The Indianapolis Clowns were a professional baseball team in the Negro American League. Tracing their origins back to the 1930s, the Clowns were the last of the Negro League teams to disband, continuing to play exhibition games into the 1980s. They began play as the independent Ethiopian Clowns, joined the Negro American League as the Cincinnati Clowns and, after a couple of years, relocated to Indianapolis. Hank Aaron was a Clown for a short period, and the Clowns were also one of the first professional baseball teams to hire a female player.
Before becoming the Ethiopian Clowns, there is evidence indicating that the team was formed in Miami, Florida, in 1935 or 1936 by Hunter Campbell and bootlegger Johnny Pierce, and was known as the Miami Giants. Soon enough the team became an independent barnstorming club, changing its name to the Ethiopian Clowns. Syd Pollock was instrumental in promoting and popularizing the Clowns and developed them into a nationally-known combination of show business and baseball that earned them the designation as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball.
In 1943, the team was relocated to Cincinnati, where they became the Cincinnati Clowns. That same year they joined the Negro American League, beginning a 12-year membership in the circuit before withdrawing following the 1954 season. The team operated between Cincinnati and Indianapolis in 1944 and 1945 before officially moving to Indianapolis in 1946, playing as the Indianapolis Clowns for the rest of their existence.
The team won the league championship in 1950.
While still fielding a legitimate team, the Clowns also toured with several members known for comic acts — sort of a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters, including Joe "Prince" Henry. As the Negro Leagues declined in the late 1940s after the integration of Major League Baseball, the Clowns continued operations on barnstorming tours into the 1960s.
By 1966 the Indianapolis Clowns were the last Negro league team still playing. The Clowns continued to play exhibition games into the 1980s, but as a humorous sideshow rather than a competitive sport. After many years of operation as a barnstorming team, the Clowns finally disbanded in 1989.
Hank Aaron and other notable Clowns
By 1952, Syd Pollock signed Hank Aaron to his first professional contract, at $200 a month. Aaron played about three months as the Clowns' shortstop and cleanup hitter before being sold for $10,000 to the Boston Braves organization.
The Clowns fielded such stars as Buster Haywood, DeWitt "Woody" Smallwood, showman "Goose" Tatum, and future Major Leaguers John Wyatt (Kansas City Athletics), Paul Casanova (Washington Senators), and Choo-Choo Coleman (New York Mets).
The Clowns were the first professional baseball team to hire a female player to a long-term contract that was not voided soon after. Toni Stone played second base with the team in 1953, in which she batted .243. The following year the Clowns sold her contract to the Kansas City Monarchs. They hired two women replacements: Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, pitcher, and Connie Morgan, second base. Women also served as umpires for the team.
- The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues – James A. Riley. Publisher: Chelsea House, 1996. Format: Paperback, 124pp. Language: English. ISBN 0-7910-2592-6
- Heward, Bill. Some are called Clowns: A season with the last of the great barnstorming baseball teams, ISBN 0-690-00469-9.
- The Indianapolis Clowns: Clowns of Baseball
- Great History Blog – The Ethiopian Clowns
- Negro League Baseball Players Association website – 1940 Ethiopian Clowns
- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum – Syd Pollock Biography