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Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Who's on first? Yes!

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

ABBOTT: You know, they give ballplayers very peculiar names nowadays. For instance, we have Who's on first, What's on second and I Don't Know is on third.

COSTELLO: That's what I want to find out. I want you to tell me the names of the fellows on the team.

ABBOTT: I'm telling you. Who's on first, What's on second and I Don't Know is on third.

-- The greatest comedy sketch of all time

Ex-major leaguer Paul Abbott, now the pitching coach for the Class A Greenville Drive in South Carolina, remembers hearing the never-ending Abbott and Costello and "Who's on First'' references when he was advancing through the minor leagues as a player in the late 1980s. "Hey, AAA--BETTTTTT!!!!!" people would yell. "WHO'S ON FIRST!?!?"

Abbott and Costello
They performed the skit in vaudeville for a number of years before Bud Abbott and Lou Costello introduced it on national radio in 1938.

"It got to the point that when I was older and more brash," Abbott recalls, "I would say, 'Is that all you got?' Or, 'Boy, I never heard that before.'"

Abbott, who pitched for six teams over his 11-year big league career, says the references began dying out in the mid- and late '90s because, he assumes, fewer players and fans had heard of Abbott and Costello.

"But I heard it the other day," he says. "I was walking around in spring training with 'Abbott' on the back of my jersey and someone dropped an Abbott and Costello line on me. I said, 'Are you really sure you want to show your age like that?'"

Abbott nonetheless loves the "Who's on First" routine, despite growing weary of the repeated jokes about his name. "That skit is timeless. It's genius. It's hilarious," he says. "That should be played in every ballpark."

Alas, Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" plays far less often in ballparks these days than does the Psy's "Gangnam Syle'' but at least it has been playing on a continuous loop at the Baseball Hall of Fame for decades.

"It seems to never grow old,'' says Erik Strohl, the Hall's senior director of exhibitions and collections. "It is one of the most popular things we have in the museum.

"It will either be an older generation of fans excited to see it and getting a big kick out of it, or parents with their kids, sitting the kids down and saying, 'You have to see this.' In a day and age when so much has changed, it's good to see something kind of timeless.''

Jimmy Fallon
To Jimmy Fallon, every comedian should study it.

Indeed. There are three things guaranteed to raise a smile in baseball: references to Mr. Met, the Astros' old rainbow jerseys and the "Who's on First" routine. If you want a video to go viral, you would simply need to upload Mr. Met wearing a rainbow jersey while performing "Who's on First" (possibly while holding a kitten).

Abbott and Costello performed their celebrated routine on the Kate Smith radio show way back in 1938 when Lou Gehrig's playing streak still was intact. And 75 years later, "Who's on First" still makes us laugh.

"It's the one sketch that can hold up for 75 years. If you watch it now, it's just as good now as it was 75 years ago," NBC's "Late Night" talk show host Jimmy Fallon says. "It's such a well-written piece for a comedy routine. If you're a student of comedy or want to look at comedy timing, you should watch this sketch."

COSTELLO: Who's playing first?

ABBOTT: Yes.

COSTELLO: I mean the fellow's name on first base.

ABBOTT:Who.

COSTELLO: The fellow's name on first base.

ABBOTT:Who.

COSTELLO: The guy on first base.

ABBOTT: Who is on first base.

COSTELLO: What are you asking me for?!?

Where did Who and What come from? A 1999 article in the SABR Examiner related the claims of a man named Timmy Watt, who said "Who's on First" was based on the names of actual minor leaguers and cup-of-coffee big leaguers such as Honus J. Hoehe (Who), Allie Watt (What) and Isaiah Donough (I Dunno).

Hideki Matsui, Biff Henderson
"The Late Show with David Letterman" arranged a Japanese translation for Hideki Matsui and Biff Henderson in 2004.

Watt's claims seem rather fanciful, and the routine is generally credited to Abbott and Costello, who performed "Who's on First" thousands of times (and in front of three U.S. presidents). Costello's daughter, Chris, has insisted that her father wrote it with Abbott and one of their writers, John Grant.

The Abbott and Costello impersonation duo of Gil Palmer and Lou Sciara say the exact origin of "Who's on First" is a bit of vaudeville mystery. While its roots likely go back to old vaudeville and burlesque sketches that were based around similar confusion over names such as What and Watt, Palmer says, "I think Abbott and Costello embellished it and brought it to the great level we know it now."

Sciara says that the version of "Who's on First'' we all know is pretty much the work of Abbott and Costello, along with John Grant. "They made it their own."

