Major League baseball players must be all-around athletes of the highest quality. They must possess speed of foot and exceptional hand-eye coordination to do the various actions they do on the field.
However, as a boy I watched one man overtop all of them, without any possible competition. Max Patkin, a minor league player before an injury curtailed his career, was one of the men known as "The Clown Prince of Baseball," and did it the longest of the five men who were so called.
He clowned for 54 years in major and minor league stadiums around the United States.
As part of his show, Patkin regularly performed the greatest baseball feat I or anyone else have ever seen. No player, not Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Fred Lynn, or any other great fielder one might name, ever came close to matching the highlight of his clowning show.
Max Patkin had a powerful air gun that shot baseballs. First, he demonstrated its power by firing a baseball all the way from the diamond in McCormick Field, the name of the ballpark then (now named Tourist Stadium) into the Asheville High football field, at least a quarter of a mile away and somewhat uphill.
The highest pop flies ever hit have been measured at over 200 feet in the air. After demonstrating the air gun's baseball launching power, Patkin then turned the muzzle of the device straight up, and fired a baseball into the darkness (he performed at night games for us).
But gravity being what it is, eventually the ball came down. Patkin did not just catch the ball. He turned his back to it and caught it in a specially made large pocket on the back of his Baseball Clown uniform (the number on the back was not a number but a question mark). He performed this feat both times that I saw him.
The real Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, also appeared in Asheville, with Silver the horse, and we were thrilled to watch him perform. There was no special effect in his fast draw with a shot, he was an actual gunslinger, and I have never seen a more talented and beautiful horse than Silver.
But I am sure, now late in my life, that I will never see any human physical feat, in sports or any other milieu, to match the unexplainable thing Max Patkin did with an air gun and a baseball on those warm Asheville nights.
Here's to Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball!
MAX THE BASEBALL CLOWN
If you could get to be king by making people laugh,
Max Patkin would wear the crown.
I would giggle till my sides would split in half
Every time that he came around.
And the old grandstands would fill up with fans
And the cheers came rolling down
For Bob Bailey, Gene Alley and Willie Stargell
And Max the Baseball Clown!
I was just a little boy in North Carolina,
Eleven years old I think,
Too young to go out raisin' hell with the girls,
And too young to take a drink,
But I wasn't too young to watch 'em go hit
A home run in a minor league town,
And watch a funny man in old baggy pants,
Max the Baseball Clown!