Dec 28 2010

Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and His Great Black Teams

by Alan J. Pollock
Edited by James A. Riley

A rare insider’s perspective on baseball’s great barnstorming age.

I remember well the first time the Monarchs played the Clowns. Our fellas were whoopin’ it up, . . . Talkin’ about beating up on them and runnin’ them out the ball park, so I told them not to be taking that ball club lightly. Said I’d played for them in ’34 and they were Major League caliber then. Skinny Barnhill struck out 17 Monarchs and beat us 2-1.”
—John “Buck” O’Neil

“A real find, a very rare insider’s view of the bygone universe of the barnstorming clown teams that enlivened Negro League baseball. Writing with humor and affection, Pollock places the reader on the field, on the buses, and in the stands watching the riotous Indianapolis Clowns perform their magic as ballplayers and entertainers par excellence.”
—Jules Tygiel, author of Baseball’s Great Experiment

“This is a fond farewell to baseball’s barnstorming tradition and its greatest proponent, Syd Pollock of the Indianapolis Clowns. A must-read for every fan.”
—Robert Peterson, author of Only the Ball was White

The Indianapolis Clowns were a black touring baseball team that featured an entertaining mix of comedy, showmanship, and skill. Sometimes referred to as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball—though many of the Globetrotters’ routines were borrowed directly from the Clowns—they captured the affection of Americans of all ethnicities and classes.

Alan Pollock’s father, Syd, owned the Clowns, as well as a series of black barnstorming teams that crisscrossed the country from the late 1920s until the mid-1960s. They played every venue imaginable, from little league fields to Yankee Stadium, and toured the South, the Northeast, the Midwest, the Canadian Rockies, the Dakotas, the Southwest, the Far West—anywhere there was a crowd willing to shell out a few dollars for an unforgettable evening.

Alan grew up around the team and describes in vivid detail the comedy routines of Richard “King Tut” King, “Spec Bebob” Bell, Reece “Goose” Tatum; the “warpaint” and outlandish costumes worn by players in the early days; and the crowd-pleasing displays of amazing skill known as pepperball and shadowball. These men were entertainers, but they were also among the most gifted athletes of their day, making a living in sports the only way a black man could. They played to win.

More than just a baseball story, these recollections tell the story of great societal changes in America from the roaring twenties, through the years of the Great Depression and World War II, and into the Civil Rights era.


Alan Pollock was editing this manuscript when he suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack. His widow approached longtime friend James A. Riley to complete the project. Riley is the author of numerous books about the Negro Leagues and black baseball, including The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues and The All-Time All-Stars of Black Baseball.

About the author

The Editors