... nobody knows who wrote it. It was a stock piece of business available to any and all comedians on the vaudeville and burlesque circuits dating back to the turn of the 20th century.
There are 312 bronze plaques hanging on the walls of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. There is only one that is made of gold. It's located in the library on the museum's second floor.
It is a recording of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" A video of the iconic routine plays endlessly in the exhibition area, one of the most popular attractions in the museum. No other sports hall of fame possesses anything like it.
The piece was not written by either Bud Abbott or Lou Costello, nor was it written for them. In fact, nobody knows who wrote it. It was a stock piece of business available to any and all comedians on the vaudeville and burlesque circuits dating back to the turn of the 20th century. The two comedians first worked together in 1935 when Abbott filled in for Lou's regular partner, who was unavailable. They were a natural fit and decided to team up together. They developed an act of which "Who's on First?" was an integral part, reworked and updated by them.
In 1938, they auditioned for "The Kate Smith Hour" on NBC and, after Costello changed his speaking voice to a higher tone and Abbott affected a lower one to make it easier for radio audiences to distinguish between them (they used their new voices while on-stage forever afterwards), they landed the job as regular cast members. Overcoming the initial objections of Ted Collins, Smith's partner, manager, and producer, who didn't like their "baseball bit," they performed it for the first time before a national radio audience on February 3, 1938. It was a sensational success, and they had graduated from the minor leagues of show business to the big time. They were soon performing their old burlesque routines on Broadway, just a few blocks, but worlds away from the burlesque houses where they had first learned them. "Who's on First?" became so associated with them that people assumed they had created it and that other teams were stealing from them when they performed it.
Their signature bit is based on the confusion over whether "Who's on First?" is a question or a statement of fact. As performed by Abbott and Costello, its timing was so rapid-fire and precise that it kept audiences laughing constantly for its entire length of up to eight minutes. Even now, 84 years after its debut on national radio, it is still amusing even when you know what is coming next, this is due mostly to the professional expertise of Bud Abbott, who, as the team's straightman, was responsible for setting up the premise for the bit and for establishing and maintaining its high-speed pacing. In all his years of performing it, he never once broke character by laughing. He understood that comedy works best when played as deadly serious. Groucho Marx called him, "The greatest straightman ever."
A Taiwanese player, Chin-lung Hu, was a light-hitting, seldom-used utility infielder with the Dodgers and the Mets from 2007-2011. He didn't reach base very often (34 singles and 12 walks over five years) but when he did, broadcasters such as Vin Scully took great delight in reporting that Hu was, in fact, on first.
The presentation of the plaque to the Hall was made on TV's "The Steve Allen Show" on October 8, 1956.
In 1940, the two teammates moved their base of operations to California, where, in 1941, they were cast in a low-budget comedy called "Buck Privates." It became a surprise hit and established them as box-office gold. Over the next 15 years, they made 36 movies together and became among the most highly-paid entertainers in show business.
It wasn't all smooth sailing for the team, though. In 1943, Costello was stricken with a life-threatening case of rheumatic fever and was incapacitated for nine months. His heart was seriously damaged by the illness and his brother, Pat, the same size and build as Lou (only 5'5" and pudgy) had to serve as his body-double in physically demanding movie scenes. Abbott, who was only 5'8" himself but appeared much taller standing next to his partner, had issues of his own. He was epileptic and lived in constant fear of suffering a seizure while performing on-stage. He solved his problem -- he thought -- by taking a drink beforehand to relax himself. He gradually increased his intake to two, three, or even more drinks until falling victim to alcoholism.
The two had professional differences, as well. Costello, who as the funny one got most of the attention, demanded that he be paid 60 percent as opposed to Abbott's 40 percent, rather than the 50/50 arrangement they had always had.
By the mid-1950s, their popularity had begun to wane; Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were the hot new comedy team and Abbott and Costello's movie contract was not renewed. The IRS was after them for back taxes and they were forced to sell their Hollywood mansions.
During a 1957 Las Vegas engagement, Abbott came on-stage drunk one night. His timing was off and the act was ruined. A furious Costello declared the partnership over and began accepting bookings as a single act. His career without Abbott did not last long, though. He died on March 3, 1959, when he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was just 52 years old. Abbott lasted 15 years longer before dying of cancer at the age of 76 in 1974, near destitute because of gambling debts and the IRS.
Both members of the great comedy team are long gone, but "Who's on First?" will live on for as long as baseball itself.
Do yourself a favor; when you get a few minutes, Google "Who's on First?" There are several versions available, none exactly alike. As performed by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, it's a comic masterpiece.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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