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Who Exactly Was on First?
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #11 - July 1999
Written by Mike Ross   


I'm asking YOU what's the name of the first baseman...

Baseball has provided American literature with several classics, none more enduring and popular than "Who's on First". This is best known to the public as performed by the comic team of Abbott and Costello. The routine was first heard by a mass audience in the film The Naughty Nineties in 1945. Visitors to the baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York may find the routine shown on video in the public gallery.

Now it has emerged that what was thought to be purely a product of a fecund comic imagination is in fact based on reality. Here is a taste of the fabled jest that has come down to us through the years compliments of the zany comic duo:

Costello: Hey Abbott, tell me the names of the players on our baseball team so I can say hello to them.
Abbott: Sure. Who's on first; What's on second; I Don't Know's on third.
C: Wait a minute.
A: What's the matter?
C: I want to know the names of the players.
A: I'm telling you. Who's on first; What's on Second, I Don't Know's on third.
C: Now wait a minute. What's the name of the first baseman?
A: No. What's the name of the second baseman.
C: I don't know.
A: He's the third baseman.
C: Let's start over.
A: Okay. Who's on first.
C: I'm asking YOU what's the name of the first baseman!

The full roster of the Abbott and Costello squad reads as: Who, What, I Don't Know, Why, Yesterday, Tomorrow, Today, Because, and I Don't Give A Darn. One might contend that these are unlikely names even in late 19th century USA, with its burgeoning immigrant population. That is, unless you spell the names correctly. The legendary fictitious "Who" of the text is, dear readers, none other than one Honus J. Hooehe, born in Rotterdam, Holland, nicknamed "The Dutchman". "Hooehe's on first?" That's right.

An impetuous researcher from the north of England, a Timothy ("call me Timmy") Watt, was researching his family tree and found a baseball player among the close knit Watt clan. Mr Watt journeyed to the United States in search of one Archie Watt, his great grandfather, who emigrated soon after the birth of his first child, unable to take the strain of family life.

As a result, Watt inadvertently discovered the original box score from whence the origins of the Abbott and Costello routine emanated. Yes, the Todays, Whos and Whats that sent fans and regular people alike into fits of mirth were real players with batting averages, wives and children, hobbies, fetishes, drinking problems and comic book addictions. In short: real life fiction turns to real life fact when characters' names exist as something other than icons for an unlikely comic script - a rather elaborate form of professional assassination.

Armed with a Watt family scrapbook, Timmy Watt combed libraries and perused the small town newspaper archives across America, following the smallest clue. Fruitless journeys to Oregon, Texas and Louisiana maybe, but not fruitless when he landed in a town beginning with "P" in a state starting with "I". At last baseball fans can touch base with the likes Honus Hooehe, Tom Morrow and Isaiah Donough and the rest of this real life squad.

Costello: Tell me the names of the players on our team.
Abbott: Sure. Hooehe's on first; Watt's on second; I Donough's on third.
C: Wait a minute.
A: What's the matter?
C: I want to know the names of the players.
A: I'm telling you. Hooehe's on first; Watt's on second; I Donough's on third. [Not to be confused with his brother U Donough.]

So now picture if you will a cub reporter back in 1919 interviewing the manager of the town team. That reporter's inability to comprehend the manager - who was playing it up for the assembled mass - has allowed for a precise albeit innocent rendering by the precious talent of dear Lou Costello; not to deny Bud Abbott his due as an equally believable manager.

Watt's dig was strictly family research and, at first, utterly unconcerned with the crack of bat and baseball, and moreover, curtly if not rudely dismissive of the famed routine. Yet such naive efforts have led to the most significant baseball research discovery since the unearthing of Honus Wagner 's lost plate appearance.

Watt, while relating his tale to Will Chance, tended toward effusive verbosity, often vacuous and strangely reticent, albeit darn-right evasive. Persistence, however, based on unbearable excitement, paid off.

Watt, despite his scant knowledge and little interest in baseball, suddenly became - once he knew he had struck gold - a veritable Mr Baseball. And most painfully, he held firm to a journalistic credo previously foreign to him. "Sorry Will, but I cannot divulge my sources". He refused to name the town from whence came his sources, only that it began with a 'P' in a midwestern state starting with the letter 'I'. He said he would tell me more once his book was published. A serious researcher could come to hate this man.

