The whole thing falls apart without Who.
Who keeps the infield together. Who makes the whole thing work. Think about this: What could What do without him? I don’t know that I Don’t Know could even stand up straight otherwise. Why do you think Why made the All-Star team?
Who wrote “Who’s On First?” Yes. Lots of people have taken credit for it. But that’s because, like baseball, it seems that nobody actually invented it. The thing evolved, slowly, unevenly, a thousand mothers and fathers. The core joke — having someone named “Who” at the center of it — goes back to the earliest days of Vaudeville, when wordplay jokes were at the heart of entertainment. I’m not sure if I mentioned the Harry Houdini book I’m working on, but Houdini was perhaps Vaudeville’s biggest star, and he fashioned himself a comic. His notes and diary entries are filled with wordplay jokes that he thought would kill on stage.*
But that was comedy in the late 19th and early 20th century. Tomato-Tomahto. Hawaii-Havaii. One of the most famous of the wordplay routines was one about a guy who nutted at a nut-and-bolt factory.
What do you do?
And they pay you for that?
Sure. You think I’m gonna do nuttin’ for nothin’?
As people broke down words to find a little bit of absurdity, it was inevitable for there to be a character named Who. The first version of the Who joke might be lost to history; the first that has been tracked goes back to the 1900s and a scene involving a bakery. The boss is named Who.
Guy 1: Hey, I’d like to work there with you. Who’s the boss?
Guy 2: Yes.
Guy 1: Yes, that’s what I’m asking. Who’s the boss?
Guy 2: Yes.
Guy 1: Who is the guy you work for?
Guy 1: Yes.
The idea of someone being named Who is one of the world’s few perfectly formed jokes.*
*Six perfectly formed jokes:
1. From Casablanca:
Rick: “This gun is pointed right at your heart.”
Louis: “That is my least vulnerable spot.”
2. Classic old joke.
A horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, “Why the long face?”
3. From Dr. Strangelove:
President: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room!”
4. Mel Brooks on the difference between tragedy and comedy:
“Tragedy is I cut my finger. I’m bleeding, it hurt, it’s a tragedy. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die. What do I care?”
5. George Carlin on drivers:
“Anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.”
6. From Spinal Tap:
Marty: “Why don’t you just make 10 louder and make 10 the top number and make that a little louder?”
Nigel: “These go to 11.”
The challenge for the perfect little Who joke was to expand it into a routine — let’s be honest, you can only do the “Who is your boss?” gag so many times before it loses steam. So where do you go from Who? Right: You go to “What.”
For instance: What is the name of your boss?
To which the other responds, “No, What is …”
What is what? In the bakery scene, What was the street the bakery was on. In the nut and bolt factory gag, What was a shipping clerk. That bit, which Lou Costello said was influential, included a third person. One of the characters, trying to nail down the boss’ name, says, “Every morning, don’t you say, ‘Good morning Mr. So and So?” This leads us to find out Mr. So and So is the janitor.
There were hundreds of attempts to turn Who into a winning routine. Best anyone can tell, dozens and dozens of different acts used some version of it.
But best anyone can tell, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were the ones who thought about bringing it to baseball. And making Who a first baseman was the magic.
* * *
The baseball connection might have been Costello’s idea. Lou was an obsessive sports fan. He was born Lou Cristillo in Patterson, N.J., and like the famed Hurricane Carter, he became a boxer (he fought for real at first; years later, he famously had a mock-fight with middleweight champion of the world Bobo Olson on television). He was also a superb basketball player (who supposedly could make 50 straight free throws at any time), a prominent race horse owner and such a big baseball fan that he tried to get a major league team to Los Angeles even before the Dodgers moved there.
Costello may have performed some raw version of “Who’s on First?” before he even got together with Bud Abbott. The two worked together for the first time in 1936, after Costello’s straight-man was sick, and less than two years later, they performed on Kate Smith’s national radio show. They did an early version of “Who’s on First?” It killed from the start (Irving Gordon, a songwriter who wrote Unforgettable for Nat King Cole, got the writing credit), and it immediately landed them a major movie role.
In that 1940 movie, One Night in the Tropics, they did a quick “Who’s on First?” routine. It killed, too, getting them even bigger movie parts. They would do “Who’s on First?” in numerous other movies, including the big version that they did in the movie The Naughty Nineties — that’s the one that the Baseball Hall of Fame shows on a loop.
By now you know the defensive alignment of the team:
SS: I Don’t Care (or I Don’t Give A Darn)
3B: I Don’t Know
There is no right fielder in the skit. Frank Deford, in his lovely 1978 tribute to baseball called Spring Has Sprung, theorized that the right fielder, surely, is God.
When you see how the team lines up, you can understand the brilliance of bringing the joke to baseball. No other sport — perhaps nothing at all in American life — has such individualized positions. Basketball has two guards and two forwards. Football has multiple linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties, tackles, guards, receivers. Hockey has multiple wings and defensemen. Soccer has midfielders and forwards and strikers and sweepers.
But baseball has nine players, each with a position. Because of the rhythms of baseball, those players stay in their easily recognizable positions for the entire game (though this has changed somewhat with shifting). In other words, if you want to find the center fielder, you always know where he or she is standing. Same with the catcher, the first baseman, etc.
