Even though his professional baseball career was brief, Max Terhune found greater success and stardom as a ventriloquist, entertainer, and actor in motion picture Westerns of the 1930s through the 1950s.
Robert Max Terhune was born in a log cabin in Johnson County, Indiana, on February 12, 1891. He was the youngest of five children born to Asa Garrett Terhune and Nancy Jane (Williams) Terhune.
Max was a right-handed pitcher for the Franklin Blues, a local team in the semi-pro Indiana Baseball Association, in 1910 and 1911. His pitching drew interest from the Indianapolis Indians, who signed him for the Newark (OH) Skeeters of the Class D Ohio State League. “Terhune is said to be a comer,” noted the Mansfield (OH) News on January 30, 1912.
Short Professional Career
Terhune tried out for both the higher classification Springfield (OH) Reapers and Newark in April 1912. Newark released him, however, when the club paired down its Opening Day roster. He returned to Indiana and played independent ball in Anderson and for the Mt. Jackson Athletics of Indianapolis.
An overcrowded street car resulted in Terhune being pushed off accidentally and spraining his right wrist in May 1912. He recovered by August and pitched for teams in Hammond, Illinois, and Hagerstown, Indiana, the rest of the season. In later years, he attributed this injury to hindering his baseball career.
Max Terhune finally made it into professional baseball when he joined the Vincennes Alices of the Kitty League in 1913. But with a last-place club and the worst hitting one (.241), he had a 4-13 record with 51 walks and 39 strikeouts and led the league with 19 wild pitches. He was a decent batter, though, with a. 266 average in 64 at-bats.
Terhune played for the semi-pro Greenwood Grays off and on in 1914. In one contest, he faced the Indianapolis ABCs, an independent African American team. He was the starting pitcher in an 8-5 loss on April 18.
The Clarksville Boosters offered Terhune a contact to return to the Kitty League in May 1914. “Max will no doubt show he has ‘the goods’ before long,” believed his hometown newspaper, the Franklin (IN) Evening Star. Unfortunately, he didn’t last but two games with little run support. He finished with a 0-2 record, seven walks, and four strikeouts in 17 innings.
This stint ended his brief minor-league career. Max played independent ball in Indiana, Elmore, Minnesota, and a club in Iowa over the next three years, and he retired after the 1916 season. He made a comeback of sorts in the fall of 1919, pitching a few games for the New Castle Specials at 28 years old. Facing an African-American team, the Muncie (IN) ABCs, he struck out 16 batters in a 4-3 victory. He combined his pitching with impersonations of barnyard animals that amused the crowd.
“The Hoosier Mimic”
Having grown up on a farm south of Indianapolis, Terhune could imitate the sounds of animals and birds proficiently. He used this talent after his baseball career ended to perform a vaudeville act in his hometown of Franklin and surrounding towns. He promoted himself later in his career as “The Man Who Fools the Barn-Yard Animals and Makes a Canary Ashamed of Its Song.” Known as the “Human Bird,” his sketch “Fifteen Minutes in a Barnyard” was popular in Indiana and Ohio in the early 1920s.
In August 1923, Terhune joined a hillbilly comedy group based outside of Muncie, Indiana, called Ezra Buzzington’s Rube Band. But it was his participation in the Hicksville Follies a year later that took him beyond his home state into the Pacific Northwest, California, and Ontario, Canada, for the first time.
By 1926, Max, his wife Maude, and their daughter Maxine were living in Anderson, Indiana, where he worked as an auto parts toolmaker for the Remy Electric Company (later Delco-Remy). He continued performing his vaudeville act for opera houses, schools, and community groups in northwest Indiana, as well as programs for his employer. For a time, Terhune hosted a 30-minute comedy program on radio station WLW out of Cincinnati. His repertoire expanded to include card and magic tricks and ventriloquism using a dummy named Skully. Max returned to the vaudeville circuit in 1931 when he joined the “Weaver Brothers and Elviry” troupe. People touted him as the “Hoosier Mimic.”
It was with the Chicago-based “WLS National Barn Dance” touring radio program in 1932 that Terhune first met the “Singing Cowboy,” Gene Autry, a performer on the show. Four years later, Autry was making movies in Hollywood and convinced Max to join him. Terhune’s acting career began in 1936 with his first film, “Ride, Ranger, Ride,” starring Autry.
That year, he stepped into the role of Lullaby Joslin for the Western movie series “The Three Mesquiteers,” taking the place of actor Syd Saylor. Ray Corrigan and John Wayne were two of the memorable co-stars in the popular series. Max starred in 21 episodes, earning his place as one of the top 10 Western actors in terms of money through 1939.
Terhune followed “The Three Mesquiteers” with a similar cowboy series called “The Ranger Busters” (also co-starring with Corrigan) for 24 episodes. Over the course of his career, he appeared in approximately 68 films, most of them as sidekick characters in B-Movie Westerns. Max also appeared on television in “The Lone Ranger” and “I Love Lucy.” Most of his films showcased his flair for ventriloquism through his ever-present companion, a dummy named Elmer Sneezeweed.
Max Terhune died in Cottonwood, Arizona, on June 5, 1973, at 82.