Two Brilliant Baseball Books with Lessons for Stuffy Intellectuals (Part 1)

Derek Reed, Institutes for Behavior Resources, Inc.
Tom Critchfield, Illinois State University

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Rumbustious Reviews are conversational discussions about books that aren’t specific to behavior analysis. “Rumbustious” means “boisterous or unruly.” That might be a slight overstatement of purpose, but reading widely has a disruptive effect on our thinking, in a good way. LOTS of books can educate us on things about which we are (or should be) interested. Let’s encourage each other to read them. The approach of these reviews  is to harness the tone of a decently elevated bar conversation: light on the stiff academic language and minus that drearily conservative expository style that journals demand of us. 

Heward, B., & Gat, G.V. (1974). Some are called Clowns: A season with the last of the great barnstorming baseball teams. Crowell. Click here to download pdf for free!

Cole, J. (2022). Fans first: Change the game, break the rules, & create an unforgettable experience. Lioncrest.

Tom: Hey Derek, we get to pretend we’re working while talking about baseball. It’s a great day!

Derek: Yup. But before we start on that, we need to put something that seems unrelated on the record.

Tom: Which is…?

Derek: That the British Royal Society invented the “modern” professional meeting in the 17th Century. We’re still doing conferences pretty much like they were done 400+ years ago. Let that sink in for a moment.

Tom: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?


Tom: Methinks you have an opinion on this.

Derek: That’ll become obvious once we get around to talking about how baseball is related to professional conferences. Although, like baseball itself, this conversation is nonlinear and is going to take a while.

Tom: Hence this first-ever three-part Rumbustious Review. 

Derek: On to business! We’re reviewing two baseball books that point out the importance of what behavior analysts call audience control. That is, letting audiences shape our behavior into something audiences will want more of. Just as in a functional behavioral assessment, you have to know what peoples’ reinforcers are. With a baseball theme in mind, we might say that knowing peoples’ reinforcers, and providing them, is the key to putting butts in the bleachers.

Tom: Which is something that always concerns behavior analysts. We want people to want the cool things we can offer, and we’re often disappointed that they don’t. So what’s our plan for exploring this problem?

Derek: After discussing the two books, we’re going to ask readers to imagine how an audience-friendly approach might change the way we do the closest thing behavior analysis has to a spectator sport, the annual conference. That should be fun!

Tom: Indeed. Let’s start our conversation with Some are Called Clowns, which is without a doubt THE best non-behavior-analysis book ever written by a behavior analyst.

Bill Heward in 1973. Left: bringing the heat. Right: practicing his managerial stare. Photos by James Hogsden, from Some Are Called Clowns. Reproduced by permission.

Derek: Agreed! Bill Heward (of ABA “White Book” fame) describes how he spent an eventful summer in 1973 managing and playing baseball for the Indianapolis Clowns. Bill’s memoir is tons of fun, even if you’re not a giant baseball fan. It’s full of colorful characters pursing a passion under far-from-ideal circumstances (which, not coincidentally, might also describe behavior analysts).

Tom: Here’s some quick Clowns back story. From 1943-1954 they were a franchise in the Negro American League, where they won four championships. All-time great Henry Aaron played his first professional games for the Clowns.

Derek: When professional baseball began integrating in the late 1940s, demand for all-black baseball softened, and the Negro League clubs all eventually folded. Except the Clowns. They evolved into a barnstorming team that combined serious sport with showmanship and entertainment. They were called “the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball.”

Tom: The post-Negro League Clowns could play good baseball. But when fans stopped coming to them, they took their game to the fans by traveling all around to play local teams in their own ballparks. And they supplemented genuine athletic skill with what might be called sideshow antics. For instance, the club invented “shadow ball,” in which players would athletically mime throwing an imaginary ball around the infield before each inning.

Derek: At times the club roster would include a little person, or a player in some kind of costume, or a one-armed player, or an aging former Negro League great.

Tom: And some parts of the sideshow represented genuine, if atypical, athletic feats. As Bill Heward wrote in his autobiography:

“Birmingham Sam” Brinson would…  stand backwards in the batter’s box until the pitcher was about to release the ball, then jump around at the last moment to smash the pitch….First baseman Steve “Nub” Anderson, who at age 6 was hit by a truck and had his left arm amputated, could turn a double play and bat with one arm better than most players could with two.

Ed Hammen, the Clowns’ owner who is featured quite a bit in Clowns, was known in his playing days for being able to pitch the ball from behind his back or between his legs. For a while the team featured Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige, who at well over 60 years of age would throw one inning per game and, despite his age, could still dominate. Today a pitcher is considered “old” in his thirties!

1969 Clowns promotional poster. Courtesy of Bill Heward.

Derek: The Clowns also found ways to push societal boundaries. After all, they hired the Swedishly white Bill Heward to play on a historically black team. At different times the Clowns featured three different women as regular players, and they hired baseball’s first-ever woman umpire. To put that into context, girls weren’t allowed into Little League Baseball until the 1970s, and the modern minor leagues got their first woman player in 2022. No woman has ever played in what are now called the major leagues.

Tom: That’s a good introduction to the Indianapolis Clowns, but why should behavior analysts care?

Derek: Because when demand for their services waned, the Clowns were forced to conduct a functional analysis of sorts. “Serious” all-black baseball teams were no longer profitable so they had to adapt or die. That meant taking a careful look at what fans’ reinforcers were.

Tom: One fan reinforcer was watching their beloved hometown teams play. The Clowns harnessed this by traveling to local ballparks. They could have beaten their heads against the wall trying to persuade people to come to them in Indianapolis… but instead they ate the response cost and went where the fans were.

Derek: In barnstorming, it appears the Clowns understood the principle that if you pair a neutral stimulus with an already effective reinforcer, you create a new conditioned reinforcer. We sometimes miss this obvious point when bemoaning the soft societal reception of our own work. Metaphorically speaking, maybe we need to do more to take our game to local ballparks. Not talking geography here, just making sure that what we do intersects obviously with things people care about.

Tom: The Clowns’ other bit of functional analysis was to recognize that to a lot of people baseball is slow and boring. As a lifelong baseball fan, I find it painful to say that! But games can take a long time and they’re punctuated by lots of inaction.

Derek: I always thought that was why there’s beer at the ballpark. But to point out how far ahead of their time the Clowns were, note that only in 2023 did Major League Baseball institute rule changes to try to speed up, and liven up, games. For the Clowns, “livening up” meant the “sideshow” stuff, which might offend the sensibilities of baseball traditionalists, but it brought in paying customers who then had a chance to also appreciate the team’s athleticism. As Aaron said in his autobiography, the Clowns “didn’t have the luxury of concerning themselves with something like tradition.”

Tom: An important point. If you’re a baseball fan, you “should” want to watch talented players for their own sake, but maybe sometimes you get around to that only if there’s a way to up the fun quotient.

Derek: Let me draw a direct parallel. If you’re someone who works with behavior, you “should” want to attend behavior analysis conferences and read behavior analysis journals and so forth. But there are 50,000 or more certified behavior analysts, and only a few thousand people attend ABAI’s annual convention. Presumably there could be a lot more butts in those bleachers.

Tom: How do we fix that?

Derek: You’re getting ahead of the story! We still need to discuss Fans first, which is about a fascinating contemporary baseball team called the Savannah Bananas. That’s for Part 2 of this review, but readers who want a little reinforcer sampling can watch the trailer of an ESPN documentary on the Bananas.


(1) From Bill Heward, not critical to this review but too good to leave out:

In December 1974, Paramount Pictures indicated interest in making a movie from Some Are Called Clowns (SACC). Soon after, unfortunately, came word that Motown Productions was going to do a movie based on the novel The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, starring Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, and James Earl Jones. That book’s author grew up watching barnstorming teams like the Indianapolis Clowns and House of David. Ed Hamman, the central figure in SACC and pictured on the cover, played on House of David (Ed once pinned a beard on Babe Ruth!), was hired by Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck to entertain at the 1954 World Series, and later became owner of the Clowns and my how-to-be-a-roadman mentor. Anyway, Paramount soon decided the market couldn’t handle two baseball movies, especially when four of my Clowns’ teammates were in the Motown movie and Hamman was technical advisor for all the baseball stuff. That was the end of my short-lived dream that SACC might be made into a movie.

(2) The Heward quote about Clowns players was taken from:
Heward, W.L. (2016). Why be a behavior analyst? In R.D. Holsambeck and H.S. Pennypacker (Eds.), Behavioral science: Tales of inspiration, service, and discovery, Vol. II. Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.

(3) The Clowns as a serious team emerged from the “Miami Ethiopean Clowns,” a 1930s traveling baseball novelty act, so in a way the team’s pivot from Negro American League to barnstorming was a return to historical form. However, the Miami-version Clowns were as much vaudeville or minstrel show as competitive team, and by today’s standards they hewed uncomfortably to racist stereotypes. In this respect, there is no similarity between them and Heward’s Clowns. For more on this, see an interesting piece by Brian Carroll.