaulting the bat on the ground and making it jump back into his hand,” Price told The Sporting News in 1946, while demonstrating how to do it. “That gave me the idea. Then I saw Al Schacht and was surer than ever that folks liked some sideline entertainment with their baseball.”[4]

Price spent three seasons in the 1930s in the low minors before he got married and had a daughter. Not having advanced past Class B or hitting any better than .268, he quit to find work that could support a family. But he kept working on baseball tricks that he hoped would someday earn him some money.

“I starved for three years under Branch Rickey in the Cards system,” Price recalled in 1949. He took jobs as a truck driver and played for local semi-pro teams when his work schedule allowed.

By 1942, with the age for conscription expanded as the war raged, Price, now 29, was drafted into the Army and sent to California’s Camp Santa Anita – the racetrack barns were turned into barracks — to train for the ordnance corps. He persuaded his superiors that his tricks with bat and ball could entertain troops.[5] It’s not clear whether a hip injury was related to his performances, but it earned him a medical discharge in 1944.[6]

Once his hip injury healed, and given the player shortage because of the war, Price was re-signed by the Cardinals and sent to Columbus, Ohio, in the American Association during the 1944 season.

Price signed two contracts, one as a player and one as a stunt performer.[7] At age 31 and not having played professionally since 1937, he hit .269. He split 1945 between Columbus and the unaffiliated Milwaukee team, owned by Veeck, and hit a career-best .293. There, Veeck had a first-hand look at Price’s ability to perform, as the shortstop already had made a name for himself.

His act involved catching balls in his uniform and throwing balls accurately with his back turned or lying on the ground, batting while standing on his head or suspended by his ankles from an overhead bar, and catching fly balls while driving a jeep across the outfield. He said in the 1950s he had come up with more than 100 different ways to catch, throw or hit a ball.

Although he had developed a following in 1946 with his pre-game program in Pacific Coast League parks, Price was playing sporadically and hitting .171 for manager Casey Stengel at Oakland. Veeck, as the Indians’ new owner, offered to buy the player. “I sold him to Bill Veeck for $10,000,” Stengel told Bob Addie in 1958.

According to Veeck, he outbid the Yankees’ Larry MacPhail for Price. “He won’t hit much but is the greatest baseball entertainer in the country,” Veeck said.[8] Price, 33, joined the Indians’ active roster on Aug. 12.

Veeck had tried to persuade Jack Zeller, the Tigers’ general manager, and officials of the Cubs to acquire the services of Price to perform during the 1945 World Series. Veeck offered to pay Price’s expenses to travel to Detroit and said he’d pay Zeller $5,000 if the Tigers didn’t think Price was sensational. But both teams turned Veeck down.

“Right then, I said to myself that Price would entertain at a World Series someday if it was the last thing I arranged,” Veeck said.[9] It turned out to be a promise he would keep.

Price unveiled his act in Cleveland on Aug. 13 before 65,765 fans at a game honoring the Indians’ longtime team trainer. He was an immediate sensation.[10]

By the time the Indians arrived in New York on Aug. 28 to play the Yankees, Schacht, the longtime “Clown Prince of Baseball,” had to see what the fuss was about. “He’s worth whatever they pay him,” Schacht said after watching Price perform.[11]

“Nineteen finger joints I’ve broken; nineteen fractures and 14 years of hard work. That’s the secret of what you call my success,” Price told reporters about his spreading renown.[12]

In a letter to The Sporting News in 1965, Wes Cunningham, a former minor league teammate, told of the toll that performing took on Price. “Jackie and I were … roomies at Columbus … in ’44 and ’45 ….  We were together again at Oakland in ’46,” Cunningham wrote. “At nights in our room, he was always thinking of ways to improve his show. I have seen his body black and blue” after his shows and practice sessions.

Price played sparingly for player/manager Lou Boudreau. His first big league hit, a pinch single, came on September 15 against the Athletics in Cleveland.

Price made his first major league start against the Senators in Cleveland. He led off and played shortstop. He singled and scored the lone Cleveland run in an 8-1 Washington win. He started at short against the Nats the following night and went 0-3. The next day, he made his final start, again at home and this time against the Tigers. His one hit in four times up was his last in the majors and last in a professional game.

Price ended up hitting .231 with 3 hits in 13 official at-bats. He never struck out. Veeck was criticized for adding Price to his team as a player. But in the context of hundreds of other players who had a so-called cup of coffee in the big leagues – whether he belonged there purely on ability or not — Price certainly didn’t embarrass himself.

The Indians released Price as a player on September 30, but kept him under contract as a performer. In February 1947, an eight-and-a-half minute MGM film titled Diamond Demon, showing Price performing many of his tricks, was released in movie theaters, vastly increasing his fame.  (Turner Classic Movies often shows the film at the start of baseball seasons, and it’s on You Tube. See a link in the endnotes.)[13]

Price was with the Indians for spring training in 1947 until a widely reported incident led Boudreau to banish him from the team. On the train carrying the Indians between Los Angeles and San Diego on March 23, Price was egged on by teammates to show them one or more of the snakes he owned. They wanted them used to scare members of a female bowling team that earlier had been whistling at the players.