Chance spent three long years gathering the information now in his possession. Chance spoke of how this Timmy character chipped off bits of his sanity, but satisfied his lifelong urge to understand carving in flint. Watt had spoken guardedly of how the story first spread, starting in 1919 in a tavern where a "beaver-like cub reporter" [Watt's mixed metaphor] was interviewing the manager. Among those watching the proceedings in the tavern in what was described as "the waning afternoon sun", were your archetypal booze hounds: a salesman on a good day, a woman practising the oldest profession, and not least, the actual town drunk himself, a raconteur who, with an obvious theatrical background, which suggests that he spread the story in the colourful telling of it.

As Chance relates, this flotsam and jetsam of local society, creased with suppressed laughter, spread the tale far and wide. It gathered momentum as it crossed state lines, much in the manner that folk tales do. The commercial potential soon became obvious.

What transpires is not fully known. That which is known can be questioned; and that which is questionable somehow makes sense. But, for all of Watt's maddening reticence, he was no mean researcher. Get this: Timmy Watt was apprehended on several occasions for various unlawful incursions into the Mutual Network's basement archives and other secluded locations where he unearthed early radio scripts, learning of such facts as Nat Turley's early inclusion as "Naturally" - subsequently dropped from the version folks have come to know and love.

Here is the lineup in more detail:

Honus Hooehe was indeed a Dutchman. Likewise Frank Archie Watt, the man without whose presence on the roster Timmy Watt would have been rendered purposeless, was also European born and indeed did play second base. Archie Watt made the big leagues as a late season callup with Washington in 1920. Watt is reckoned to be the only second baseman with a career batting average of 1.000 in the majors. His name does not appear in some reference books because he had only one turn at bat in which - legend has it - he doubled, giving him a slugging percentage of 2.000. The highest in major league history for a second baseman.

Isaiah (Ike) Donough, an Irishman and former railroad worker, Donough was the brother of Ulysses Donough. Both were born in county Wicklow, near Dublin, Ireland. The team manager in the original 'folk' version used the initial before the surname, reciting the name as it appeared in the box score. No artistic contrivances here. Simply more confusion for the already besotted Costello. When the name U. Donough came up in early versions of the skit, Costello exclaimed "I know I don't know, Abbott!" To which Abbott would have replied "What?" To which Costello, acquiescing to the inevitable, resignedly prompted "Yeah, I know. He's on second."

Herman (Donkey) Farr-Darne at shortstop was a tragic figure. A heavy drinker, the doomed Donkey was targeted for the major leagues, but died before realising his destiny ("unless," as Watt had boorishly prompted, "death was his destiny"). Donkey, as the story goes, downed a fifth of Kill-Devil on a bet and fell into the Ohio River while attempting to cross a trestle railroad bridge on foot.

The radio writers certainly indulged themselves, creating the famous "I Don't Give A Darn" from Farr-Darne. In the early versions Nat Turley was the shortstop. Watt unearthed records relating to Herman Donald Farr-Darne, whose parents were born in Yorkshire, England. Watt was so mean with his sources, he would only say "A place beginning with a W". There Joseph Farr met and married the winsome Marie Darne. They assumed for the good of their heirs, the double-barrelled Farr-Darne, as was, and is, quite the common practice in the Britain of today, especially among those of higher station, thus preserving collateral wealth.

This wealth was far greater then would ever be achieved by the fleet-footed Donkey. The poor chap was disinherited very early in his career for disgracing the names of Darne and Farr with his admittedly quaint monicker. Moose Skowron, former Yankee slugging first sacker, in later years acknowledged Farr-Darne's contribution. "Donkey was a great influence on me; he had the guts to support the animal kingdom which too few players do nowadays. I did the same because of him. He would have made it to the major leagues, I can tell you that much." Rabbit Maranville was also highly respectful of Donkey and said before his death: "Donkey had plenty of guts. And he could turn the double play too".

"Why" was the show business center fielder, who was based on the real Wee Willie (Wild Bill) Wye, who changed his name from Wyrostek. He was uncle to Barney Wyrostek who played 11 seasons in the National League.

