Who’s On First Joined the Hall 60 years ago

Written by: Bill Francis

It was 60 years ago when a gold record joined the bronze plaques.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were arguably the most famous comedy team of the 1940s, a duo that found fame in burlesque, vaudeville, radio, movies and television, but are most remembered today for their famous “Who’s on First?” routine.

The baseball-themed skit – in which Abbott, the straight man, portrays a manager and Costello serves as the excitable player – involves a confounding discussion, with rhythmic wordplay and precision timing, on the players’ names on a ballclub, with, among others, “Who” playing first base, “What” at second, and “I Don’t Know” on third.

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With Abbott and Costello’s time as an act nearing its end, it was announced by a spokesman for the comedians on May 29, 1956, that a gold recording of the pair’s “Who’s on First?” routine would be placed on permanent display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. This is many times better than getting an Oscar,” Costello said at the time of the announcement. “You can win an Oscar and a couple of years later it’s, ‘Goodbye Sam.’”

Two years after Abbott and Costello teamed up in 1936, they first performed “Who’s on First?” for a nationwide radio audience on the “Kate Smith Hour.” The acclaimed performance almost didn’t happen, though, because the show’s producer, Ted Collins, wasn’t a fan.

“We used the routine for our audition with Ted. He likes us but said, ‘That baseball routine stinks. Never use it on our show,’” Costello said.
Fortunately, despite some initial reluctance, they finally managed to get “Who’s on First?” on the air in 1938. Almost two decades later, Abbott and Costello were appearing on a newer medium to make a special presentation.

In the midst of the World Series, Abbott and Costello appeared on “The Steve Allen Show” on Oct. 7, 1956. The weekly NBC-TV variety hour aired live on Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET. This particular episode was a “Salute to Baseball” with special guests Mickey Mantle and Claire Ruth, Babe Ruth’s widow, as well as musician Lionel Hampton, singer Peggy King, and puppet act Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

After interviews with Mrs. Ruth, who said she “surely” hopes that Mantle will break the Bambino’s single-season homer record of 60, and Mantle, who that afternoon hit a tremendous sixth-inning home run of Brooklyn’s Ed Roebuck in Game 4 of the Fall Classic to lead New York to a 6-2 win at Yankee Stadium, it was time for Allen to introduce the famed comedy duo to the audience.

“And there are two men who have made a very unique contribution to the game in a lighter vein. They are Bud Abbott and Lou Costello,” Allen said. “One of the great classics of comedy is a routine that is practically synonymous with their name – it’s called ‘Who’s on First?’”

Wearing their appropriate baseball outfits, the 58-year-old Abbott and the 50-year-old Costello bounded on stage. They were soon joined by Hall of Fame Director Sid Keener and Hall of Fame Vice President Paul S. Kerr.

"We just finished a picture about eight weeks ago, ‘Dance with Me, Henry,’ for United Artists,” said Costello, clutching a mounted gold record of “Who’s on First?” “And now we’re here in New York, being with you and all the wonderful people you have here, we have a wonderful plaque that’s going to be presented to the Baseball Hall of Fame."

“That’s a solid gold record that actually plays and will go to the Cooperstown Hall of Fame.” Abbott added, “And we’re very, very proud and happy that you’ve accepted this.” Speaking for the Hall of Fame, Kerr said, “Lou and Bud, I’m very happy to accept this on behalf of the millions who have seen and heard this. And I’m especially glad to have it so that the future generations may enjoy this as much as we have.”

After much applause, Allen introduced what some claim to be the final performance by the duo of their comedy classic, “Who’s on First?” Newspaper reports at the time claimed Abbott and Costello were awarded “official membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame” during their appearance on “The Steve Allen Show,” adding that few non-players had been so honored, but the pair had in fact not been elected to the Cooperstown institution.

The next day, the Yankees’ Don Larsen tossed the only perfect game in World Series history. The losing pitcher that afternoon, Sal Maglie, had appeared on “The Steve Allen Show” the previous night on a “Man on the Street” segment in which people were asked who will win the World Series.

The famous comedy team of Abbott and Costello would break up less than a year later, the official word coming on July 15, 1957. “Dance with Me, Henry,” the last of their 36 films together, would be released in December 1956.

“People like to laugh,” Abbott once said. “We try to take care of this, which seems to be their favorite pastime.”

Any great comedy is how far can you take this silly idea. I mean the initial idea is just a first baseman named ‘Who.’ And then you get the ‘What,’ then the ‘I Don’t Know,’ and it keeps going. You think it’s out of gas, and it’s not. That’s what makes this great."

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, during a 2012 MLB Network special on "Who's on First?"

“We’re mighty proud of making people laugh,” Costello added. “That’s our main objective. We don’t drag in any lessons in government or something. We approve of all that, of course, but we’re out for entertainment and not instruction.”

Today, the mounted gold record of “Who’s on First?” is currently located on the Hall of Fame Library’s second floor.

Decades after it debut, “Who’s on First?” is still being discovered by new generations of fans. Though the exact origins of the “Who’s On First?” routine are hard to know for sure, it most likely derived from similar long ago skits on the vaudeville stage.

The Library of Congress, in January 2003, in an effort to preserve American sound recordings, selected 50 recordings to start a national registry. Included with the description of the 1937 Hindenburg crash, Bing Crosby’s 1942 recording of “White Christmas,” and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech,” was the first radio broadcast version of “Who’s on First,” from a March 1938 “Kate Smith Hour” episode.

In 2005, the American Film Institute released its list of 100 greatest movies quotes of all time. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” from “Gone with the Wind” topped the list while “Who’s on First?” from “The Naughty Nineties” ranked 91st.

“Any great comedy is how far can you take this silly idea,” comedian Jerry Seinfeld said in a 2012 MLB Network special on “Who’s on First?” “I mean the initial idea is just a first baseman named ‘Who.’ And then you get the ‘What,’ then the ‘I Don’t Know,’ and it keeps going. You think it’s out of gas, and it’s not. That’s what makes this great.”

Abbott and Costello performing the routine from the 1945 movie “The Naughty Nineties,” with closed captioning, can be viewed on the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s second floor – and remains one of the Museum’s most popular stops for fans.

“It’s a way of presenting it to the greatest number of visitors,” said former Hall of Fame Vice President Bill Guilfoile more than 20 years ago. “People laugh just as hard today. The film represents the routine better than anything else we could do in our Museum.”

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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