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Spring Has Sprung
Frank Deford
April 10, 1978
It's Opening Day, so buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, remember to hold the label up and tell me Who's on First?
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April 10, 1978

Spring Has Sprung

It's Opening Day, so buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, remember to hold the label up and tell me Who's on First?

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That, of course, is just the beginning of the Who part. Not until considerably later do they introduce What. It goes on and on. Tomorrow is pitching. Today is catching. Why is in left. Because is in center, and finally, I Don't Care is at short. For some reason, there is no rightfielder.* The routine could be played at any length. Maybe at one point there was a rightfielder, but it didn't work. No one knows for sure. Strangely, even though Who's on First? is far and away the best-known comic bit in American history and even though Abbott and Costello played it more than 15,000 times—including a dozen times for President Roosevelt, who never tired of it—and even though they did it in vaudeville, in burlesque, on radio, on television and in the movies, there seems to be no account of what inspired it, who wrote it or even what Abbott and Costello thought of it.

Studio publicity had it that the comics introduced the routine in 1936 at the Oriental Theater in Chicago, but almost surely its origins date to 1931 or 1932. The two men had become a team shortly before. William A. Abbott, a theater box-office employee, filled in one night when Louis Cristello's straight man didn't show. Both men were from New Jersey, although Abbott grew up on Coney Island until, at age 15. he was shanghaied. Slipped a Mickey Finn, he woke up a seaman in the middle of the ocean. He later returned to show biz, the family profession.

Costello had a more uneventful childhood in Paterson where, despite his short stature, he played baseball and other sports. Later he had 14 professional prizefights and became a Hollywood stuntman. He was always interested in sports. In 1955 his 2-year-old colt, Bold Bazooka, equaled the world record for 5� furlongs, and two years before that he had spent $5,000 of his own money on a vain campaign to have the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. (Now you know that No. 8 is a trick question; all the answers are correct. The other answers are: questions 1 to 7, c; 9 to 16, d.)

Given Costello's interest in sports, it is more likely that Who's on First? originated with him. Certainly no one claims that anyone but the two comics themselves wrote it. Betty Abbott, Bud's widow, believes that her husband and Costello first performed the routine—a version about one-third as long as the final one—at the Eltinge Theatre in New York late in 1932.

Almost from the first it seems to have been the centerpiece of their act, but it did not receive national attention until 1938, when Abbott and Costello got their big break, appearing on the Kate Smith radio show. Two years later they used Who's on First? in their first movie. One Night in the Tropics, in which Robert Cummings and Allan Jones starred. Because the comedians and the routine were a big hit in this film. Universal signed them, and they later used Who's on First? in movies of their own.

"They kept embellishing it," their manager. Eddie Sherman, recalls. "Initially they didn't do the entire routine the way it's been recorded or the way they did it in pictures. They added on a thing they called 'Naturally.' They were always adding things to it over the years."

The official version, if there is such a thing, was enshrined in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 1956. The gold record and script usually are displayed on the second floor, next to the National League centennial exhibit. Recently. Universal bought the rights to Who's on First? so it can use the bit in a movie and a TV show. This is business, of course, but it is also altogether silly. You can no more sell the rights to Who's on First? without Abbott and Costello than you can sell the rights to Sally Rand's fan dance without Sally Rand, or Babe Ruth's home-run trot without Babe Ruth. Oh well, never mind. Down in front!

It is hard to pin down why Who's on First? became so popular and enduring—especially at a time when sports material usually bombed on the stage. For obvious reasons, the bit must have appealed to baseball fans, and probably it also appealed to those who laugh at baseball fans for being so devoted to the sport's minutiae, its names and statistics. It goes without saying that the routine never could have worked for another sport. Who's at Halfback? No way. Baseball is the only popular American sport in which every position is permanently set at a specific location. The one thing you can count on in life is that there is a first baseman and a shortstop and a catcher, and they are right where they were last month. The second baseman is not going to vanish—poof—and materialize down the leftfield line as something known as a nose guard or a power forward. Baseball positions are anchors in a shifting world, and to have given the most indefinite names to the personnel at these most dependable positions is to have made brilliant use of comic irony. That is the genius of Who's on First?

Obviously, two burlesque comedians did not sit around and ponder all this, but their routine has a sort of uncultured existentialism. Costello is like a Sartre character in No Exit, stymied at every turn despite being on the most familiar, comfortable territory. Abbott is a seminal bureaucratic figure, ever helpful, never helping. Maddening.

The routine was written in the depths of the Depression, a time when the nation was still as confounded by this unforeseen calamity as it was hungry. Without warning, unseen forces were frustrating, then destroying, common folk in ways they could not comprehend. Who? What? I don't know. Tomorrow! Why? Because. Economic disaster aside, the modern, impersonal, urban, red-tape society had just begun to crank up. You see, Abbott and Costello were saying, you can't depend on a damn thing anymore, not even baseball.

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