“Baseball Bugs” debuted in theaters 75 years ago this month. The 1946 cartoon is so jam-packed with funny gags, clever puns, imaginative imagery, and lively music that it is still considered one of the best made by Looney Tunes. The New York-based cartoon also presumed a golden age of baseball, with the city’s three teams dominating the national pastime.
“It’s one of those top hat cartoons – great story, great comedy, great animation, great art, great art direction, great vocal performance from Bugs Bunny,” said Pete Browngardt, executive producer and director of Looney Tunes Cartoons . on HBO Max and the creator and voice of “Uncle Grandpa,” an animated television show.
“Baseball Bugs” by Friz Freleng isn’t just a great title. It’s also a play on words from the time that few fans would get today. The term “baseball bugs” referred to baseball fanatics – partisans who were so interested in the sport that they got the baseball bug or the fever.
The cartoon came out at a time when baseball was undoubtedly the most popular sport in the United States, leaving football and basketball far behind. (You can see it on the web or HBO Max today.)
Bugs Bunny doesn’t appear until the fourth inning of the game, which begins with the giant gas house gorillas battling the emaciated Tea Totallers, a weirdly above-average team of decrepit old players.
The gorillas use a combination of superior skills and blatant deceit to muffle the tea totallers in the morning. In the fourth inning alone, the gorillas scored 42 runs, while dozens of grassroots runners did a conga dance around the diamond. This leads to a lead of 96: 0 and triggers a thunderous cheer from the fans at the New York Polo Grounds.
But soon we hear a lonely voice screaming, “Boo! Boo! Boo! “and then you see an angry Bugs Bunny sticking his head out of his hole in the outfield, wearing a straw hat and chewing on a carrot in a hot dog bun.
“No, you gas house gorillas are a bunch of dirty players!” Bugs says in the unmistakable New York accent of voice actor Mel Blanc. “I could lick her with one hand behind my back in a ball game – all by myself! Yes. Yeah i would get up there and wham! A homer. Wham! Another homer. “Soon three gorilla players are standing menacingly over him.
“All right, Bigshot,” growls one and blows cigar smoke into Bugs’ face. “So do you think you can beat us all alone? Well, you got yourself a game. “
The PA announcer announces a “slight change” in the Tea Totaller line-up, with the famous line “Catching, Bugs Bunny, Left Field, Bugs Bunny, Right Field, Bugs Bunny” until he enumerates Bugs at an accelerated pace any position. Meanwhile we see Bugs on the hill calmly pulling a carrot out of his back pocket and chewing on it like a bundle of tobacco. His tail sticks out of a hole in the back of his uniform. After a few pitches with an exaggerated windup, he announces, “I think I’ll confuse him with my slowball,” and delivers his famous Bugs Bunny change that peacefully floats past three batters, each whistling three times.
Coincidentally, at the 1946 MLB All-Star Game later that year, Rip Sewell tossed what was perhaps the most famous “Eephus field” of all time – a slow looping field that resembled a move from Bugs Bunny – but he didn’t have that much success day as bugs. Ted Williams shot the field for a home run in the bullpen on the right.
According to Paul Dickson’s “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary,” the term “Bugs Bunny change-up” was first used half a century later in a 1997 Denver Post story when Rockies catcher Jeff Reed used it to describe Phillies pitcher Mark Portugal’s off-speed pitch. I tracked down Reed, who told me he still remembers it.
“Mark Portugal had a very nice change of pace – it was one of those pitches that looked like it stopped three-quarters of the way there, then moved again and then stopped – like those old Bugs Bunny cartoons we did I used to watch, ”Reed said.
Sometimes you hear people talk about a “Bugs Bunny Curveball” which is less accurate as Bugs only throws fastballs and bills of exchange. In 1996, the late Red Sox pitcher Vaughn Eshelman described his pitch to the Boston Herald as follows: “We call it the Bugs Bunny Curveball. It’s where they swing three times before it even comes (to home plate). “
Bugs Fastball is less known. Bugs has the same sound effect as the arrival of the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character and throws a heater that not only surpasses the batsman, but also slams Bugs Bunny, the catcher, several feet into the backstop and turns him off for a moment.
Although the gorillas are nominally named for the Gashouse Gang, the rugged Cardinals teams of the 1930s, they are more similar to the Murderers’ Row Yankees teams of the 1920s with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In fact, it’s Bugs Bunny who seems to be channeling gashouse gang star pitcher Dizzy Dean with his cocky personality and self-spun personality.
