Joe Shlabotnik is a retired major league baseball player and, like all adults, an unseen character in the world of Charles M. Schulz's long-running comic strip, Peanuts. He was first referred to by name in the Sunday strip from August 18, 1963, although a storyline which ran between May 7 and May 10, 1963 revolves around the distress caused to Charlie Brown when his unnamed favorite baseball player is sent down to the minors. Joe Shlabotnik's less than stellar baseball career would go on to cause a great deal of similar upset to Charlie Brown for many years to come. Nevertheless, Charlie Brown would remain a devoted fan of Shlabotnik.
Charlie Brown considers Shlabotnik his favorite player and his hero. He spends much of his free time trying to hunt down Shlabotnik memorabilia, such as baseball cards, autographs, Charlie Brown even organized a Joe Shlabotnik Fan Club, complete with a newsletter that folded after one issue. Linus once invited Shlabotnik to a testimonial dinner for Charlie Brown; unfortunately, the ballplayer got lost en route from his day job at a car wash. Another time he was scheduled to appear at a sports banquet where fans could dine with their favorite athletes (the guest list included Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Jack Nicklaus, and Peggy Fleming), and Charlie Brown, Linus, and Snoopy bought tickets to sit at Shlabotnik's table. He was the only athlete who did not show up, explaining later that he had marked the wrong event, city, and date on his calendar.
Shlabotnik was demoted to the minor leagues after hitting .004 over an entire season; his one hit was a bloop single with his team comfortably ahead. One time he promised to hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth; he popped out instead, but circled the bases anyway. His greatest achievements included making spectacular plays on routine fly balls and throwing out a runner who had fallen down between first and second.
After being sent down to Stumptown of the Green Grass League, Shlabotnik eventually retired as a player and agreed to manage the Waffletown Syrups. Sadly, Shlabotnik is fired after only one game, after calling for a squeeze play—with no one on base. Charlie Brown catches up with Shlabotnik on his bus, and asks him to autograph his baseball. Unfortunately, the bus pulls away, Shlabotnik throws the ball to Charlie Brown - and knocks him out. When Charlie Brown wakes up, a bully has the baseball. Snoopy, however, comes to the rescue, and saves Charlie Brown, and the ball.
One memorable Sunday Peanuts comic strip (to this day a blown up copy of it is still on display at the Topps Company) from April 12, 1964 shows Charlie Brown buying five dollars worth of baseball cards (in 500 one-card penny packs) to get a card of Shlabotnik. Charlie Brown frantically rips open all the packs and does not get one. Lucy then buys one penny pack and much to Charlie Brown's dismay, finds Shlabotnik in her one and only pack.
In the first comic strip to mention Joe Shlabotnik, Charlie Brown offers Lucy every card he owns in trade for the one Joe Shlabotnik card she has, but Lucy, knowing nothing about baseball, refuses to trade and maintains, "He's kind of cute." After Charlie Brown leaves in obvious misery, Lucy throws the card into a trash bin, claiming "He wasn't as cute as I thought."
In a storyline starting on December 30, 1996, long after Joe Shlabotnik retired, Charlie Brown goes to a store where they sell autographs of famous sports personalities and asks for a baseball autographed by Joe Shlabotnik. At first, Charlie Brown is proud of his autograph, but Linus recognizes it as a forged signature. Charlie Brown takes it back and demands a refund but ends up taking a job at that store instead, where he has to forge autographs all day. Charlie Brown refuses to forge autographs, and ends up getting an autograph of his father.