Sciara and Palmer have been performing the routine as part of their Abbott and Costello act for more than two decades, including at a Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. They aren't alone. Fallon recalls performing the routine in college when he was starting out as a standup comic -- "and we got a standing ovation." Fallon, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Higgins performed a great version of it recently on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." Crystal (as Sammy Davis Jr.), Brother Theodore and Christopher Guest attempted a version for HBO years ago. Thanks to some creative sound and video editing, a rendition was even performed in a galaxy far, far away by Yoda and Jar Jar Binks.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello
How much a part of baseball is it? So much that Abbott and Costello got their own Action Packed trading card.

(There also were times during the 1994 baseball strike when it seemed Bud Selig and Donald Fehr were performing their own "Who's on First" routine.)

"This is a rite of passage. This is the thing every comedian knows, no matter who you are," Fallon says. "Every comedian goes: 'Oh, "Who's on First." Of course.' You have to know it. You must know it. I'm pretty sure all baseball players must know this sketch. You must know it -- it's part of that world and part of this world. It's part of baseball and part of comedy."

As a former writer on "Cheers," "Frazier" and "M*A*S*H" and a broadcaster for several major league teams, Ken Levine is part of both the comedy and baseball worlds. He says "Who's on First" is an enduring classic for several reasons.

"The precision is impeccable. And the performances are amazing, especially Bud Abbott's," Levine says. "Straight men rarely get the recognition they deserve, but he drove that routine. He established the pace, delivered every line perfectly and with just the right tone. By making it seem matter-of-fact, as if everyone knew these ballplayers, it just made Lou Costello's confusion and building frustration that much funnier."

The importance of Abbott's delivery is driven home in this great deconstruction of "Who's on First'' by the Kids in the Hall, in which the worst straight man in vaudeville history hilariously ruins the routine. (Fast-forward to the 1:47 mark).

So, too, in the Academy Award-winning movie "Rain Man," when Ray (Dustin Hoffman) endlessly repeats the routine with no sense of timing, to the exasperation of his brother (Tom Cruise).

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise
The script for "Rain Man," starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, included the skit.

"When you do it, you're not funny," Cruise's character complains at one point. "You're the comedy team of Abbott and Abbott."

To which Ray responds. "All I'm trying to figure is what's the guy's name on first base."

For Pete's sake, Ray. How many times do we have to tell you? What is on second. Who is on first.

COSTELLO: What's the guy's name on first base?

ABBOTT: What's the guy's name on second base.

COSTELLO: I'm not asking you who's on second.

ABBOTT: Who's on first.

COSTELLO: I don't know.

ABBOTT: He's on third.

Timing is crucial in baseball, as the Giants could have told you after they won 103 games but missed the postseason in 1993 -- the last season without the wild card. And Abbott and Costello had even better timing in "Who's on First" than the Nationals did when they chose first in the draft in the years Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were available.

"It has to be performed with precise timing," Sciara says. "Everyone likes a famous song, and they might know the lyrics by heart. But if you're tone-deaf, the song doesn't work."

"They keep building it up, building it up and then they have a breath when he says, 'Third base,' and then he takes a breath and looks around like, 'I'm crazy,' and you're on the same page as him," Fallon says of Abbott and Costello's timing in the routine. "No, you are not crazy. This is so fun. What he says sounds so crazy but it all makes sense. Him getting frustrated -- Lou Costello is priceless. His face is priceless. His attitude, him raising his voice cause he's trying not to raise it. It's just so funny you can't help but laugh."

Paul Abbott
Former pitcher Paul Abbott is no relation to Bud. But that never stops the jokes.

Levine says to "Picture the finest on-screen dance sequence between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and this was its comedy equivalent," Levine says. "Better because it was about baseball."

Or as Walter Matthau tells Carol Burnett when she calls the routine silly in the movie, "Pete 'n' Tillie": "Abbott and Costello are not silly. This is ART!"

It is, indeed. And while Paul Abbott might be correct about people not being quite as aware today of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello as in the past, the brilliance of "Who's on First" will keep the routine around for decades to come. Why, John Martz illustrated a just-published version in book form for children, with a bunny rabbit and a bear delivering the lines.

"Who's on First?" the rabbit asks in big, bold letters on the book's cover.

"That's the name of this book," the bear replies.

"What is?" asks the rabbit.

"No, no," the bear says. "He's on second."

(BTW: In 1990, Paul Abbott, then a rookie, started for the Twins against the Angels' Jim Abbott. Late in the game, Minnesota's Carmelo Castillo was announced as a pinch-hitter to face Jim Abbott. Alas, the Angels brought in reliever Bryan Harvey to face Castillo and the Twins sent up Kent Hrbek to bat for Castillo. So there was no Abbott and Castillo matchup that day.)