Through the eyes of a Clown: Hubert Wooten was among the last of the barnstormers
By Steve Roush
Published in Sports on May 15, 2006 2:02 PM
Hubert Wooten doesn't have any photos of himself from the old days, when times were tough and glorious all rolled into one. He has no baseball cards that captured the likeness of a much younger Wooten -- Daddy Wooten -- as he was called four decades ago, and no statistics showing that the kid could hit, run and throw.
What he does have are golden memories.
Memories of the long nights on the old bus, Big Red. Memories of the four years he was with the "Harlem Globetrotters of baseball." Memories of playing with and managing baseball great Satchel Paige, the ageless Hall of Famer who was perhaps 50 years his senior.
And memories of a dream.
"If we had any sense, we would have kept stats, and we would have taken pictures of the guys," says Wooten, now 61. "But we were out there just trying to get to the next level. We wanted to make it to the big leagues, and the rest of it didn't matter.
"As long as we played that day."
Wooten, who was born in Goldsboro on Sept. 6, 1944, and graduated from Carver High School, played from 1965-68 with the last of the barnstormers, the Indianapolis Clowns.
The Clowns, best known for their comedy routine, were the longest-running franchise in the Negro League. By the mid-1960s, they were the only team left. So they were always on the move, taking seemingly endless road trips.
"We had this bus called Big Red, I'll tell you we slept on it," he recalls. "We'd play a game, say in Milwaukee, then we'd go like 300 miles, check into a motel long enough to take a shower and go to the field for a doubleheader. We'd play one at two, then played another that started at seven that night. We'd go back to the motel, go to sleep, check out early that morning, get back on Big Red and jump 200, 300 more miles.
"Always on the bus."
Like the Globetrotters, the Clowns always had a big following.
"When we pulled up in a town, people were all around Big Red, wanting to see the Clowns," he says with a smile.
They were there to see the talented players, and they were there for the show. A show where the catcher would perhaps play his position from a rocking chair, where buckets of confetti were thrown into the stands, and where firecrackers found their way behind an unsuspecting umpire.
And there was the world-famous shadow ball, where the Clowns would play the game in slow motion -- with crazy antics, at times -- with an imaginary ball.
"We'd put on a show," Daddy Wooten recalls. "After seven innings, we'd do the shadow ball, we'd do a little dance to the Harlem Globetrotters music, 'Sweet Georgia Brown.' We had special guys who were really good at that, like Nature Boy, Birmingham Sam, Bobo, Steve Anderson, the one-armed fellow. We had firecrackers that we'd light behind an ump, they would explode and he'd jump up.
"It was really comical and people really enjoyed it. We also had a good time, and we had a chance to play every day."
Daddy Wooten wasn't a big man by any means -- he stands just 5-foot-8 ("maybe 5-foot-8 1/2," he laughs). But there wasn't a ballpark that could hold him if he got into a pitch.
"I've always had power and people wonder how," he says. "And I'd tell them, 'It happens when you work on a farm.' When I was a youngster, I had to cut wood, I had to walk behind that mule, and I had to take two 50-pound bags of fertilizer, one in this hand and one in the other, and carry them across the field. I didn't get my power in the gym, I got my power on the farm."
Wooten played ball his junior and senior seasons when Carver High started a baseball program.
When he graduated, he went to a baseball school in West Palm Beach, Fla.
He signed a minor league contract with the Vero Beach Dodgers in 1964 where he pitched and played in the outfield.
"I went over there and they said, 'You're raw, you have good talent but you need to play every day,'" he said. "Then they sent a letter to Ed Hamman, who owned the Clowns, and he sent me a ticket to meet me in Chicago.
"After meeting Ed, I signed with the Clowns."
With the Clowns, Hamman helped Hubert Wooten get his nickname.
"Daddy Wooten, that's what they called me," he says. "One time, I hit a ball off the wall, and Ed was standing over there, he was laughing and said, 'That's the daddy.' And Sandy Perkins said, 'Yeah, we're going to name him Daddy Wooten.' And that name just stuck."
Daddy Wooten loved to play every position. Well, almost every position.
"I played all positions except one, and that was catcher," he says with a smile. "They made a mistake once and I had to get back there. All our catchers were hurt and they had one coming in, and I had to get back there. We had a fellow on the mound that day who was about 6-foot-6 and he could throw 95-96 mph and we were in Nebraska. And I'll tell you, he'd throw, they'd swing, I'd close my eyes and the ball would go by. I walked all night. I told Ed, 'The only plate I want to get behind is one with food on it. And when it's gone, I'm gone.'
"So I played all positions in the infield, I'd play outfield and I could come in and relief pitch every night -- It didn't bother my arm."
At the plate, Daddy Wooten was a good hitter with some pop.
"I had good power, good speed, good arm," he said. "There was no park that we played in I couldn't hit it out of. In Pittsburgh, at old Forbes Field, I hit one over the scoreboard in left field, which was about 75-feet high."
He doesn't know what his stats were during his tenure with the Clowns, but Wooten has a pretty good idea.
"If I was rounding it off, I probably batted about .310, .315 in my four years there," he said. "I hit maybe 12, 14 home runs a year. We played a lot of local clubs who were loaded up with All-Stars -- you were going against the best."
But the Clowns were no slouches, either. In fact, Wooten says he can only remember the team losing four times -- in four years.
