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Cubs historical sleuthing: The blank scoreboard edition

You might think there’s not enough here to determine the date of this game. You’d be wrong.

Here’s a snapshot in time of the Wrigley Field scoreboard — with nothing on it other than the team matchups. No other games taking place at that time, no pitchers listed for the Cubs or the visitors, just the clock and umpire numbers indicated.

There are lots of clues here. First, below is the full version of the photo at the top; I cropped it above so it fits the horizontal photo format better.

I love this photo for a lot of reasons. First, it’s clearly from a specific era, with the bleachers not full, even at close to game time. It shows the unnaturally green Astroturf that covered center field and formed the hitters background for a number of years in the 1960s and 1970s.

One other thing you’ll notice if you look close enough: All the city names look pretty well-spaced... except “SAN FRANCISCO.” It looks like they started and then went, “Uh-oh, we’re running out of space.” The last three or four letters are much thinner than the first three.

On to sleuthing!

The turf is the first clue. It was installed in 1965 and removed when Tribune Company bought the team in 1981.

Next: Toronto is shown on the American League side of the board. So it has to be from between 1977 and 1981. That narrows it down considerably. The Cubs played the Astros 28 times at Wrigley Field in those five seasons.

Next: It’s sunny and obviously warm, people in the bleachers are dressed for summer. That and the sun angle make it June or July, most likely.

Next: It’s most likely a weekday afternoon, as every other game on the board (except Oakland/Minnesota) says “NITE GAME.” If you’re wondering why they used (and still use) “NITE” instead of “NIGHT,” it was likely because of the symmetry of having both words with four letters.

Searching the 28 games (a total of nine series), this got narrowed down quickly. Only two dates matched all the teams: July 24 and 25, 1977. July 24 was a Sunday during which several doubleheaders were played (including at Wrigley), and everyone played during the day.

By process of elimination, then, this photo was taken shortly before game time on Monday, July 25, 1977. Bill Bonham started for the Cubs and Floyd Bannister went for Houston.

The Cubs fashioned a 7-0 lead with two in the first inning, one in the second and four in the sixth. Bonham entered the eighth working on a three-hit shutout, although the Astros had several other baserunners. Bonham walked three through seven and the Cubs had made three errors.

Then the bottom fell out. Bonham allowed a single and walk, then struck out Enos Cabell. The next four Astros reached base and it was 7-5 when Paul Reuschel relieved Bonham. A triple by Cesar Cedeno made it 7-6. Reuschel struck out the next hitter and was relieved by Willie Hernandez. Cedeno then stole home to tie the game.

Amazingly enough, for this random game in July 1977 that I chose for an article just because I wanted to sleuth the photo above, we actually have video of Cedeno’s steal of home:

That’s a nasty blown lead in just one inning. Note the beer vendor behind the Houston dugout selling Old Style for 75 cents. (0:12 into the video)

Fortunately, the Cubs rallied and created some “happy totals,” as Jack Brickhouse used to say. George Mitterwald walked leading off the last of the eighth, and two outs later, Larry Biittner hit a two-run homer for a 9-7 Cubs lead. Hernandez finished up uneventfully and the Cubs had a win.

Here’s the boxscore and play-by-play. The Cubs were 57-38 and led the Phillies by one game in the N.L. East. The attendance, reflected by the sparse crowd in the bleachers, was just 14,577, despite the Cubs’ first-place standing.

It was a different time.