Jackie Price: Baseball’s Sad Clown
Vince Guerrieri | On 15, Apr 2014
If Indians fans remember Jackie Price at all, it’s for the stunt that got him thrown off the team in 1947.
Price, a fan of snakes to the point where he would use a live one as a belt, turned loose a snake in the dining car of a train headed from Indians training camp in Arizona to an exhibition game in California. The ensuing ruckus led Lou Boudreau to send Price home.
But Price, in his own way, was a gifted man. He was one of people who used his skills in baseball as a sideshow for the game. But Indians owner Bill Veeck (who knew a little something about entertainment and real talent), said Price wasn’t a clown; he was an artist.
John Thomas Reid Price was born in Winborn, Missouri on Nov. 13, 1912. He was signed to a baseball contract at the age of 19, but languished in the minor leagues for years. When Veeck came out of the service in 1945, Price was one of the players on his Milwaukee Brewers team. Veeck, who knew that he was selling entertainment more than anything else, saw a place for Price’s bizarre skill set.
Price was a trick-shot artist. He could take batting practice hanging upside down – better than right-side up, he said – bunt with the knob end of the bat and throw two balls into the air and hit both – one a grounder and one a pop-up. “I get mad at ballplayers today that can’t bunt,” said Casey Stengel, who was Price’s manager with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. “This fella could take the bat and plunk with the end of it like a pool cue.”
Price also demonstrated pitching skills, throwing two balls at once to two different catchers – one would be a fastball and one a curve. He would catch pitchers with his back toward them, catching balls between his legs. And his showstopper was to drive a Jeep through the outfield, steering with one hand while catching with the other.
Veeck tried to get the Tigers to hire Price for entertainment during the 1945 World Series. The Tigers opted to hire Al Schacht, the clown prince of baseball. Veeck said he’d make it up to Price. Stengel, who’d managed against Price while he was in Milwaukee, picked him up in Oakland, and encouraged him to continue his act. In 1946, Veeck, who owned the Indians by then, arranged to buy Price’s contract at the end of the season from Oakland, calling him the greatest baseball entertainer in the country. Price made 14 plate appearances in seven games, getting three hits – all singles – for a batting average of .231.
Price was in spring training for the Indians in 1947. Also new with the Indians that year was second baseman Joe Gordon. During a train trip that included a women’s bowling league, Gordon egged Price on to let his snake loose. Price complied, and Veeck described the scene in “Veeck As In Wreck”:
“Women bowlers began to leap onto the tables and race screaming down the aisle. Men, to put it delicately, lost their appetites. The conductor, following the snake back to its source, grabbed Jackie and demanded to know his name. Jackie quite naturally told him his name was Lou Boudreau and politely requested that he be unhanded. At the next station, Louie’s peaceful card game was interrupted by a couple of beefy detectives who informed him they were about to throw him off the train.”
After Boudreau explained who he was, and once he heard the word snake, who the actual perpetrator was, Price was sent home. His major league career was over, but he spent the better part of the next decade traveling around the country with his act. Price estimated he drove between 40,000 and 50,000 miles during baseball season, with his wife Martha, making $150 to $500 a night, depending on the venue.
But in a 1959 interview, he was able to read the writing on the wall. “The places to show are getting fewer and farther between,” he said. “Everywhere I go, the minor league people tell me they’re worrying how long they can survive.”
As TV and expansion caused minor league teams – and some leagues – to fold, Price ended up spending less time on the road, working as a bartender in San Francisco. He ended up hanging himself in 1967.
Today, Price — and the genre of sideshow entertainment in baseball — is little-remembered. But those who saw him will never forget him.