Blitz "Baby Doll" Kauz became "Because" and was brother of Kiki Kauz who never made the A&C script. The Kauz brothers were from a town in Bavaria beginning with a 'V'.

Right field was the Swede, Jess Turdae, whose name was translated to the phonetically practical "Yesterday". Jess not surprisingly insisted on the original pronunciation, "out of respect for Papa" was his repeated explanation, hence the "J" spoken as "Y". The name Turdae (Sometimes "Turrhdae" or "Turrhdai") can still be found in Minnesota and Aroostok County phone books. Fairly common around Duluth, Minnesota and Caribou, Maine.

Tom Morrow, or "Tomorrow", the ace pitcher on the squad (still kept secret by our Timmy!), was in 1895 christened Custer Udo Thomas Morrow. He was known for a highly sophisticated sense of the absurd. "And he enjoyed a good joke as much as the next man. Often he signed himself C.U. Tom Morrow. He was a funny fella," said Watt who was obviously letting on less than he knew and was highly pretentious as to what he thought he knew: "Morrow threw a wicked curve taught to him by Candy Cummings when he was six years old." Watt spoke parrot-like in his recitation, ignorant of the true exploits of the great Cummings. "Oh how opposing hitters sucked for that sweet looking sugar-coated candied pitch tossed to them by the brilliant Candyman."

"Today" was none other than Leon Touhy ("Two") Day, a superstitious character. He came to the ball park suggesting to all within earshot, "Let's play two," indicating and immortalising his love for the game and his willingness to play double-headers, virtually heroic for a backstop in the days of wool flannel. The legend of Day's love of the game resulted in the nickname "Two". A former teammate had - according to Watt - said: "You know how superstitious ballplayers can be. Well, one time ol' 'Two', he come out to the park and darn if he didn't forgot to say it, you know, 'Let's play two'. And would you believe it! He struck out four times, not even a loud foul ball; dropped an easy tag at the plate, then broke his thumb on a passed ball. Two Day never again forgot his P's and two's, I can tell you that."

As with the Kauz family, (Ulysses) U Donough, brother of Ike Donough, had to be satisfied with a utility role. Nathan (Nat) Turley, scratched totally from immortality, was born in Troy, Illinois, and was great uncle of former big league pitching star Bob Turley, a 20-game winner for the Yankees.

So when Costello asks "Have you got a pitcher on this team? Abbott's reply should read on paper "Tom Morrow" and Costello says "You don't want to tell me now?" "I said I'd tell you: Tom Morrow." "What's wrong with today?" "Nothing; he ['Two' Day] is a pretty good catcher." "Who's the catcher?" "No. Hooehe's the first baseman." "All right, what's the first baseman's name?" "No, Watt's the second baseman's name." So, a far fetched joke this is not. We fans have forever been in the dark and down a garden path. Costello's contention that "players have such strange names these days" is insupportable. The names are not that strange. Certainly not as examples of first generation American immigrants. Not bad for what is allegedly a semi-pro outfit.

Abbott: Look, it's very simple...
Costello: I know it's simple. You got a pitcher Tomorrow. He throws the ball to Today. Today throws the ball to Who, he throws the ball to What. What throws the ball to I-Don't-Know, he's on third... and what's more, I Don't Give A Darn!
A: What's that?
C: I said I Don't Give A Darn.
A: Oh, he's our shortstop.

So where do we go from here to find out the rest of the facts? Batting averages, on base percentages, earned run averages, and outfield assists; all these matters are of compelling interest. I, for my curiosity, am left with the last clue from Watt before he jumped off the Talahatchee Bridge (made famous in song years earlier by Bobbie Gentry) taking with him the last word; this coming after Chance grabbed him by the scruff of his maroon silk foulard scarfed neck and wrestled him to the ground. He agreed to eliminate Iowa and Indiana, for which he was greatly thanked. Chance spoke how he had been to Iowa, and managed to pass through Indiana unscathed. I personally am heading for Pocatello, Idaho next month, my first stop in my quest for verification. I got a good feeling about Pocatello.

Last Updated on Monday, 06 April 2009 20:01