“Baseball Bugs” debuted in movie theaters 75 years ago this month. The 1946 cartoon is so packed with funny gags, clever puns, imaginative imagery and lively music that it’s still recognized as one of the best produced by Looney Tunes. Set at the Polo Grounds in New York, the cartoon also presaged a golden age of baseball in which the city’s three teams dominated the national pastime.
There are countless memorable scenes from “Baseball Bugs,” which the popular Twitter account Super 70s Sports last year called “the GOAT Looney Tunes cartoon,” to which Hall of Famer Mike Piazza replied, “Hall worthy?”
“It’s one of those cartoons that hits on all cylinders — great story, great comedy, great animation, great art, great art direction, great vocal performance by Bugs Bunny,” said Peter Browngardt, executive producer and director of “Looney Tunes Cartoons” on HBO Max and creator and voice of “Uncle Grandpa,” an animated TV show.
“Baseball Bugs,” directed by Friz Freleng, is not just a great title on its face; it’s also a pun from the period that few fans would get today. The term “baseball bugs” used to refer to baseball fanatics — partisans who were so into the sport that they had caught the baseball “bug,” or fever.
The cartoon came out in an era when baseball was unquestionably the most popular sport in the United States, far eclipsing football and basketball. (Today you can watch it on the Internet or HBO Max.)
Bugs Bunny doesn’t make his appearance until the fourth inning of the game, which begins with the hulking Gas-House Gorillas beating up on the emaciated Tea Totallers, a comically overmatched team of decrepit old players. The Gorillas, having done a conga dance around the diamond, lead 96-0 when we hear a lone voice yelling, “Boo! Boo! Boo!” and then see an angry Bugs Bunny, sticking his head out of his hole in the outfield, sporting a straw hat and munching on a carrot inside a hot dog bun.
“Nah, you Gas-House Gorillas are a bunch of dirty players!” Bugs says, in the distinctively brash New York accent of voice actor Mel Blanc. “Why, I could lick them in a ballgame with one hand tied behind my back — all by myself! Yeah. Yeah, I’d get up there and wham! A homer. Wham! Another homer.” Soon, three Gorillas players are menacingly standing over him.
“All right, big shot,” one snarls, blowing cigar smoke in Bugs’s face. “So you think you can beat us all by yourself? Well, you got yourself a game.”
The PA announcer notes a “slight change” in the Tea Totaller lineup: Bugs is now manning every position. After a couple of pitches with an exaggerated windup, he announces, “I think I’ll perplex him with my slow ball,” and delivers his famous Bugs Bunny change-up, which floats peacefully past three batters, each of whom strikes out swinging.
Coincidentally, at the 1946 MLB All-Star Game later that year, Rip Sewell threw perhaps the most famous ever “eephus” — a slow looping pitch that resembled a Bugs Bunny change-up — but he didn’t have as much success that day as Bugs. Ted Williams blasted the pitch into the right field bullpen for a home run.
According to Paul Dickson’s “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary,” the first use of the term “Bugs Bunny change-up” came a half-century later, in a 1997 Denver Post story, when Colorado Rockies catcher Jeff Reed used it to describe Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Mark Portugal’s off-speed pitch. I tracked down Reed, who told me he still remembers it.
“Mark Portugal had a very good change-up — it was one of those pitches that looked like it kind of stopped three-quarters of the way there, then it moved again, and then it stopped — like those old Bugs Bunny cartoons that we used to watch,” Reed said.
Sometimes you will hear people talk about a “Bugs Bunny curveball,” which is less accurate because Bugs throws nothing but fastballs and change-ups. In 1996, Boston Red Sox pitcher Vaughn Eshelman described his pitch this way to the Boston Herald: “We call it the Bugs Bunny curveball. It’s the one where they swing three times before it even gets [to home plate].”
Less remembered is Bugs’s fastball. Winding up to the same sound effect as the arrival of the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character, Bugs throws a heater that not only overmatches the hitter but also slams Bugs Bunny the catcher several feet into the backstop, momentarily knocking him out.
Even though the Gorillas are nominally named after the Gashouse Gang, the raucous St. Louis Cardinals teams of the 1930s, they more closely resemble the Murderers’ Row New York Yankees teams of the 1920s, featuring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. It’s Bugs Bunny, in fact, who seems to channel Gashouse Gang star pitcher Dizzy Dean, with his cocky persona and homespun personality.
