Will Rogers once remarked that a comedian can last only till he “takes himself serious.” Therein, perhaps, lies Max Patkin’s secret of longevity. For more than four decades, Max has been performing his loony comedic shtik in minor league ballparks. Team owners hire Max to attract fans with his antics. In the course of 4 million miles and 4,000 bookings, Max has never missed a scheduled performance—even when his wife tried to bludgeon him to death with a hammer, about which more later.
Now, at 68, Max is finally getting some respect, which could be dangerous for a guy in his line of work. Max has, as they say, gone Hollywood. He has a small role as himself in the sexy baseball comedy Bull Durham. In his big scene Max introduces Kevin Costner, playing a minor league pitcher, to Susan Sarandon, a baseball groupie. He doesn’t even complain too much that his other scene, in which Sarandon kisses him, didn’t make the final cut. “I’m not happy,” says Max, “but, look, I’m in a major hit.”
Indeed he is. On a recent still and sticky night at McCormick Field in Asheville, N.C., the players on the hometown team, called the Tourists, rush up to greet him. “Hey, Max, what was Susan Sarandon like?” asks one player. Max rises to the occasion. “You mean the kiss?” asks Max. “You kiddin’ me? She almost threw up.” A kid sneaks up behind Max and starts doing an impression of the geek walk Max does in Bull Durham. That’s fame for you. Now the fans are mimicking him.
Max goes into action in the bottom of the fourth inning. With his tilted cap, grungy uniform, malleable mug and near-toothless grin, the 6’3″ Patkin looks like a giant gooney bird as he imitates the first baseman. The fans roar their appreciation. When a hometown batter keeps popping up balls behind home plate, Max tells a section of the crowd near first, “If we turned the field around we’d win the pennant.”
In the top of the sixth inning, the “clown prince of baseball” offers his specialty: With two huge mouthfuls of water, he spouts 25 geysers in the air over the course of the next three outs.
Max began his 43rd season last May in Vancouver and will finish in the same place at season’s end, making 72 stops. He receives between $900 and $1,500 a performance. In the off-season he lives in King of Prussia, Pa., outside Philadelphia, sharing a three-bedroom condo with his 70-year-old brother, Eddie, and their two dogs.
One of three children of Russian immigrant parents, Max grew up in West Philly. Baseball became a way to escape the taunts of neighborhood toughs. “I was a tall skinny kid with a big nose, and I was very sensitive about my looks,” he recalls. “But when I went on the mound and threw a fastball, nobody laughed. I was a hell of a pitcher.”
After turning down college scholarship offers, Max chose to play for a Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., Class D minor league team in 1941. In one game he was covering a wild ball at home base when the runner slid into his arm, causing an injury that eventually left Max unable to pitch. He joined the Navy the following year, and that’s when he discovered his unique talents for being a baseball goofball. Stationed in Honolulu, he was on the mound during an allpro Army-Navy game when Mr. Coffee himself, Joe DiMaggio, came up and hit the longest home run anybody had ever seen. “When he came around first base I came up behind him and just followed him,” Max says. “I just got this whim in me. Joe has this beautiful stride, and I did the same glide around the bases. The word got around about me, and they’d ask me to pitch again, saying, ‘We want the goofy guy.’ ”
Max’s comedic career in the minors began in 1946 when he was hired by Bill Veeck as a clown coach. He was a big hit, even with the Baseball Annies memorialized in Bull Durham. “There were loads of good-looking gals,” he says. “There were good-looking guys, too. I got the gal overflow.” One of them was a cigarette girl named Judy—15 years his junior. They dated for seven years before marrying in 1960. They adopted a daughter, Joy, in ’63. Life was good. Or so it seemed.
In the late ’60s, Judy got hooked on Percodan and whiskey. “She started making it with my best friends,” says Max, the funny faces gone for the time being. “She was a sex machine. She was a prostitute living a double life [while Max was on the road].”
Then came the hammer. One night while Max was sleeping, Judy stole in and hit him on the back of the head with it. After a struggle, Max stumbled next door to a neighbor who took him to the hospital. Max got 30 stitches. He didn’t press charges, but in 1974 he did get a divorce and custody of their daughter. Three years ago, on her 50th birthday, his ex-wife committed suicide. “It was all those drugs and pills, and she didn’t want to get old,” Max says. “I tried to be a good husband. I never drank too much and I didn’t run around. I enjoyed the married life and raising my daughter.”
Joy concurs. “He’s been a good father,” she says, “but it was rough having him gone all the time. I missed him. We’ve had a good relationship, though we’re not extremely close.”
Back in Asheville, the home team has rallied to win the game. Afterward, Max sits down to sign autographs for the kids. One of them asks when he’ll be back. “You won’t see me too many more times,” he replies, even though he’d like to take his act into the ’90s. “I’m on my swan song.” But what the heck, “In my heart I would have rather been a big league baseball player,” Max admits, “but then I’d have never made so many people happy.”
—By Tom Cunneff, with David Hutchings in North Carolina