Indeed, Price once had owned 21 non-venomous bull snakes, most of which he captured in the Mohave Desert while he was in the Army. He had used them in his act as recently as 1945 in Milwaukee, but not since. Price admitted he had two snakes in his luggage in the baggage car, planning to take them to the San Diego Zoo. Finally, he agreed to retrieve one of the snakes, which he claimed he had tamed, and walked through the passenger cars with the snake inside his shirt. The sight of the snake had the desired alarming effect on the bowling team.

An enraged conductor came looking for the person with the snake. He grabbed Price, who told the conductor to unhand him because the man who owned the snake was named Boudreau. When the railroad detectives confronted the Indians manager, who was playing cards, and told him about the snake, it was the end of the line for Price’s days as part of the team.

After being kicked off the train, Price was summoned to a meeting with Veeck, who gave him a stern warning: No more snakes. But Veeck knew how valuable Price was to the Indians. Price’s tour of major and minor league parks continued without interruption through 1947, during which he logged 125,000 miles making 173 appearances.

Aside from the snakes and the perilous feats during his performances, Price provided other reasons to prove his eccentricity. Once he began to make money, he became a flamboyant dresser. In 1947 it was reported that “at last count, he had 35 outfits, mostly sports coats and jackets and 122 shirts, not a single one white and most very gaudy.”[14] Earning more than most active players, Price bought a lavender Cadillac convertible, which served as his home-away-from-home, carrying his many props. It reportedly was equipped with a toilet.[15] Price would buy a new Cadillac nearly every year during the 1950s.[16]

When the 1947 season ended, Price joined a group of players led by Bob Feller on a barnstorming tour. In great demand, Price was the opening act.

The next season was a momentous one for the Indians. Veeck’s team led the league in attendance, drawing 2.62 million fans. One of the biggest crowds – 73,494 – was on hand on Aug. 8 to watch Price’s act between games of a doubleheader with the Yankees.[17] Cleveland won a three-way fight for the pennant and beat the surprising Boston Braves in the World Series. Keeping his promise, Veeck had Price perform before Game One in Boston.

In 1950, Price incorporated into his act an air-powered “bazooka” he would use to shoot baseballs 600 feet in the air so he could catch them while riding in his jeep. Or he would blast the balls completely out of the stadiums in which he performed.[18] Today, at almost every professional game anywhere, a mascot of some kind will use such a device to shoot T-shirts or wrapped hamburgers into the stands as the crowd screams in delight. Thank Price for providing the inspiration.

That season, Price performed at 132 ballparks in 48 states. Repetition and constant practice must have paid off. “It’s the first year he hasn’t suffered any broken bones,” a Binghamton, N.Y., paper reported.[19]

His act clearly was a big hit, drawing large crowds at minor league parks – and boosting attendance at some big league venues. The July 22, 1950, game in Washington was prime example. “He hung from a special trapeze and whacked out line drives, upside down. He fungoed two balls in opposite directions with the same swing,” the Post reported.[20]

That fall, Price accompanied a group of major leaguers on an exhibition tour of Japan before traveling to Korea during the Korean War to entertain the troops. At one point, not far from enemy-held territory, he set up his air-gun and shot baseballs over toward the Communist sentries. “We could see them land behind the Red Lines,” he told a reporter. “They studied the balls for a long time. Guess they thought they were mines or booby traps.” Price had written on each of them, “Bring this ball to Cleveland Stadium. Good for two admissions.”[21]

The popular TV show You Asked for It, based on requests from viewers, broadcast a segment in 1951 showing Price’s act. The segment was repeated many times in reruns throughout the ’50s.[22]

In 1952, Price grossed $34,000 – the equivalent of more than $317,000 in 2019 — during the season, traveling over 54,000 miles.[23]  An item in The Sporting News in July 1952 listed his itinerary for August: He was booked in a different city every day of the month as far south North Carolina as far west as Minnesota, as far north as Ontario and as far east as Connecticut.

Price performed at Yankee Stadium before the Aug. 18 game between the Senators and the Yankees. He “put on a dazzling pre-game show,” The New York Times reported. “Among other things, he threw simultaneous strikes to three catchers while standing on his head,” and “went roaring over the outfield turf in his jeep to catch towering flies.”

As he had been in his first big league start, Price was a good luck charm for the Nats. This night, over the eventual World Series champions, the Senators had one of the team’s greatest comeback victories. New York led at one point 8-1 before the Nats scored seven runs in the top of the ninth. The Yanks went down one-two-three in their half. Washington won, 10-8.

The last time Price performed before a Senators’ game was in Baltimore’s Municipal Stadium on Sept. 21, 1957. Again, Price was the charm as the last-place Nats beat the Orioles, 8-1, (The loss kept Baltimore from finishing above .500)

By then, the newspapers were referring to Price most often as a comedian, a cruel way of describing his athletic skills. “The best tribute to Price,” Shirley Povich wrote in 1950, “is that his greatest admirers are the ball players, who marvel at the things he does with a baseball.”

