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Cubs By The Numbers: At last, a mystery about an unknown uniform number is solved

The single missing Cubs uniform number has been found... and it’s got a fascinating story behind it.

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Bill Nicholson of the Cubs in 1947. He’s a clue to solving a 1944 mystery
Bettmann Archive

Many of you are familiar with the book I co-authored with Matt Silverman and Kasey Ignarski, “Cubs By The Numbers.” It’s a history of the Cubs by uniform number, with stories and anecdotes accompanying the lists of everyone who ever wore a number for the Cubs since they began in 1932.

(Aside: If you haven’t read it, now’s a good time to get one at the link above! The latest edition is complete through the 2015 season. Great holiday gift!)

Anyway, in the course of our research for the book, Kasey, Matt and I found who had worn every single Cubs uniform number.

Except one.

This is gonna be long, so pull up a chair and settle in.

The missing number was worn by a lefthanded pitcher named Charlie Gassaway, who started two games for the Cubs in late September 1944, both on the road. One was against the Phillies in Philadelphia, the other against the Braves in Boston. Neither went well for him. He allowed six runs in eight innings in the first game of a doubleheader in Philadelphia September 25, though the Cubs won the game 7-6 in 10 innings. On September 29 in Boston, he didn’t make it out of the fourth inning, allowing seven hits, three walks and five runs (two earned).

And that was it for his Cubs career. He pitched the following year for the Athletics, a few games in 1946 for the Indians, and several more years in the minor leagues including five for the Oakland Oaks, a pretty good team in the Pacific Coast League.

Here’s an excerpt from the book showing Kasey’s efforts to find out what number Gassaway wore as a member of the Cubs:

Kasey contacted the Boston Braves Historical Society to see if they had any source for scorecards from the game Gassaway pitched there in ’44. Given that the team moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953, the paucity of that day’s crowd, and the passage of time made it no surprise that this was a dead end. A search of Boston newspaper archives also proved unsuccessful. Attempts to find anyone in Philadelphia with information on the game he pitched as a Cub also proved fruitless.

In Chicago, Kasey searched the Chicago Tribune archives and found only the mention of Gassaway in the game stories, but there was nothing on the number he wore. Kasey then went to his source for many past scorecard/program searches: AU Sports in Skokie. The 1944 programs they had did not list Gassaway on any roster — not exactly a surprise since he never pitched at home. There was no way on earth to find out from the source. By the time Kasey began his search in earnest, Charlie Gassaway had already died.

The story looked like it dead-ended there. From time to time after Cubs By The Numbers was published, Kasey and I made some further attempts to find scorecards or other primary sources that might have shown a uniform number, but all failed.

Until last July, when I received a link to this Worthpoint page showing a 1944 Phillies/Cubs scorecard that appeared to be from that series from Gerrit Blauvelt. Worthpoint is a site that shows values of various items, largely from completed eBay listings. As you can see if you click on that link, enlarging the page with the Cubs uniform numbers on it isn’t helpful. It’s nearly a totally unreadable blur.

It does, however, show Gassaway on the card, with the first digit of his number clearly “4”:

Well now. That’s the best evidence we had seen about this number, ever. I checked through Kasey’s list of Cubs uniform numbers for 1944. All the numbers in the 40s were accounted for that late in the year, except 47, which had been worn by Dale Alderson in May and June.

47, then, right? That printed blur sort of looks like a 7...

It’s dangerous to make assumptions like that. I had a long discussion with Mike Bojanowski about this, and he warned me: “The only proof that will stand up is a resolution that leaves no room for doubt, and we don’t have it. Try taking this one to a history professor as a proven claim, he’ll dress you down.”

Not wanting to be dressed down, I did some more research. Gassaway’s bb-ref page says he was “purchased by the Chicago Cubs from Milwaukee (American Association)” on August 30, 1944.

Here’s where you have to suspend what you know now about the way things work in MLB and understand what the business of baseball was like 75 years ago. If a 2019 big-league team purchases a minor-league contract (the official term today is “the contract was selected”), the player goes to the big-league team’s 40-man roster and generally reports that day. But this is under a system where the minor-league players that support major-league rosters are controlled by the big-league club as part of their farm system.

That wasn’t always the case in 1944. While some teams (the Cardinals and Dodgers, mainly) had extensive farm systems then, most clubs didn’t. The Cubs, in particular, were late to the party. There were still many independent minor-league clubs that signed their own talent and at times, would sell the player’s contract to a big-league club. The minor-league team got what they wanted, cash, the major-league team got a new player. That’s what happened in this case.

But the 1944 Milwaukee Brewers were in the American Association playoffs; they’d finished the year with the best record in that league, 102-51. Gassaway was one of their better pitchers (otherwise, why would the Cubs have been interested?). The Cubs allowed Gassaway to stay with the Brewers through the AA playoffs. He pitched for Milwaukee as late as September 19, when they were eliminated with a loss to Louisville.

Now we return to the 1944 Cubs, who weren’t a very good team. They departed on a season-ending 15-game road trip (trips, all by train, were generally longer back then, as were homestands) at 66-73, 29 games out of first place. The Cardinals were running away with the N.L. pennant; they’d clinch the next day and the Cubs had long since been eliminated.

By the time the Cubs got to Philadelphia September 25, they’d played six doubleheaders in the previous 12 days and had two more, on the 25th and 26th. Extra pitchers, then, were definitely needed. Gassaway finally reported and started the first game of that Philly DH on the 25th. To understand a bit more about how baseball worked back then and as an introduction to how I at last found Gassaway’s number, check out this article by Irving Vaughan in the Tribune on September 29, 1944, just after that Philadelphia series had ended:

The fourth place Cubs, who were not scheduled today, will get busy tomorrow on the few items remaining on their 1944 schedule. They will open a four-game series with the Braves, two of the four on Sunday afternoon, after which the Chicago entry will disband for the winter.

