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Cubs historical sleuthing: The mystery No. 24

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This player isn’t who Getty Images thinks it is.

Getty Images

In order to explain how I figured this one out, I’ll give you a little peek under the hood. When I find a photo on Getty Images, it comes with “background” that doesn’t appear as part of the caption or anything published, unless I want to add it. Here’s the “background” that came with this photo:

NEW YORK - CIRCA 1968: Jimmy McMath #24 of the Chicago Cubs is safe at first base beating the throw to Ed Kranepool #7 of the New York Mets during an Major League Baseball game circa 1968 at Shea Stadium in the Queens borough of New York City. Kranepool played for the Mets from 1962-79. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

(Yes, they actually mention that this stadium is in “the Queens borough of New York City.” Getty does that to this day on photos taken at Citi Field.)

Jimmy McMath was the Cubs’ second-round pick in 1967 out of high school in Alabama. Because the system was so dry of prospects in that era, he got a September callup the next year — when he was only 18 years old. He played in six games, wearing No. 24. None of those games were road games against the Mets.

Beyond that, the Cubs didn’t wear that style of road uniform in 1968 — that style was worn only from 1969-71.

So it can’t be McMath.

No one wore No. 24 for the Cubs in 1969, so this has to be from 1970 or 1971, and sure enough, there was a Cubs outfielder named Cleo James who wore that number those two years.

James played 13 games for the Cubs against the Mets in 1970 and 1971. So, first I eliminated all the night games, since that’s obviously a day game. It appears to be a game in summer, given how the fans are dressed (and man, some of those hats are just... awful), so I focused on mid-summer games.

And then there’s the play in question. It looks like Ed Kranepool is taking a throw from somewhere near the plate, given the way he’s facing. It also appears that James is safe on the play, since you can’t see the ball in Kranepool’s mitt.

So, I looked for possible bunt singles by James in that time frame.

Jackpot! In the top of the fifth inning July 31, 1971, James bunted safely for a hit. The Cubs had two runners on and one out, trailing 2-0, but Chris Cannizzaro and Milt Pappas struck out to end the inning, and the Cubs lost the game 5-2.

Truth be told, Cleo James wasn’t a very good player. The Cubs picked him up after the 1969 season in the Rule 5 draft. He was a decent center fielder, but really couldn’t hit at all. For his career, he hit .228/.299/.318 in 429 plate appearances over 208 games, which gives you the hint that he was mostly a defensive replacement and pinch-runner. He stole 16 bases in 18 career attempts. That’s a good ratio, but Leo Durocher’s Cubs were very late to the stolen-base party of the 1960s and 1970s. James stole five bases in 1970 — that was fourth-best on the team. He stole six in 1971, third-best on the team. The Cubs were dead last in the N.L. in steals both years (39 in 1970, 44 in 1971). If only they’d had someone who could have stolen a lot of bases for them in that era. Oh... wait. They did.

Anyway, you’re welcome, Getty Images, I figured out who this really is and when this photo was taken.