By the late 1950s, as the number of minor leagues contracted and major league games were broadcast on TV nationwide, the demand for Price’s services declined. “The places to show are getting fewer and farther between,” he said in 1959. “Everywhere I go, the minor league people tell me they’re worrying how long they can survive.”[24]

In addition, Price’s tricks and hours of practice were more physically demanding than the training regimens of active players. He had turned 40 years old before the 1953 season. Physical skills decline with age. His last reported performance was in 1962.

By then, Price could no longer earn enough to justify the preparation and days of long drives to distant minor league parks. Approaching age 50, he took a job at the J&J Bar in San Francisco, where he and his wife had moved. He faded from public consciousness.

“He was a gentle soul who would give you the shirt off his back,” his daughter Marsha Fecteau said of her father when I spoke to her in July 2019. “He was so generous, he gave away a lot of his money. He loved baseball so much and became depressed when he couldn’t play anymore.”[25]

No longer able to find work doing what he alone could do and forgotten by the public, Price became increasingly despondent and began drinking heavily. In recent years, much attention has been given to the long-term effects of head injuries to professional athletes. Over the years practicing his act, Price admittedly was hit in the head many times by fly balls he was trying to catch in his uniform.

“Every time I misjudged [one],” he told author Al J. Stump in 1952, “the ball drove my head down an inch into my neck. Time after time I left the park with a bloody scalp, so punchy I was swinging at shadows.”[26] Given what is known today, Price by the 1960s could have been suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or the long-term effects of concussions.

Whatever the cause, on October 2, 1967, Price took his own life by hanging himself at the home he shared with his wife in San Francisco. An autopsy revealed that Price’s blood alcohol level was .28, more than three times the legal limit for driving.[27]

His death was not even noted in the San Francisco newspapers. “Isn’t it a shame that baseball bypasses really great performers like Jackie?” former teammate Cunningham wrote in his 1965 letter to The Sporting News.

Jackie Price clearly had a unique talent. Baseball almost certainly will never see another like him.

 

This is adapted from my longer BioProject essay on Jackie Price, posted at SABR.org.

 

 

[1] Ed McAuley, “Indian Stands on Head to Entertain Fans,” The Sporting News, August 14, 1946: 13.

[2] Stump, Al J., “Jackie Price: Crazy at the Bat,” from Champions against Odds (Macrae-Smith Company, Philadelphia, 1952): 84.

[3] Ed McAuley, “Veeck Presents Varieties on Hilarious Road Trip,” The Sporting News, September 11, 1946: 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] McAuley, “Veeck Presents….

[6] Neal Russo, “Price Goes High in His Stunt Role; Jackie Pays on $20,000 Income,” The Sporting News, February 2, 1949: 11.

[7] Matt Rothenberg, “#Shortstops: The Amazing Jackie Price,” //baseballhall.org/discover/short-stops/amazing-jackie-price, accessed July 16, 2019.

[8] Associated Press, “Bill Veeck Adds Another Act to Cleveland Baseball Circus,” Boston Globe, August 2, 1946: 4.

[9] McAuley, Indian Stands….

[10] Howard Preston, “65,765 Doff Chapeau to Tepee Trainer Weisman,” The Sporting News, August 21, 1946: 13.

[11] Al Schacht, “Clown Prince Investigates His Heir Apparent,” The Sporting News, September 11, 1946: 5.

[12] Ed McAuley, “Veeck Presentes Varieties on Hilarious Road Tour,” The Sporting News, September 11, 1946: 5.

[13] Diamond Demon video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Jflun5CyIc

[14] Herman Goldstein, “No More Snakes, Price Promises,” Cleveland News, April 5, 1947, page unknown, from Price’s Hall of Fame clip file.

[15]  Hal Lebovitz, “Price to Polish Acrobatics While Indians Are Drilling,” The Sporting News, February 2, 1952: 19.

[16] Telephone conversation with Marsha Fecteau, Price’s daughter, July 18, 2019.

[17] “Whooping Crowd Whooping It Up for Flag-Chasing Indians,” no byline, The Sporting News, August 18, 1948: 11.

[18] “Jackie Price’s Howitzer Ball Scares Mongrel From Pups,”  no byline, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, September 11, 1950: 35.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Price Wows Fans At Stadium With Baseball Act,” no byline, Washington Post, July 23, 1950: C3.

[21] Lebovitz.

[22] TV listings in newspapers across the country, accessed through ProQuest and NewspaperArchives.com.

[23] Oscar Ruhl, “From the Ruhl Book” column, The Sporting News, October 15, 1952: 26.

[24] Vince Guerrieri, “Jackie Price, Baseball’s Sad Clown,” //didthetribewinlastnight.com/blog/2014/04/15/Jackie-price-baseballs-sad-clown/, accessed on July 15, 2019.

[25] Conversation with Marsha Fecteau.

[26] Stump, Champions against Odds, 87.

[27] Price’s death certificate.

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