If Who’s on First, Who’s in Write?

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who had been a comic duo since 1931, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956. They presented the institution with a gold record and plaque, as well as a transcription of their routine. When I published this classic in The Armchair Book of Baseball in 1985, I prefaced it by writing:

This classic assault on sense and syntax is generally associated with Abbott and Costello, who, having performed it in the 1945 film Naughty Nineties, are presumed to have written it. They didn’t. Who did? Naturally.

I went on to say that the skit was of anonymous authorship, as were some 2,000 other stock burlesque bits in Abbott and Costello’s repertoire. Afterwards, however, I learned that they aired “Who’s on First?” as far back as 1938, when they performed it on Kate Smith’s radio show, and that the skit had an author: Irving Gordon (1915-96), a versatile fellow who also wrote Nat King Cole’s 1951 hit song, “Unforgettable,” as well as “Prelude to a Kiss” for Duke Ellington, “What Can I Tell My Heart?” for Bing Crosby, “Throw Mama from the Train” for Patti Page and—in a song title for Billie Holiday that puts one in mind of  “Who’s on First?”—the strangely populated “Me, Myself and I.”

Here’s Gordon’s unforgettable lineup:

First Base: Who

Second Base: What

Third Base: I Don’t Know

Shortstop: I Don’t Care

Left Field: Why

Center Field: Because

Pitcher: Tomorrow

Catcher: Today

Note that this team had always taken the field without anyone in right, or as writer. Now you can put Irving Gordon in. Naturally.

8 Comments

Bravo, John. Very interesting.

There are reportedly two handwritten versions of the sketch dating from the late 1920s, in the unpublished papers of Samuel Goldman (a vaudeville writer and performer) at the University of Chicago Library. See, http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/scrc/findingaids/view.php?eadid=ICU.SPCL.GOLDMAN&q=Mexico (box 9, folders 27 and 28).

Thanks for this, Jeff, but the U. of Chicago inventory of Goldman’s papers lists the two copies (box 9, folders 27 and 28) as “n.d.,” so I will be grateful to learn the basis of dating them to the late 1920s. Authorship of “Who’s on First” has long been contested, and it appears we have not fully dismissed the competing claims to Gordon’s authorship.

On source is Gregory A. Jackson, who was a VP and CIO at the University of Chicago in the 1990s: “The origins of the “Who’s on First?” routine are obscure and somewhat controversial. According to Lou Costello’s daughter, the routine resulted from collaboration among Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, and John Grant, who later wrote most of the Abbott & Costello movies (Chris Costello and Raymond Strait, Lou’s on First [New York: Cooper Square Press, 1981]). On the other hand, according to other sources and the obituary of Irving Gordon (better known for writing Nat King Cole’s hit “Unforgettable”), Gordon wrote the routine while working as a composer of parody numbers in the Catskills during the 1930s (Myrna Oliver, “Irving Gordon, Composer of `Unforgettable’,” Los Angeles Times, home edition, December 3, 1996, 26). Adding complication, unprocessed manuscript documents in the Samuel L. Goldman Papers at the University of Chicago Library include a pencil-on-foolscap version of the routine apparently dated before 1928. Peter B. Howard, a Berkeley bookseller, takes this version as evidence that Goldman, a vaudevillian and author of comedy bits in the 1920s and 1930s, wrote the routine or a precursor to it, since Abbott and Costello apparently did not work together until around 1937 (administrative files for the Samuel L. Goldman Papers, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library). Then again, Goldman may simply have heard the routine on stage and transcribed it, reinforcing arguments by others that the Abbott & Costello routine was simply a compilation and synthesis from routines widely used by many performers in vaudeville during the 1930s. The routine was first performed by Abbott and Costello on radio in 1938, although they had apparently performed it on stage for some years before that.” (See, http://gjackson.us/)

The authorial attribution to Gordon seems primarily (exclusively?) based on the comment of his son quoted in his obituaries (1996). There is a similar authorial claim for writer/producer Michael Musto, based on a comment of his widow quoted in his obituary (1993). See, http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/tampabay/access/51788949.html?dids=51788949:51788949&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&date=Nov+1%252C+1993&author=BRIAN+NEILL&pub=St.+Petersburg+Times&edition=&startpage=5.B&desc=Michael+Musto%252C+76%252C+writer%252C+filmmaker+Series%253A+OBITUARIES

Incidentally, while Abbott and Costello first worked together in ~1931, that was an ad hoc collaboration. They became an actual team in about 1935 or 1936. The date of their first performance of WoF is apparently unknown, but the most commonly suggested date I’ve found is about 1936 (and the earliest preserved version seems to be from 1938). Both Abbott and Costello had vaudeville/burlesque experience before they teamed-up. “Wordplay” skits were common in vaudeville/burlesque, including baseball-themed skits and baseball skits involving funny names for baseball players. Abbott’s wife reportedly said that he performed WoF before teaming-up with Costello, but I have not found any independent confirmation of that.

I found a couple of reports to the effect that Gordon “scripted” WoF. This seems weaker than “wrote,” and perhaps a bit more plausible (Gordon was known for writing novelty tunes incorporating clever wordplay), but his connection to WoF (or Abbott and Costello) still seems tenuous to me without more evidence.

Excellent summary, Jeff. Thanks. Still, “apparently dated before 1928,” is a bit soft as evidence goes, don’t you think?

I agree. I haven’t found reports that anyone (except maybe Jackson) has tried to date the UC documents (and I don’t know if/how Jackson did so). Still, there’s apparently reason to suspect that a document containing the script of WoF (or close) exists in the papers of a vaudeville writer/performer who was active well before Abbott and Costello teamed up, plus a similar competing claim to authorship by the relative of another person (who was more-or-less contemporary to Gordon), plus no independent evidence supporting Gordon’s authorship (that I have found, nor, so far as I can tell, any other connection with Abbott and/or Costello), plus a history of similar vaudeville routines and further history that vaudeville performers apparently “recycled” older routines fairly regularly, plus that Gordon would likely have been no more than ~20 years old (and perhaps younger) at the time of the first performance of WoF by Abbott and Costello.

My apt mgr in college in Los Angeles back in the 70s named Bobby Morris claimed to have written it. He made this claim in front of his wife who called him out on anything but never on that claim.

Please see the comments above. Gordon’s claim is not without contest, and my bet is still on Anonymous.

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