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Cubs historical sleuthing: Possibly the first known film of Ernie Banks

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This is quite a find.

Ernie Banks in 1960
Getty Images

Recently, BCB reader eths sent me this video:

Obviously, this film is not mostly about the Cubs, though it’s an interesting historical film about Chicago and Illinois that’s worth a viewing anyway.

First, there’s an error in the title made by whoever put this on YouTube. It’s not from 1947 — scroll in to 1:13 and you’ll see the copyright date on this film is 1953.

What we are interested in here is 15 seconds’ worth of this film that begins at 24:35. There, you will find four brief scenes from a Cubs game.

The first scene shows a Cardinals pitcher winding up to make a pitch at Wrigley Field. Next, you see a Cubs player grounding out to third base. In scene three, a Cubs runner is rounding second base as a popup is caught. The last brief scene is a bit confusing, and I’ll come back to that later.

These scenes — or at least the first three — are without question from the last game of the 1953 season, September 27, a 3-2 Cubs win over the Cardinals.

The Cardinals pitcher in that game was Vinegar Bend Mizell, a lefthander who wore No. 33 (you’ll see this number clearly in the later scenes). That’s him winding up in the first scene.

The second scene shows Ernie Banks grounding out to third in the seventh inning of this game. It has to be Ernie. Paul Schramka wore No. 14 early in 1953, but never had a MLB plate appearance, and that number hadn’t previously been worn since 1942. This was Banks’ 10th major league game, and just his fourth at Wrigley Field. It is without question the earliest known film of Ernie as a baseball player, and quite possibly the earliest film of him, period.

The third scene shows the last batter of the Cubs eighth inning, after they had scored the two runs that won the game. Ralph Kiner popped to short center field (caught by the second baseman) and Dee Fondy is the runner rounding second base. That, obviously, is what a runner would be doing in a two-out situation (Fondy had just singled in the eventual winning run).

The fourth scene — which lasts only about seven seconds — is the stumper. It seems clearly taken during this same game, but doesn’t match any of the play-by-play, and the number worn by the Cubs runner (it appears to be 53) doesn’t match anyone on the 1953 roster, and in fact per Cubs By The Numbers it wasn’t worn at all between 1952 and 1954. You can see Mizell in the photo, and also a Cardinals player wearing No. 5, the first baseman. That’s Steve Bilko, who did play first for St. Louis that day.

I asked Mike Bojanowski to have a look at this film. He sent me some of the detail above, and regarding that fourth scene:

Possibly, and I emphasize that, this is Gene Baker stealing second base in the first inning. His uni number was 37, so it’s not out of the question. And he looks like a man who has just stolen a base. The PBP indicates a Fondy strikeout, this may have been a dropped third strike, (though that is not clear from the PBP), which would explain the batter running to first base, and perhaps the loose ball. Fondy, of course, would have been out anyway, as first base would be officially occupied. But that uni number isn’t 40, and Fondy does appear in the other sequence wearing that number. Unless he wore 53 and later switched, for whatever harebrained reason.

The other possibility is that the fourth scene was a foul ball that somehow wound up in the infield, and thus would not have been noted in the official PBP. It still doesn’t explain why a Cubs runner was clearly wearing a number that didn’t officially exist for any Cubs player (or coach, for that matter) in 1953, although jersey numbers were a bit more fluid in those days (“Can’t tell the players without a scorecard!” vendors would yell), and maybe that “harebrained reason” explains this.

If you can figure out the last seven seconds of the Cubs clips in that film, let us all know. In the meantime, even though it lasts only a few seconds, enjoy the first known film of Ernie Banks playing baseball for the Cubs.