Bugs shows a striking striking style reminiscent of today’s bat fins – except that Bugs flips his bat before hitting what appears to be a home run. But when he comes over to score, a gorilla is standing with the ball in front of home plate. Bugs distracts him with a pinup poster and trots home to score 96-1.
In one of the best scenes in the cartoon, a gorilla pulls the referee off the field and takes his place. After Bugs Bunny has been pushed onto the plate without a label, the cheater Bump calls out Bugs, who crawls up the gorilla’s chest protector and literally goes nose to nose with him in his face mask. In an argument that President Biden would welcome, Bugs yells, “Where do you get this malarkey from ?! I’m sure!”
The two players shout “Sure! Out! “A few times until Bugs uses his patented Switcheroo tactic and his opponent with” Out! “The gorilla explains:” I say you are safe! If you don’t like it, you can take a shower! “
“Okay, Doc,” says Bugs. “As you want. I’m sure.”
Erik Strohl, vice president of exhibits and collections for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, said the cartoon was an example of how the creative class relied on America’s pastime.
“Popular culture uses baseball to connect – you see it all the time, whether it’s books, movies, television, art or drama,” he said.
“Bugs Bunny is an icon of the American hero,” added Strohl. “Everyone loves the idea that Bugs Bunny is always the smart outsider who can do what they want and win.”
A few other cartoons from the period also featured baseball, including “Porky’s Baseball Broadcast,” which came out in 1940, and how “Baseball Bugs” was staged by Freleng. The two cartoons shared a few gags – including a “screaming line drive” with a screaming-faced baseball and a batboy flying to the batsman with bats.
But as Greg Ford, who produced the 1993 documentary “Freleng Frame By Frame,” said the earlier cartoon was nowhere near as good.
“Baseball Bugs is crisper,” said Ford. “Every frame is nailed.”
Browngardt of “Looney Tunes Cartoons” co-wrote a tribute to “Baseball Bugs,” which debuted this year on HBO Max and is called “Pitcher Porky,” where Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, whose team is called “Cutie Pies” on a modern day Version of the gas house gorillas.
Browngardt said “Baseball Bugs” impressed him as a kid.
“It has these gags that are so iconic – like the screaming baseball, the conga line around the bases, the gas house gorillas, the cigars smoking,” he said. Browngardt credits sound designer Treg Brown for also filling the cartoon with great audio, such as the “tugboat” sound when the gorilla blows smoke on Bugs Bunny’s face.
Last year the US Postal Service issued Bugs Bunny postage stamps to honor the character’s 80th birthday, and Browngardt drew a stamp showing the rabbit in a “baseball bugs” pose.
There are some flaws in the cartoon. The gorillas somehow lose a run over the last five innings and also switch from visiting team to home team to set the stage for a dramatic floor of the ninth and perhaps best comic ending ever.
By then, Bugs has taken a 96-95 lead. With one man on the base and two out, the announcer says, “A home run would now win the game for the Gorillas.” When the gorilla hitter hears this, he runs out of the box of the bat, falls a huge tree and drags it back onto the plate for a bat, with his cigar dangling from his mouth. Unimpressed, Bugs Bunny says, “Watch me insert this pathetic palooka with a powerful, paralyzing, perfect pachyderm percussion pitch.” But the palooka turns on the drums and whistles from the stadium to see a homer, who wins the game.
Of course, bugs doesn’t give up. He sprints out of the stadium, calls a taxi and says to the driver: “Follow this ball!” – Just to find the taxi driver is a gorilla laughing and driving bugs in the opposite direction. So Bugs jumps out, jumps on a bus (where he casually reads a newspaper), gets off at the Umpire State Building, takes the elevator to the roof, attaches himself to a rope, lifts himself to the top of a flagpole, and throws his four-fingered glove in the air for a perfectly timed catch. Somehow the referee is there to make the “out” call, and so is the batsman to deny it angrily, hands clenched in fists.
Some baseball fans have advised that you should not throw your glove at the ball. True enough. But once a rabbit has stepped on the field to play all nine positions, it’s time to suspend the disbelief and enjoy the ride – all the way to the top of the Umpire State Building.
Frederic J. Frommer is the author of “You Must Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals” and director of sports public relations for Dewey Square Group, a Washington communications company. Follow @ffrommer.