Bugs displays a flashy hitting style that evokes today’s bat-flippers — except Bugs flips his bat before he hits what appears to be a home run. But as he comes around 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 make it 96-1.
In one of the cartoon’s best scenes, a Gorilla yanks the home plate umpire off the field and takes his place. After Bugs Bunny slides into home plate without a tag, the impostor ump calls out Bugs, who crawls up the Gorilla’s chest protector and literally goes nose-to-nose with him, inside his face mask. In an argument President Biden would appreciate, Bugs yells: “Where do you get that malarkey?! I’m safe!”
The two players yell “Safe! Out!” a bunch of times until Bugs uses his patented switcheroo tactic, throwing off his opponent by yelling “Out!” The Gorilla declares: “I say you’re safe! If you don’t like it you can go to the showers!”
“Okay then, Doc,” Bugs says. “Have it your way. I’m safe.”
Erik Strohl, vice president of exhibitions and collections at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, said the cartoon is an example of how the creative class leaned on America’s pastime.
“Popular culture uses baseball to connect — you see it all the time, whether it’s books, movies, TV, art or drama,” he said.
“Bugs Bunny is an iconic American hero,” Strohl added. “Everyone loves the idea of Bugs Bunny always being the wily underdog who can do whatever he wants and can win.”
Several other cartoons from this period also featured baseball, including “Porky’s Baseball Broadcast,” which came out in 1940 and, like “Baseball Bugs,” was directed by Freleng. The cartoons shared some gags — including a “screaming line drive” that features a baseball with a screaming face and a batboy who flies up to the hitter with batwings.
But as Greg Ford, who produced the 1994 documentary “Freleng Frame By Frame,” said, the earlier cartoon wasn’t nearly as good.
“ ’Baseball Bugs’ is crisper,” Ford said. “Every frame is nailed.”
Browngardt co-wrote a tribute to “Baseball Bugs” that debuted on HBO Max this year called “Pitcher Porky,” in which Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, whose team is called the “Cutie Pies,” take on a modern version of the Gas-House Gorillas.
Browngardt said “Baseball Bugs” made a big impression on him as a child.
“It has those gags that are so iconic — like the screaming baseball, the conga line around the bases, the Gas-House Gorillas smoking cigars,” he said. Browngardt credits sound designer Treg Brown with filling the cartoon with great audio, too, such as the “tugboat” sound as the Gorilla blows smoke in Bugs Bunny’s face.
Last year, the U.S. Postal Service came out with Bugs Bunny stamps to honor the character’s 80th birthday, and Browngardt drew a stamp showing the rabbit in a “Baseball Bugs” pose.
There are some errors in the cartoon. The Gorillas somehow lose a run over the last five innings, and they also switch from the visiting team to the home team, setting the stage for a dramatic bottom of the ninth and perhaps the best cartoon ending ever.
By then, Bugs has taken a 96-95 lead. With a man on base and two outs, the announcer says, “A home run now would win the game for the Gorillas.” Upon hearing this, the Gorillas hitter runs out of the batter’s box, chops down a gigantic tree and lugs it back to home plate for a bat, his cigar dangling from his mouth. Unfazed, Bugs Bunny says, “Watch me paste this pathetic palooka with a powerful paralyzing perfect pachydermous percussion pitch.” But the palooka turns on the percussion pitch, sending it whistling out of the stadium for what looks like a game-winning homer.
Of course, Bugs doesn’t give up. His ensuing sprint through the city includes a cab ride, a bus trip and an elevator ride to the top of a skyscraper, where he hoists himself to the top of a flagpole and throws his four-fingered mitt in the air for a perfectly timed game-saving catch. Somehow, the umpire is there to make the “out” call, and so is the batter to angrily contest it, hands clenched in fists.
Some baseball fans have pointed out that you’re not allowed to throw your glove at the ball. True enough. But once a rabbit has taken the field to play all nine positions, it’s time to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride — all the way to the top of the Umpire State Building.
Frederic J. Frommer is the author of “You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals,” and head of sports PR at the Dewey Square Group, a communications firm in Washington. Follow @ffrommer.