Baseball’s Greatest Skit

Written by: Tim Wiles

“This is better than getting an Oscar,” quipped Lou Costello in 1956, when he and his comedy partner Bud Abbott donated their gold record for “Who’s On First?” to the Hall of Fame.

The presentation was made by Abbott and Costello to Hall of Fame Director Sid Keener and Vice-President Paul Kerr, live on the Steve Allen Show, Oct 7, 1956. Abbott and Costello performed the classic routine on Allen’s show that night, in what at least one source reports was their swan song – the final performance of the classic skit they claimed to have done 15,000 times. Other guests on the special “Salute to Baseball,” included Mrs. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Sal Maglie.

The following day, the Dodgers’ Maglie would pitch well against the Yankees in the World Series, allowing two runs on five hits – one of them a Mantle homer – but history was on Don Larsen’s side that day during his meeting with destiny.

The perfect game followed the perfect skit.

Abbott and Costello became a comedy team in 1936, and quickly had success with the “Who’s On First?” routine, which they debuted on the Kate Smith radio show in 1938. At first, the show’s producer was reluctant to let them do the baseball routine, but he gave in and the routine went over so well that the duo ended up with their own radio show shortly thereafter – leading to a reported contract stipulation that the duo must perform the skit at least once a month on the air. Soon the comedians were cast in Hollywood films, and debuted a shortened version of “Who’s On First?” on the big screen in 1940’s One Night in the Tropics. Another shortened version appears in 1942’s Who Done It?

“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."

Chris Costello, daughter of Lou Costello

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.

In addition to the aforementioned gold record, the Hall of Fame also holds a copy of the Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First?” board game from the 1970s, a library clippings file on the routine and its famous performers and numerous recordings of the skit. “Who’s On First?” plays continuously in the Museum in a third-floor exhibit and has for over a generation.

Perhaps as a result of the honored place the routine has had in the Hall for many years, there is a popular misconception about Abbott and Costello. Visitors and callers will frequently ask “Who are the only two people in the Hall of Fame who had nothing to do with baseball?” The question is frequently repeated by radio disc jockeys as trivia, but the question is flawed in two ways.
1. Abbott and Costello are not “in the Hall of Fame,” as inductees, but rather their work is in the Museum and the Library.
2. It is far from the truth that they “had nothing to do with baseball,” as this comedy routine is among the most popular and beloved segments of American popular culture.

“Who’s On First?” has made many appearances in pop culture, from the Simpsons to Seinfeld to the movie Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character Raymond Babbitt recites the routine to himself when he feels that he is under great stress. A classic movie clip appears in Pete ‘n’ Tillie, a 1972 film starring Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett. In the film, Burnett catches Matthau teaching the routine to his son and asks him why he would spend time on such silliness.

“Abbott and Costello are not silly,” he responds, “This is art!”

Sometimes life imitates art, as it did in 2007 when the Dodgers promoted Chin-Lung Hu to the big club. His first big league hit was a home run, and it took until his sixth game for him to stop at first base after a single.

By then, fans were familiar with legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully rooting on the young player: “Let’s hope Hu gets a base hit, folks. I can’t wait to say Hu’s on first.”

Tim Wiles is the former director of research for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum