'Who's on First': Iconic comedy routine celebrates 60 years in Cooperstown

On October 8, 1956, at New York’s Yankee Stadium, a journeyman pitcher named Don Larsen tossed the only perfect game in World Series history.


 

One day earlier, exactly 60 years ago today, a gem of another kind made its way into baseball’s Hall of Fame. A gold record of what Time magazine selected in 1999 as the greatest comedy routine of the 20th century was added to the bronze plaques at the Cooperstown, N.Y., museum.

“Who’s on First,” the iconic baseball skit made famous by one of the great comedy teams of the century, Abbott and Costello, was finally where it belonged. Lou Costello was the comedian to Bud Abbott’s straight man, and the duo made the routine, which involved impeccable timing, master straight work by Abbott and Costello’s excitability that turned to utter frustration, into a slice of Americana.

That Oct. 7 night, Abbott and Costello appeared on the Steve Allen Variety Show on NBC for a “Salute to Baseball,” along with Mickey Mantle, the Triple Crown winner that year, and Babe Ruth’s widow, Clare Ruth. The comedy duo, which would break up soon afterwards, performed their classic skit, which began with “Who’s on first base, What’s on second and I Don’t Know on third,” and went on for about eight minutes, with Costello becoming more and more agitated as Abbott, the manager of the mythical St. Louis Wolves, tries to explain the players’ names to Costello.

It was true comedic genius that was first performed in 1938 on radio and made Abbott and Costello perhaps the most famous comedy duo on the planet.

Costello passed away at age 52 in 1959, when Chris Costello, one of his three daughters, was only 11.

In 1981, Chris Costello published a book about her father’s life entitled Lou’s on First: The Tragic Life of Hollywood’s Greatest Clown. Her original reason for writing the book was to correct what she said were inaccuracies about her father from a 1977 book by Bob Thomas and Eddie Sherman, the duo’s manager, titled Bud and Lou.

Costello had only childhood memories of her father, mostly involving family time around the holidays, which she treasures. “He would take me and my cousins to see Santa Claus, which was always a thrill,” Costello said during a recent phone interview. “And I think he got a bigger kick out of it than we did. Just the family functions, just being with him is what I remember most.”

Where she became really familiar with her parents and the Abbotts was when she started researching for her book.

“I took four years out of my life to basically correct a story from another project,” Costello told USA TODAY Sports in a recent interview. “It gave me a real opportunity to get to know my parents as an adult. I interviewed everybody I could get my hands on (more than 200 people). Thank God I was doing these interviews in the ‘70s when so many of these people were still around. The directors, the producers, the burlesque people, family. I always credit them with really writing the book.”

Lou’s on First, written by Chris Costello and Raymond Strait, was in the bookstores for more than 20 years, through three printings and two different publishers. “And thank God there were no bad reviews,” she said.

This year, due to popular demand, Lou’s on First came out on E-Books ($3.99) and is available to be downloaded from Amazon and other booksellers, including Barnes and Noble. “The success of the E-book is just amazing," Chris Costello said.

The “tragic” part of Lou Costello’s life came mostly through the death of his only son, Lou Jr., who was one year old when he drowned in the family swimming pool.

“Certainly that was the biggest tragedy that could have happened to my parents. I think reality really slapped him in the face,” Chris said. “This man-child who always looked at life like it was one big birthday party where everyone should be having fun, it just shook him to the roots of his soul.

“Maxine Andrews of the Andrew Sisters -- we became very dear friends following my interviewing her --  said to me, ‘Following your brother’s death, I noticed a change in your dad, that there was such a deep sorrow and that he seemed to be within himself.’

“It’s unfathomable how you survive something like that. Where I admire his courage was because he could have completely gone in such an opposite, negative direction. But he chose not to because he wanted to help others. ... He needed to do something to honor his son.”

Lou Costello raised money and built a youth center for underprivileged kids in East Los Angeles, which is still going strong today, called the “Lou Costello Jr. Youth Foundation.’’ He had an Olympic-sized swimming pool built.

“No child would be turned away for swimming lessons, and that was very important to him,” Chris said of her dad. “He wanted a place where kids of all colors and all ages could find a place where they could feel safe, they would learn things and it would get them off the streets.

“He loved kids. You put a kid in front of him and he just lit up. He wanted all kids to have an equal chance. Money to him was important insofar as creating a good home environment for his family. But money was also to help those who needed it the most.”

Though he stood only 5-feet-5, Lou Costello was an excellent athlete. As a teenager, he boxed under the name of Lou King until his father found out and put a stop to it. He excelled most at basketball.

“A lot of the people who played basketball with him said he played like a Harlem Globetrotter,” Chris said. “He was not a tall man but he would do these unbelievable maneuvers with the ball, and he was part of a team called the Armory Five. He was the state free throw champion two years in a row, I believe. I think it was 1924-25, or something like that.”

And, of course, he loved baseball. One of the New Jersey native’s best friends was Joe DiMaggio. It’s been said that the bat Abbott and Costello used for their “Who’s on First” skit was one used by DiMaggio during his record 56-game hitting streak in 1941.

“They were tight buddies,” Chris said of Costello and DiMaggio. “I don’t know whatever happened to that bat. I’ve asked that question so many times and I have no idea.”

Asked later why he gave the valuable bat to Costello, the “Yankee Clipper” said, “because he made me laugh.”

As he did for millions of Americans, and people around the world, through even the toughest of times. And still does. The recording of “Who’s on First” plays constantly at the Hall of Fame. Chris Costello said the duo never did the same routine twice.

“Dad was always doing a little bit of ad-libbing, maybe changing a word here or there, they never wanted a routine to get stale,” she said. “They wanted to keep it pumped up with that energy.”

She recalled hearing from an aunt about what might have been their last appearance at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, with the family in the audience.

“They started doing the routine. She said the audience was falling apart laughing but something had happened,” Chris said. “Dad had done an ad lib that took him so far away from where the routine was, Bud was having a real tough time getting him back to where he had left.

“Now, the routine was only about eight minutes. But they went a record 12 minutes. My aunt said we were all sitting there holding our breath. We knew what was going on. The audience did not. That’s how great they were. They had no idea they had gotten so lost that Bud was having a tough time as a straight man getting them back. That credits Bud Abbott so much. He was the consummate straight man. The straight man does all the work. Without Abbott, you wouldn’t have Costello. And vice versa.”

What makes "Who's on First" such a national treasure, Chris Costello believes, is that “it appeals to any baseball fan, and even non-baseball fans because of the play on words. They took something and they owned it.

“Bud and Lou took years to perfect the timing, and timing is so essential to the routine. If you just read the words, it's not funny. But it’s the inflections, the pauses, the beat" that made it the great piece of comedy it was, and is.


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