Some have already departed, among them Manager Charley Grimm, Claude Passeau, Dom Dallessandro and a few others, who may be spared, may get under way before the concluding exercises on Sunday.

Ah, ha.

Not only did some players leave the team before the season ended, so did the manager. (There’s no indication of who managed the team those last few games.)

So there’s your first clue that this was a much more casual era than the one we have now.

Here’s the next one. I received this much clearer image of a scorecard from the Philadelphia series from Gerrit Blauvelt:

This isn’t the game Gassaway pitched. Instead, it matches the play by play from the second game of a doubleheader the next day, September 26 (the Cubs lost 10-1). The Phillies certainly would have had the same printed card for the entire series. Lineups were often pre-printed as you see here and then the P.A. announcer would announce any changes. That’s why you used to hear Pat Pieper, the Wrigley Field P.A. announcer through 1974, say, “I’ll give you the correct lineup for today’s game.” (emphasis added) The printed lineups on the scorecards often weren’t correct. The Cubs didn’t end the practice of pre-printed lineups on scorecards until 1956 and some teams, notably the Cardinals, were still doing it into the 1970s.

Anyway, what do you see on the image above? Charlie Gassaway wearing No. 43. Mystery solved!

Except... Bill Nicholson, one of the team’s best players, is also shown wearing No. 43. Nicholson wore that number from 1943-48, his best years with the Cubs. The photo of Nicholson at the top of this post is from 1947, but the uniform he’s shown wearing is identical to what the Cubs wore on the road in 1944.

So what’s going on here?

In 2019 — and this has been the case for quite some time — every ballpark has a selection of jerseys and letters and numbers for every visiting team. If a player is called up or acquired by trade while his team is on the road, the home team contracts with a local business that can sew on letters and numbers for any player joining a new club — for example, the Padres did this for Nico Hoerner when he joined the Cubs in San Diego this past September.

But in 1944? That sort of thing simply did not exist. It didn’t exist as recently as 1985, when Lou Whitaker left most of his Tigers gear in Detroit when going to Minneapolis for the All-Star Game:

“I left my bag in the backseat of my Mercedes, isn’t that a shame?” Whitaker announced on the day of the game.

With only hours to go, Whitaker and the clubhouse boys for the Twins were forced to scramble. Lou had packed his socks and uniform pants in his suitcase with his clothes, but he didn’t have a cap, helmet, glove, spikes, or batting gloves.

His All-Star teammates stepped up to help: Cleveland pitcher Bert Blyleven let Whitaker wear his helmet; Baltimore’s Cal Ripken Jr. had an extra glove; Damaso Garcia of the Blue Jays came through with batting gloves. A clubhouse attendant bought an adjustable Tiger cap and a jersey from a souvenir stand at the Metrodome. The problem was that it was a generic Tigers jersey – there was no number or name on the back. A clubhouse attendant took a black marker and wrote in Sweet Lou’s #1 using a stencil.

Emphasis added for the last sentence, and if you don’t believe me, look at the linked article, there’s a photo of that stenciled uniform.

Back to 1944 again: Uniform numbers did not mean as much to players back then as they do now. They generally didn’t become meaningful to individual players until the 1960s. Players often changed numbers, sometimes multiple times in a season, thus the stereotypical vendor’s cry: “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard,” which was literally true in many cases in the early days of player numbering. It was sometimes said that teams asked players to change numbers to boost scorecard sales — no joke.

And thus it very well might have been that Charlie Gassaway, the new guy on a team playing out the string, was simply given a Nicholson jersey because it was the only one that the Cubs had while on the road that fit him. Nicholson (6-0, 205) and Gassaway (6-2, 210) were around the same physical size. A duplicate number? No big deal, since both players were listed on the scorecard, as shown above. Anyone attending that game — and per the Tribune boxscore there were just 1,611 who did so — would have not had difficulty telling an outfielder (Nicholson) from a pitcher (Gassaway).

This is about as definitive proof of a uniform number from 75 years ago as you’re going to find. As noted, Gassaway pitched in one more game after his Philadelphia debut for the Cubs, four days later in Boston. The attendance that day at Braves Field was 501. Five hundred and one. If anyone bought a scorecard from that long-ago afternoon, it’s likely long gone, given the date and the fact that the Braves are more than 65 years gone from Boston.

The Philadelphia scorecard, though, seems pretty conclusive, and Mike Bojanowski added this in the course of our discussion:

Having spent years collecting team-signed balls, I can tell you that the years 1942-45, and most especially 1943-44, are very difficult years to find for any team. Everything was in short supply, even balls, they were made in those years with inferior materials unessential to the war effort, and were game-used until they literally began to fall apart. Few could be spared for the usually souvenir purpose of signings. I can easily see Gassaway being issued, on a semi-emergency basis, a spare or worn out Nicholson (“Here, Rook, this’ll just hafta do”).

And thus I declare, with near-certainty, this mystery is solved. Charlie Gassaway wore No. 43 for his two games with the Cubs.

POSTSCRIPT: Gassaway, per Gerrit Blauvelt, did not report to Cubs spring training in 1945 and said he was going to sit out the season. Just before the season began, April 10, his contract was released back to the Brewers and the next day he was sold to the Athletics, for whom he pitched in 24 games that year, the first one April 29. Blauvelt theorizes that the two games he pitched in, on short notice, for the 1944 Cubs might have “soured” him on the team.