Classic Clown

Former big league pitcher Jon Warden, who returns to the Hall of Fame Classic for the fourth straight year, is a master at entertaining fans

June 15, 2012
Jon Warden is set to entertain again at this year's Hall of Fame Classic game. (Milo Stewart, Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Based on his major league career, Jon Warden probably isn’t the most recognizable player on the Hall of Fame Classic roster. Not this year, or any of his three previous Father’s Day Weekend trips to Cooperstown.

But from his first step onto Doubleday Field, Warden has been a fan favorite.

On Saturday, Warden will join Hall of Famers Bert Blyleven, Carlton Fisk, Eddie Murray, Phil Niekro, Tony Peréz, Ozzie Smith and more than 20 other retired legends from the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association for the fourth annual Hall of Fame Classic, presented by Ford Motor Company. The legends game brings families together with the spirit of the game during Father’s Day Weekend to fulfill one of the Hall of Fame’s missions: Connecting generations.

During his big league career, Warden went 4-1 with a 3.62 ERA in 28 games, finishing 11 while picking up three saves. In 37.3 innings, he struck out 25, giving up 30 hits, including five homers – all as a 21-year-old rookie with the Detroit Tigers in 1968. He was the AL’s first pitcher to three wins in 1968 and was a promising talent on the eventual World Champion Tigers.

Following the 1968 season, he was taken as the 12th overall pick in the expansion draft by Kansas City, and the Royals sent him to Omaha under the tutelage of O-Royals manager Jack McKeon. But he’d never make it to the bigs again, as injuries and control problems derailed his career. In total, he played six years of professional ball, accumulating a 39-40 record during five official minor league seasons from 1966 to 1971.

“I like to tell people I’m in the Hall of Fame… Yep, ’68 team picture,” said the 65-year-old, who lives in Ohio.

After hanging up his spikes, Warden went back to school and graduated from the Ohio State University, taught school and currently works in sales and fundraising. But he might have found his true calling by donning a figurative pair of clown spikes as a new kind of baseball comedian, following somewhat in the footsteps of the famed Clown Prince of Baseball, Max Patkin.

Warden, who’s a longtime MLBPAA vet, helps the organization put on 20-25 events a year ranging from golf outings to fantasy camps, old-timers games and skills clinics. Despite his trade as a pitcher during his pro career, Warden has been listed on the roster as a DH for the first three Classics – though that’s not designated hitter, it’s designated humorist.

“I just get a big kick out of seeing people have fun and making them laugh,” Warden said. “You get them out there laughing and everything and they can put all their worries on the back burner and have a good time.”

Warden has been a decent hitter in his Classic career so far, going 2-for-7 with a walk – a .286 average. His teams are also 2-1, losing as a member of Team Collins in the inaugural game despite getting a hit, before going hitless in a winning effort on Team Killebrew in 2010 and then collecting his second hit and the walk last year on the victorious Knucksies.

But for Warden, the show isn’t about his success at the plate (or on the mound, though he’s yet to take it). It’s about making the fans laugh and have a good time.

“They enjoy my squirt guns and I try to make sure I don’t squirt a nice baseball that somebody’s got for autographs or squirt a baby to make them cry, but I’ll squirt the umpire. I’ve got three or four different wigs and silly string,” he said. “I’ll go down and give signals, wiggle the hips or lay down on the third base bag and use it as a pillow. I squirt water out of my mouth – people have asked if its chalk – I can hold almost a full bottle of water in my mouth.

“I do a lot of things that Max Patkin used to do. When I was in Omaha, Jack McKeon was the coach 1969. I’d sometimes coach first and do my thing, but once Patkin came and did his routine. So I went and coached third, doing the same thing. He looked at me and said: “What are you doing?” Warden said. “After that, we kind became buddies.”

Warden’s bat routine in which he grabs a handful of bats and swings them around before throwing all but one to the side and then stepping up to the plate only to call his shot made it onto the 2010 Hall of Classic ticket. After his bat routine, he usually hits a slow roller and tries to call timeout.

Every year, Warden’s got more antics. He said last year, he even got the grounds crew at Doubleday to turn on the sprinklers while he was coaching third base.

As in year’s past, Warden will also help with one of the more important aspects of Classic Weekend, the Legends for Youth Skills Clinic. The free Friday event gives himself and other players a chance to give back – an essential function of working with MLBPAA.

“The talent level doesn’t matter, just come out and try. Having everybody participate is the key,” Warden said. “I like to see the kids that aren’t necessarily on a high level because they are out there trying. And they’ll remember that that they were out there with big leaguers and that’s why we give the autographs.”

At the heart of the weekend and the main reason Warden, who’s been to Cooperstown numerous times since his first trip to the 1968 Hall of Fame Game with the Tigers, keeps coming back: The atmosphere and the fans.

“They just have a passion for the game and it’ll be packed and a good time,” he said. “I’m looking forward to meeting some new guys, but Cooperstown, it’s like no other, it’s like you are in paradise.”

Trevor Hayes is the editorial production manager at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum