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The Laughing Season

It's banquet time, and across the land sports heroes are being honored in proceedings that somehow seem almost unbearably hilarious

This is banquet time, the laughing season, the peak of it. Observe, at left, a happy victim. He is Mr. A. L. Kirk-patrick, a member of the Atlanta Quarterback Club. He arrived at the banquet scene in good time for the cocktail party. Then he dined on shrimp cocktail, steak, salad, pecan pie and coffee and, as seen here, is reacting to a talk being delivered by the second-string catcher who became a first-rate baseball broadcaster and raconteur: Joe Garagiola of St. Louis. Joe was saying:

"Or you take people who come up and ask me, 'Why did you quit baseball? You look like you could still be playing today.' Well, fellows, I'll tell you. There are a lot of little things that let you know when it's time to quit. For instance, I was traded four times when they only had eight teams in the league—that told me something. And then, when I went to the Giants, Leo Durocher was the manager. Now this guy could upset a Trappist monastery. I remember I walked into the clubhouse for the first time when Durocher was having a meeting. The Giants have already clinched the pennant and they're going to play Cleveland in the World Series. Well, Durocher sees me walk in, and this is what he says to me. I hope that if there is an Italian present, he won't take offense. But this is what Leo said, word for word. 'Dago,' he said, 'I want you to catch today. I don't want Westrum to get hurt.' "

Joe Garagiola had to wait for Mr. Kirkpatrick and the other Atlanta Quarterbacks to recover. When the last back had been slapped and the last tear had been wiped away, Joe added as an apparently sudden afterthought: "What really hurt me was that Leo didn't even know my name!"

The Quarterbacks roared again, and Joe rushed on:

"Yes, it was the little things that told me it was time to quit. A photographer would come into the clubhouse and say to me, 'Hey, you, hold this while I take a picture of Musial.' Or maybe, before the game, a big rainstorm blows up and we're all huddled there in the dugout. I'm there, wearing a big-league uniform like everybody else, and the clubhouse boy comes up to me and says, 'Joe, run out and get the rosin bag, will you?' I mean, man, it's raining out there. And then, then maybe it clears up and we're all set to run out for practice. Everybody's talking it up. You know, 'Let's get 'em today, gang. Let's see that old pepper out there.' You know the last thing I'd hear when I started out of the dugout? It wasn't, 'Go get 'em, Joe, boy!' It was, 'Hey, Dago, don't use the mask we're going to use in the game.' "

Joe talked on, regaling his audience with tales of Yogi Berra, with whom he grew up in St. Louis: "Yogi is the kind of a guy who'll make a remark you won't pay much attention to at the time. But then it will come back to haunt you. I remember a bunch of us were discussing the way attendance was falling off in Kansas City. Everybody offered a theory, and then Yogi said, 'Well, if people don't come out to the ball park, who's going to stop them?' You know? It sounds almost right, but it will start keeping you awake nights later on. You'll find yourself walking the floor and asking yourself, "What did he say, what did he say?' "

In Atlanta, Joe Garagiola gave the impression that he was making up everything as he went along. But actually, except for a preface of local jokes he always manages to pick up, he was telling the same stories he has been using around the circuit for years. He can go on telling them for several years more, for the wintertime sports banquet—an old American institution—seems to be turning into a national mania. The American male cannot get enough of them. From late October through February he may be found in countless armories, gymnasiums, club auditoriums and the ballrooms of grand hotels, awed by the presence of athletic heroes on the dais, amused beyond reason by the witty remarks of the toastmaster and the principal speakers—oldtime ballplayers like Jimmie Dykes and Lefty Gomez, big-time coaches like Duffy Daugherty and Woody Hayes, newspapermen like Morris Frank of Houston, Warren Brown and John Carmichael of Chicago, football immortals like Harry Stuhldreher of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen.

Stuhldreher, who is an executive of U.S. Steel, is perhaps the busiest speaker of all—27 dates in November, 14 in December, 14 in January, 9 in February and 13 in March. His total for a full year usually runs around 250. Stuhldreher is a master spellbinder, as adept at getting laughs as he is at bringing his audience to the verge of tears when he speaks of sports as an almost holy crusade.