That’s a big reason why the routine works. When you look at the early versions of the bit, they tried to do it in a bakery, in a factory, etc. But there are severe limitations with those. How many bakery roles can you name? If you have Who as the boss, what do you do with What? What is the cakemaker? I don’t know? Why? Because?
Baseball is really the only thing that allows you to keep all the names straight.
As you probably know, Abbott and Costello constantly tinkered with the routine. Writers added stuff all the time. For a while, they would introduce the bit by saying that baseball players have funny names, usually invoking Dizzy and Daffy Dean (Costello started referring to their French cousin, Goofe’). They added a wonderful bit about Who coming down to the ballpark to pick up his check.
Costello: When you pay off the first baseman every month, who gets the money?
Abbott: That’s it.
Costello: Who gets the money …
Abbott: Every dollar of it. [Costello loses his mind.] What’s wrong with that? He’s earned it.
Costello: Who earned it?
Abbott: Yes. Sometimes his wife comes down and collects it.
Costello: Who’s wife?
They also added a section they called Naturally, which sounds a little bit dated because nobody says “Naturally” anymore, but it’s still funny,.
Costello: I throw the ball to first.
Abbott: That’s all you have to do.
Costello: And Who’s got it.
Costello: So I pick up the ball and throw it to Naturally.
Abbott: No, you do not, you throw the ball to Who.
Costello: That’s what I said.
Abbott: You’re not saying it.
Costello: I throw the ball to Naturally.
Abbott: You throw it to Who.
Abbott: That’s it.
Costello: That’s what I said!
* * *
Here are two of my all-time favorite radio calls, the first is Bill King’s call from the Holy Roller play — this was when Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler fumbled the ball forward into the end zone and the Raiders beat the Chargers in an insane way:
“The ball, flipped forward … is loose! A wild scramble, two seconds on the clock, Casper grabbing the ball. It is ruled a fumble Casper has recovered in the end zone! The Oakland Raiders have scored on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play. [John] Madden is on the field. He wants to know if it’s real. They said, ‘Yes, get your big butt out of here!’ He does! … There’s nothing real in the world anymore!”
The second is Vin Scully’s call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game:
“Two and two to Harvey Kuenn. One strike away. Sandy into his windup, here’s the pitch. … swung on and missed! A perfect game! … [The sound of cheering for 38 seconds] … On the scoreboard in right field it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. And a crowd of 29,139 just sitting in to see the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit, no-run games. He has done it four straight years, and now he caps it: On his fourth no-hitter he made it a perfect game. And Sandy Koufax, whose name will always remind you of strikeouts, did it with a flurry. He struck out the last six consecutive batters. So when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that “K” stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X.”
They are both wonderful … but for very different reasons. King was an erudite man who founded a ballet company and learned Russian to study Russian history properly, but football requires directness. It’s a sport of violence, a sport of heavy collisions — “Madden is on the field. He wants to know if it’s real. They said, ‘Yes, get your big butt out of here!’ He does!” That’s football at its very height — funny, combative, a little bit out of control.
And Scully’s call is poetry. Baseball is a game of poetry. See what Scully does with the letter “K,” which stands for strikeout, because more than a century ago, Henry Chadwick, “the Father of Baseball,” thought that it was the most prominent letter in the word “strike.” (He decided to make “S” stand for sacrifice).
Words are sacred in baseball. We hold on to them for dear life. We still say that players belong to “clubs” and dress in “clubhouses” — we say it so automatically that we hardly think about how ridiculous it is. These aren’t the Little Rascals. We still call the place they play a “park.” We call the person on the mound a “pitcher,” though that, too, is from another time, when the rules insisted that you pitch the baseball underhand, softly, like a horseshoe. Pinch-hitters are there to hit when you’re in a pinch. When you give yourself up to move a runner along, you have sacrificed. When you try to take a base while the pitcher throws, you’re attempting to steal. Sometimes, you’re caught stealing. A pitcher doesn’t come in to merely replace someone. The pitcher is there to provide relief.
Baseball has poetry all around it.
This, I think, is why Who’s On First? endures, why it’s timeless, why my own daughters, who have only a passing interest in baseball, find it hilarious still.
And Who is the key. Eventually, Costello figures out all the other names. He learns after only a couple of rounds that “I Don’t Know” is on third. He has a little bit of trouble getting that Why is in left (“I just thought I’d ask”), but soon realizes that Because is in center, and that clarifies things. He is baffled only briefly by the idea that Tomorrow is pitching and Today is catching (“You’ve got a couple of days on the team!”). He even seems to understand at some point that What is on second.
But he never quite gets Who. That’s the mystery of baseball right there. Lou Costello will never fully understand that Who is on first, that the guy’s name is Who, that Who’s wife picks up his checks sometimes, that if he throws the ball to first base, Who will catch it. It’s the unsolvable puzzle. And, though the joke must end at some point, I must admit that as much as I love “Who’s on First?,” I’ve never quite loved the punchline.
Costello: Another guy gets up and hits a long fly ball to Because. Why? I don’t know! He’s on third, and I don’t care.
Abbott: What’s that?
Costello: I don’t care.
Abbott: Oh, he’s our shortstop.
I don’t love the punchline because in the end, the joy of baseball is that, despite it all, we do care. Todays become tomorrows, we wonder why, and are left with because, we don’t always know what is happening. But who’s on first? Yes. Who is definitely on first.