The death of loopy comic Soupy Sales late Thursday is a reminder that the Yankees have this pie-in-the-face thing all wrong.
Throughout a season of dramatic endings, in which the Yankees have won a startling 17 games in their final at-bat on their apparent march to the World Series (stay tuned), first-year Yankee pitcher A.J. Burnett somehow has determined pie-throwing to be a celebratory act, with the pied victim representative of hero status.
This would be a bit like saying that George W. Bush should have been honored to have two shoes thrown at him by that Iraqi TV journalist — an interpretation that would have prompted Sales, who was 83, to roll out one of his nutty expressions: “I laughed so hard my brains fell out.”
At 32, Burnett might — just barely — claim youthful ignorance, since Sales’ peak as a cult figure of daffy schtick dates to the 1960s. But what Soupy did by repeatedly taking cream pies in the puss — and, to a lesser extent, having his huge bowtie, attached to a rubber band, snapped on his neck — was to popularize vaudeville-style art forms worthy of “getting the hook,” being gonged or, in modern terms, being voted off the island.
To be hit with a pie, going back to the sight gag’s apparent origin in a 1913 Mack Sennett silent film, is not — and never was — meant to be a compliment. And it certainly was not conduct designed to honor anything approaching grand accomplishment. The Three Stooges practiced it regularly. And Charlie Chaplin. Bugs Bunny. Monty Python.
Anyway, Burnett’s clownish bit — rubbing whipped cream into the face of the player who has just produced the game-winning hit — isn’t even original to baseball. Trot Nixon was doing it two years ago in Cleveland, when the Indians won a division title. And, should the Yankees prevail against the Angels, and then win the World Series, there is every danger that Burnett’s pie-throwing buffoonery will become a sports cliche as automatic and idiotic as the stale rite of Gatorade baths in football. Not to mention the inane dousing of teammates with champagne when various divisions and leagues and World Series are won. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk?
Consider pie throwing’s roots. From the stone age of moving pictures, before there were talkies, it provided a jolt of zany action fit for the frenetic (but hardly probing plots) of the Keystone Kops and Buster Keaton, and later for Laurel and Hardy.
In recent years, it has evolved into a statement more political than humorous, a form of ridicule to embarrass or humiliate the victim, a way to cut the pompous down to size. Years ago, the singer Anita Bryant was the victim of a thrown pie because of her homophobic blatherings, and conservative activists Ann Coulter (at the University of Arizona) and David Horowitz (Ball State University) were pie targets of protesting students.
Horowitz called the attack “sinister. The person who throws a pie is saying, ‘I hate you. I don’t want you to speak.’ I never saw it coming. And it took away my dignity.”
Burnett, obviously, is not going for the same effect. But neither is his routine, though meant to be in fun, a true reflection of the madcap art perfected by Soupy Sales, whose appeal — though his TV shows were billed as aimed at young children — was greatest among high school and college students as well as adults. (Full disclosure: I was just beginning high school when Soupy was a hit in Los Angeles, and members of my brother’s varsity football team often reminded their coach not to let practice run so long that they would miss watching Soupy Sales.)
Though Sales claimed to have been hit more than 20,000 times with a pie — and though the pie joke became the sort of badge that caused celebrities Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Mickey Rooney and Sammy Davis, Jr., among others, to request being hit on Soupy’s show — the real fun was the oft-kilter Sales humor that triggered the thrown pie. A clear signal to “get that guy off the stage.”
On a few occasions, the last of which got Sales suspended, Soupy told his audience (assumed to be children) to find their parents’ wallets and retrieve “all the green pieces of paper with pictures of guys in beards” and mail them to him. And he, in return, would “send you a postcard for Puerto Rico.”
No last-at-bat victory, that. But thoroughly deserving of a pie in the face.