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Cubs historical sleuthing: Late 1930s edition

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This one... well, there’s a long story.

I found this photo on the Forgotten Chicago Facebook group. (And yes, I know Wrigley Field hasn’t been forgotten!)

The poster, Rachel LaBant, said she found it in a family album.

Well, of course you know that set me to sleuthing, especially since this was a photo I’d never seen before.

What do we know about this photo? First, it was taken not long after the iconic bleachers and scoreboard were built. We know this because there’s no clock on the board; that was installed in June 1941. Here’s a post I did sleuthing a photo from May 1941, only about a month before the clock was installed, one of the only color photos of the board painted brown. It also can’t be from the first year, 1938, because photos and video from that year’s World Series show the ivy still barely grown in:

That’s about a year after the ivy was first planted. The photo we’re sleuthing here has ivy much more fully grown in.

So we’ve now narrowed it down to 1939, 1940 or early 1941.

What else do we see here? Here’s a larger version of the photo at the top of this post:

There’s a lefthanded batter at the plate and a righthanded pitcher on the mound. There’s a runner leading off first base. Based on what’s visible on the admittedly a bit blurry scoreboard, there appears to be nobody out and no count, and the batter’s number is 21. There’s also no score on the top-left scoreboard line, which is where the Cubs game score was at the time. That would seem to indicate the top of the first inning. The shadows seem to confirm an early-afternoon time — in 1939, doubleheaders at Wrigley started at 1:30.

To me, the key indicators here are:

  • The uniform number of the batter, and
  • The crowd size.

You have to then remember that after the 1938 pennant, the Cubs’ performance declined fairly rapidly. They contended for a while in ‘39, but had losing records in both ‘40 and ‘41 and attendance declined accordingly. The Cubs drew 951,640 in 1938 (tops in the NL), but by ‘41 only 545,159 paid their way into Wrigley, which ranked fifth in the then eight-team league.

So there were a lot more small crowds toward the end of this time frame than earlier.

The number 21, in my view, is what clinched it. Baseball-reference.com has a search function by uniform number, and it was fairly easy to find all the 21’s who played as visitors in Wrigley over those three seasons. As it turned out, most of those players were pitchers and I quickly eliminated all but two players — Heinie Mueller and Arky Vaughan.

Mueller was a bit player whose only Wrigley appearances in those years were in low-attended games.

Vaughan, though — he’s a Hall of Famer, a legitimately great player whose career was ruined by injuries, and then he died one of the most pointless deaths imaginable, in a boating accident when he was just 40 years old.

There’s just one game that matches all the things above — the first game of a doubleheader Monday, September 4, 1939, Cubs hosting the Pirates.

The leadoff Pirates hitter, Paul Waner, had singled. That matches. Vaughan was a lefthanded hitter. The pitcher was Dizzy Dean, a righthander.

It’s really, really hard to read the blurry team names on the board, but at least the very top AL matchup appears to be confirmed. The White Sox were at Cleveland, always rendered as “SOX” in those days, and below could be “CLEVELAND” if you squint... a lot.

Attendance that day was 32,974. It was the third-largest crowd of 1939. From then until the clock was installed on the scoreboard, the Cubs drew that many only three other times.

However, what really was most interesting to me in this photo was the umpires. They appear to be wearing white pants.

According to this ESPN article by Uni-watch’s Paul Lukas, this apparently was a thing on certain holidays in that era:

1927: AL umps wear a blue blazer and gray flannel slacks on Mother’s Day, with carnations tucked into their lapels, leading to hoots and catcalls from fans and players. White slacks show up again in 1941, leading many players to “accidentally” kick dirt on them. Umpire Joe Rue later recalls, “The players called us a bunch of sissies. They’d sneak up behind you and spit tobacco juice on your pants legs. Every time we’d see one of them walking by, we’d say, ‘Get the hell away from me.’ “

I emailed Lukas to ask him if umpires might have worn white pants on holidays in 1939. His reply: “Certainly possible!” Incidentally, also, there are just three umpires in this game (you can barely see the 1B umpire behind some of the crowd), which matches the boxscore.

Now, let me put a caveat on this whole thing. I went back and forth with Mike Bojanowski on this photo for several days. He is a lot more circumspect about making definitive statements about things like this than I am when the evidence isn’t a slam dunk. I understand that position and I put it out here just because neither one of us is absolutely 100 percent sure on this photo.

But I will say I’m personally at 99.9 percent. All of the evidence available to us in what we see here points to this photo being of Arky Vaughan, the second batter in the first inning of the first game of a Labor Day doubleheader, September 4, 1939. Here’s a photo of Vaughan taking batting practice in 1935:

Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

Maybe I’m reaching here, but this stance and the one in the Wrigley photo look very, very similar to me.

FWIW, the result of the at-bat in the Wrigley photo was Vaughan being hit by a pitch. The Pirates eventually scored a run in the inning and won the game 2-1.