No name is too big for banquet sponsors to go after. A year ago, President Kennedy spoke at one of the most elegant banquets, the National Football Foundation's annual dinner at New York's Waldorf-Astoria. One of his neighbors on the dais was Bob Hope. At the foundation's dinner last month the recipient of the Gold Medal Award was Supreme Court Justice Byron (Whizzer) White, who went after laughs with a few remarks about the Kennedy family's passion for touch football. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was introduced from the floor at this dinner, and the following evening he presented the Heisman Trophy to Quarterback Terry Baker of Oregon State at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York.

Celebrated college football and basketball coaches make themselves available for all kinds of banquets and are especially interested in some of the meat-loaf dinners in high school gymnasiums. The coaches come well equipped with jokes. Sample: "When we got clobbered by Tech last season, my little boy said to me at the dinner table, 'Dad, you ain't much of a coach.' I said to the boy, 'Son, how many times have I told you never to say ain't?' " This brings down the house, and so do certain gimmicks like the one Adolph Rupp of the University of Kentucky favors. After warming up his audience, Rupp will sometimes take off his coat, fling it aside and, as he rolls up his shirtsleeves, cry out: "Any of you fellows who've got appointments better go now because I'm just getting started here!"

After entertaining the diners, the coaches usually find time for a private word with promising athletes who will be entering college next fall.

The whole business is a lot like oldtime vaudeville, when the same act stood up in town after town. As it happens, one of the banquet circuit's headliners is a former vaudevillian. He is Tommy Richardson, the dapper, white-haired, 65-year-old president of the International Baseball League. For years, in his youth, Tommy had an act with his brother Joe and played theaters from coast to coast. Tommy could go through an entire laughing season without repeating himself. His jokes are the purest corn, but he has a million of them. He not only accepts speaking engagements (for a fee), he seeks them. He has business cards, shaped like baseballs, especially made for his highly profitable sideline. The cards bear the legend PUT A "PRO" IN YOUR PROGRAM. Richardson is a master of timing, and his audiences know they can depend upon him for different, if not necessarily new, jokes whenever he comes their way. More often than not, Tommy is likely to skip sporting subjects entirely. One time this season, he found himself on a program with Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame. "Delighted to meet Father Hesburgh here," said Tommy. "Seeing a member of the clergy reminds me of an experience I had at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York a couple of Sundays ago. When the collection plate was passed, I put in a bill. Then the ushers came around for a second collection. I kicked in again. Then they came around a third time. I put in what change I had left. And then, lo and behold, if the ushers didn't regroup and start down the aisles a fourth time. Well, a sweet little old lady sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, 'What do you think they're going to do now? Search us?' "

Tommy Richardson, who has more than 40 speaking engagements on the banquet circuit this season, is always "on." In his home town of Williamsport, Pa. people stop him on the street and plead, "Tell us a quick one, Tommy." He never fails them. One time, when he was in Jacksonville early this season, he found that his hotel was entertaining a convention of morticians, a jolly crowd. Tommy signed the register, looked the situation over and slapped the nearest mortician on the back. "Say," he cried, "you look to me like the last man to let a fellow down. Is it true that you're offering a layaway plan these days? And what's this I hear about you boys running a 1¢ sale? Pay an extra penny and you can bring a friend?" Tommy drew a harmonica from his pocket and executed an off-to-Buffalo dance step to his own accompaniment. If anybody had urged him, he certainly would have sung the big number from his old vaudeville act: You Would Not Think to Look at Me That I Am But a Plumber.

Richardson will be the principal speaker next week at one of the nation's largest banquets, the 15th annual dinner sponsored by the newspaper the Union Leader of Manchester, N.H. This banquet is a remarkable one-man organizational job by Sports Editor Leo E. Cloutier, who usually disposes of well over 2,000 tickets at $10 a head (local charities benefit) and, by paying generous fees, lands big baseball names that other banquet chairmen are unable to interest. Last year, for instance, he snared Casey Stengel, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard and half a dozen other topflight personalities. Stengel could be collecting big fees every night during the winter if he cared to, for there is nobody quite his equal in bringing a crowd to the edge of hysteria without their knowing exactly how they got there.