"We had a good team ourselves, I'd say it would have been a good Double-A or Triple-A ballclub," Wooten says. "We had some outstanding ballplayers."
During his final two years with the Clowns, Daddy Wooten served as player/manager of the team.
In his first season of managing, one of the biggest names in baseball hooked on with the Clowns -- ageless pitcher Satchel Paige.
The Hall of Famer's birthday is often listed as July 7, 1906 -- which would have made Paige 61 (the age Wooten is now) in 1967 -- but no one really knew for sure.
Not even Daddy Wooten.
"I asked him one time, 'Satch, how old are you?' And he said, 'I'm a good way from 100, but I'm older than 75,'" Wooten recalls.
"He wouldn't tell me."
But no matter how old Paige was, the man could still play.
"He could still throw the ball," Daddy Wooten said. "We were at old Comiskey Park and he told me to get behind the plate and a photographer was standing behind me. He was throwing strikes on the corner and the man said, 'Can you believe his eyesight is that good to see this far?' I said, 'That old man never ceases to amaze me.'
"He had a pretty good fastball still, he could throw the scrooge and he showed that hesitation pitch he was famous for. And he was very knowledgeable about the game, he'd try to help you -- and that was the good thing about him."
Satch had respect for his young manager, too.
"My problem was they were saying I wasn't tall enough," Wooten said. "Matter of fact, Satch told me one time, 'I'll tell you what, if you had been about 6-feet with your power, your speed and your arm, there's no way in the world you'd be out here, you'd be gone. The only thing you weren't gifted with was height."
Paige even compared Wooten with another Negro League legend and a Hall of Famer.
"Another time, Satch and I were sitting on the bus, he took his teeth out and he said, 'Boy, let me tell you something, you are built about like Josh Gibson was,'" Wooten says. "He said, 'But you ain't going to hit as hard as he did.'"
Living on peanut
butter and jelly
Hubert Wooten didn't play for the money, which was a good thing.
"You weren't making any money," he says. "But you weren't thinking about money. All you were thinking about was catching the eye of some scout.
"After every two weeks, you got paid. Depending on what type of ballplayer you were, some would get $150, some $250, something like that."
That type of money didn't lend itself to fine dining and upscale restaurants.
"You see, during that time, you got meal money, perhaps 15 dollars, and made it last all week," Wooten says. "The guys would get together and get some bologna and peanut butter and jelly. People don't understand now, but that bologna and peanut butter and jelly was pretty good back then."
Where the Clowns bedded down at night was also, at times, an adventure.
"The things we went through during that time, especially in the South, the blacks couldn't stay uptown," Wooten recalls. "One time in Montgomery, Alabama, we slept in a funeral home. Can you believe that? Some places in Mississippi, Georgia, we'd stay with well-to-do black people."
But he wouldn't trade any of it.
"It was tough, but it was an enjoyable life. I don't think $2 million could have carried me to the places I went, the things I did and the people I met.
"Would I do it again? Sure I would, I'd go right back out there -- hoping."
Hubert Wooten was just 24 years old when the 1968 season ended, but he decided it was time to go.
He had developed a bad knee ("If I hadn't have gotten hurt, I think I could have made it to the big leagues, but that's how it goes," he says.), and while he never played baseball for the money, Daddy Wooten made the tough decision to come back to Wayne County and start a new career.
"I told Ed I wanted to go get a job so I wouldn't be too old when I retired," Wooten says. "He wanted me to stay and manage the Clowns and he said he would give me more money. But it was a six-month job, so I decided to come home and get a job that would carry me through the winter.
"So that's what I did."
Hamman was sad to see Daddy Wooten go.
"Along with being a fine ballplayer, you were a splendid manager and certainly one of the finest persons I have known who wore a Clowns uniform," the late Hamman wrote to Wooten in the mid-1970s.
Wooten was no longer an Indianapolis Clown, but he didn't completely abandon the game.
"I loved it so much I never stopped playing it," Wooten says. "From the Clowns to semi-pro ball with the Goldsboro Braves, to softball, I played until it got to the point where the doctor said, 'If you don't stop playing, with that knee, you're going to end up in a wheelchair.' So after about two or three more surgeries on it -- it's bone on bone now and I've got arthritis in it -- I stopped when I was about 47, 48. I could still hit, but they'd throw me out at first base from the outfield, so it was time to go.
"I played until the bases got too long."
After working a year as an appliance repairman, Wooten spent the next three decades working in the recreation department at the O'Berry Center. He retired in 1991.
In 1975, he married his wife, Brenda, and they had two children, Torrous, 28, and Roderick, 25.
Roderick Wooten played running back at Fayetteville State from 1996-98. Daddy Wooten was at every single game.
"I didn't miss a game while he was down there," he said. "If it was in town, out of town, I told him, 'You're going to see one in the stands you know.' My daddy, he never got to see me play. My mother got to see me play once when I played in Virginia. I was going to make sure I was there when my kids played ball."
Wooten was recently inducted into the Professional Negro League Players Association. On Friday night, the Kinston Indians paid tribute to Daddy Wooten and other former Negro League players.
"I know I'm part of history," he says with pride. "We all made a way for so many people.
"We put some miles on the bus."
On the Net:
Professional Negro League Players Association: www.pnlpa.com
Negro League Baseball Players Association: www.nlbpa.com
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