Doubleday Pleasure: Savannah Bananas a hit in Cooperstown

Written by: Bill Francis

Baseball is meant to be fun – and Hall of Famer Bill Veeck certainly would have been entertained on Saturday, just like the capacity crowd at Doubleday Field was for the final game of the Savannah Bananas’ 2023 World Tour.

Veeck, the one-time owner of the Indians, Browns and White Sox, made a career out of giving fans a show at his team’s games en route to his Hall of Fame election in 1991. The Bananas and their rivals, the Party Animals, showed Veeck’s vision is alive and well with music, dancing and laughter on a sun-splashed late summer day in Cooperstown.

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On the scoreboard, the Party Animals prevailed to take the season series, which began in February and crisscrossed the country with regular stops back in Savannah, Ga., 39-38.

The game, with all 6,339 seats full and dotted with yellow jerseys and t-shirts, was a full two hours of action. Whether it was pregame festivities or crowd singalongs or dancing on the field, fans were exposed to Banana Ball at its finest. Throughout the afternoon, between innings and during at-bats, those in attendance enjoyed team owner, Jesse Cole, in his signature yellow tuxedo and top hat; a player in stilts, a dancing umpire, a dad who had a pie in the face after his baby crawled to his mother instead of him, leapfrogging teammates after a hit by pitch, a pitcher wearing a cowboy hat on the mound, a kissing contest, a pie relay race and plenty of pushups, to name a few.

“It’s gonna take a couple of weeks to kind of set in on and reflect on everything we did,” said Banana first baseman Dan Oberst, who homered in the seventh inning, after the game. “I’m trying to hold it back. I haven’t let my emotions go yet, but 87 games across 33 cities and I think 500,000 fans and we just brought a lot of joy to and smiles. I think everyone here saw the level of competitiveness that we play with and doing that well having a lot of fun, loving on each other and loving on other people. It’s stuff that I’ll never take for granted. One of my biggest blessings is to be here every day.”

Just like Veeck, the Bananas have their own place in Cooperstown. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum debuted an exhibit display dedicated to the Bananas on Friday, Sept. 15.

DJ “The Invader” – he doesn’t reveal his actual name and wears a spaceman’s helmet so nobody knows what he looks like – played in Cooperstown as a 12-year-old at one of the area’s youth tournaments before taking the mound for the Bananas in this game.

“It was such a surreal moment for me,” he said. “And obviously the Bananas having an exhibit in the Hall of Fame. Growing up as a kid playing here and coming back here was a full circle moment. It’s all been very emotional.”

Besides the two teams, two members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Ted Simmons and Lee Smith, participated in Saturday’s festivities. Simmons, the former catcher, took part in a pregame ceremony on the mound in which a Banana Baby was held aloft similar to a scene in the movie The Lion King – a hat tip to Simmons’ nickname, Simba. Smith, the longtime closer, came on in relief for the Bananas in the top of the ninth and faced one batter.

“The only thing that made me a little nervous about it was when I saw my center fielder out there doing cartwheels while I’m on the mound. That’s a little different,” joked Smith. “The one thing I’ve been noticing is they’re putting some fun back in the game. That’s what has been missing for years. They’re really getting the fans back in it because I think they’ve been overlooked. It’s about having fun. That’s what it’s all about.”

Simmons’ interest in the Bananas stemmed from his wife.

“She’s absolutely freaked out over this bunch,” Simmons said. “And she’s been following them maybe a year and a half or two. When (Hall of Fame President) Josh Rawitch actually reached out in search for a couple of Hall of Fame members who might be interested, which he sent the text to my wife and me as well, and my wife called me because we got her texts in different places. She said to me, ‘Teddy, we’re going to Cooperstown.’

“And you can’t help watch these guys at my age and not think of the Harlem Globetrotters and Washington Generals. It’s the same kind of phenomenon. You gotta love this. These people are out to promote baseball in all of its forms from the Little Leaguers to Hall of Famers and everything in between. And everyone comes to see it from a fan perspective and we’ve all fallen in love with it.”

Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialst at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum