Baseball’s Greatest Skit
“Dad and Bud and Grant put the routine together based on a series of old vaudeville sketches they knew and their own abilities to play around with words."
Five years later, they did what many consider the definitive filmed version of the skit in The Naughty Nineties. This is the familiar version where Sebastian Dinwiddie (Costello) strolls onstage selling popcorn and peanuts, interrupting the baseball talk being given by Abbott’s Dexter Broadhurst in his “St. Louis Wolves” jersey. Aficionados will notice the painted banner behind the duo which advertises the Paterson Silk Sox, a famed industrial league team from Costello’s New Jersey home town. Costello would always find a way to work a Paterson reference into his work. Abbott, on the other hand, hailed from Asbury Park, though he was really a child of the circus and carnival vaudeville circuit.
Both men were baseball fans, and Costello in particular developed a friendship with Joe DiMaggio, who some sources contend inspired and encouraged the young comedians to develop a baseball skit. DiMaggio even appeared in the skit with Abbott and Costello on the Colgate Comedy Hour.
The exact origins of the “Who’s On First?” skit are hard to pin down, as similar wit, wisecracking, wordplay and precision timing were hallmarks of the vaudeville stage. The routine is thought to have been partially inspired by an old routine having to do with directions to Watt Street. “What Street? Watt Street.”
A similar British skit has to do with a student named “Howe,” who came from “Ware,” and who now lives in “Wye.” These and other vaudeville routines are thought to have inspired the creation of “Who’s On First,” though others have staked their claims on having written the piece, notably songwriter Irving Gordon, who is best known for “Unforgettable.”
“So many people have tried to take credit for writing ‘Who’s On First,’ but the fact of the matter is this: My dad wrote it with Bud (Abbott) and John Grant,” Lou’s daughter Chris Costello said.
Grant was a longtime screenwriter for Abbott and Costello. “Dad and Bud and Grant put the routine together based on a series of old vaudeville sketches they knew and their own abilities to play around with words.”
The immortal skit has been performed at the White House, and was named the best comedy routine of the 20th century by Time Magazine in 1999. In 2003, The Library of Congress chose the first radio version of the sketch from 1938 for inclusion in the National Recording Registry, an effort to digitize and preserve the recordings most central to American culture. DeWolf Hopper’s 1915 recording of “Casey at the Bat” was the only other baseball or sports related piece on the initial selection of 50 recordings. In 2005, the line "Who's on First?" was included on the American Film Institute's list of the one hundred most memorable movie quotes.