Casey is not accepting banquet dates this season (Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra are also unavailable), but it would not be surprising if Ol' Case got the itch at the 40th annual dinner of the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association, an affair that pays no fees but is heavy with prestige. Some years back, Stengel refused a seat on the dais but suddenly appeared there and told a story about "Mr. Berra" that was a classic of artful gibberish. The New York baseball writers, in addition to their guest speakers and awards, offer a series of skits and songs featuring "inside" baseball humor. If the drinks keep coming to the tables fast enough, the amateur actors score solidly with an audience that usually numbers 1,600 and is likely to be larger this year, since the writers are moving from the Waldorf-Astoria to the new Americana Hotel in order to get more elbow room.

Sportswriters and radio and television broadcasters are great ones for giving banquets. Nowhere across the country is it necessary for them to pay speaker fees—or even expenses. The major league baseball clubs are glad to transport their heroes to the head tables around the circuit. In fact, many clubs keep players on the payroll most of the winter and send them out in what are known as "caravans" to entertain small-town fans who, it is hoped, will turn up at the ball park as cash customers later on. The Minnesota Twins, for example, had two station-wagon loads of players touring a five-state area right after the World Series, with First Baseman Vic Power crisscrossing their trails in his pink Cadillac. It is not necessary for ballplayers to say much more than, "I'm not much of a talker, but I'm sure glad to be here and I just want to say this club of ours is going to be right up there next year." This will bring on a standing ovation and a rush for autographs.

No corner of the nation escapes the epidemic of banquet fever. The Baseball Writers Diamond Dinner is very big in Chicago, drawing about 1,000 guests, but smaller cities can do almost as well. The Lancaster, Pa. sportswriters and radio-television broadcasters filled a hotel ballroom to capacity last season and are likely to do it again January 21, with Army Coach Paul Dietzel as the principal speaker. Harrisburg, not far away, does very well with an affair that features demonstrations of sporting skills by an assortment of stars. Harrisburg also has a question-and-answer period that is very popular. Last season Sonny Liston was on hand and somebody was bold enough to ask him, "Do you think—with your criminal record—that you deserve a chance at Floyd Patterson's heavyweight title?" Liston pondered a moment and then said, "Well, Floyd Patterson ain't no Phi Beta Kappa."

The sportswriters of Minneapolis and St. Paul have taken over the big banquet scheduled for the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis. They plan to put on skits as the New York writers do and are hoping to draw a bigger crowd than last year's banquet in St. Paul, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. Only 1,500 guests showed up. Some people blamed it on the weather. It was 20° below outside.

The annual dinner of the St. Louis Sports Writers is a thriving institution again. It was not held for years because of a banquet put on during the 1920s that took a long time to forget. The refreshments committee had calculated the liquor consumption at one quart of Prohibition hooch per man. This turned out to be just a little more than enough, because one of the principal guests was a teetotaler—Branch Rickey, then a stripling of 45 or so.

Mr. Rickey at the time was general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals—and he had a lot to learn about banquets. Instead of attempting a funny story and sitting down, he saw the occasion as a chance to improve his relations with the press. When called upon for a few words, Mr. Rickey got up and said, "I know that some of you here have believed that, upon occasion, I have not been completely truthful with you. Let me assure you, my dear, good friends, that I have never intentionally misled any newspaperman." He paused for effect and, in the lull, a sportswriter jumped up and cried out, "Well, now, that is a damn lie right there!" As Mr. Rickey shrank into a corner, the greatest brawl in banquet history began. Fistfighting broke out over a wide range of issues, including the question of whether Rogers Hornsby of the Cardinals was a greater natural hitter than George Sisler of the Browns. Next day the St. Louis writers tore up their association's bylaws and disbanded.

All-out brawling at banquets is a thing of the past, although a friendly punch is thrown here and there and some groups, like the Boxing Writers, can get noisy enough to alarm assistant hotel managers. But by and large the banquet audiences come to the tables in high good humor, laughter-prone, thrilled by the chance to inspect their sporting heroes at close range. At most affairs guests can also take satisfaction in the knowledge that—in addition to enjoying a night out with the boys—they are aiding some worthy charity or a sporting cause like the Olympic Fund. Notable dinners of high purpose include the banquets of the Dapper Dans in Pittsburgh, the Touchdown Club of Columbus, Ohio, the Palo Club in Palo Alto, Calif. and a whole rash of get-togethers in Texas, where $25-a-plate affairs are common.

Morris Frank, the Houston Chronicle columnist, has begun to taper off in his banquet appearances since reaching the age of 60. He now limits himself to about a hundred per year—which means that he turns down at least another hundred. Frank says he has become "banquet-hardened," but thinks there are too many long introductions of "honored guests." Texas banquet sponsors have tried to limit introductions to celebrities seated on the dais, but this has resulted in bigger and bigger head tables and, in some cases, more introductions than ever. Frank still likes banquets enough to decline a fee for many of his engagements.

The Dapper Dan Club of Pittsburgh, which now sponsors an annual banquet that attracts 2,000 or more (2,300 in 1960), grew out of a mythical club created by Sportswriter Al Abrams of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in his daily column. He was in the habit of nominating well-dressed sportsmen around Pittsburgh as Dapper Dans. The Dans began gathering for luncheons and, in 1936, they decided to move up to the banquet league. The first banquet drew 435 guests, the second attracted 600 and the others held since then have been sellouts. Tickets cost $15 and bring the purchasers one of the best dinners on the circuit as well as the chance to meet current heroes—this year Ralph Terry and Tom Tresh, among others. The banquet usually nets about $3,000 for Pittsburgh charities. This year the profits will go to Mercy Hospital and will be earmarked for a children's clinic.

It was at one of this season's charity dinners, a $50-a-plate ticket at New York's Americana Hotel, that television's Ed Sullivan scored a notable first. The dinner was in honor of the "athletes of the decade," and among those on hand were Arnold Palmer, Willie Mays, Warren Spahn, Rocky Marciano, Bob Cousy, Del Miller, Eddie Arcaro and Jimmy Brown. Mr. Sullivan was moved to tell a story. As is well known, he is sometimes a difficult man to follow, but a conscientious notetaker got the impression that Mr. Sullivan spoke as follows:

"I was talking to Eddie Arcaro before the dinner and, well, you all know weight is a big problem with jockeys and so—well, I see Eddie's lovely wife sitting out there and I'm going to ask her to stand up and take a bow, so let's hear it for Mrs. Arcaro. [Applause] Thank you, Mrs. Arcaro and, well, I was talking to Eddie this evening—before—and I said, 'Eddie, keeping your weight down is a big problem with jockeys and I want to ask you, how did you keep your weight down when you were still riding?' 'Well,' Eddie said to me, he said, 'Ed, the way I kept my weight down when I was still riding was just by pushing myself away from the dinner table.' "

Mr. Sullivan stopped and waited. So did the audience, expecting some new twist to an old, old story. There wasn't any twist. There was just dead silence. Then it became clear to everybody that Mr. Sullivan had tried hard for a laugh and failed to get so much as a titter.

During the laughing season, that's not easy. But Mr. Sullivan is an old hand at dealing with just such situations. He ran on Comedian Phil Foster who, in a hilarious monologue about pro football, quickly restored disorder.



A top star of the banquet circuit, Joe Garagiola flings out his arms like an orchestra leader—playing it strictly for laughs.


Tommy Richardson, baseball executive, plays banquet circuit as he once played oldtime vaudeville.


President Kennedy is among the laughers as Bob Hope talks at banquet of the National Football Foundation. In center is Chester J. LaRoche, the president of the foundation.