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Wrigley Field historical sleuthing: Walter Payton edition

The Bears great appeared for a ceremonial pitch at Wrigley — but when?

Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Walter Payton passed away 22 years ago yesterday, November 1, 1999, far too young at age 45.

Another Hall of Famer, Fergie Jenkins, tweeted out the photo above, and a reader called it to my attention and asked me to sleuth it. First, though, here’s the full version of the photo which shows part of the scoreboard, via Fergie’s Twitter account:

So, there are a few games visible on the scoreboard, and it’s obviously a full house and it’s April, since the ivy is brown.

The message board beneath the Wrigley board threw me off momentarily. It was installed after Tribune Co. bought the team in 1981, but for a couple of years it had beer company ads placed on either side. I believed those were removed after the 1984 season, which helped narrow this down. Further, the board was painted in mid-1987 after a Sports Illustrated cover photo showed that it was in bad shape. So this has to be before mid-1987 but after 1984.

That made it relatively easy. Rick Sutcliffe wore No. 40 for the Cubs throughout that time, so I had to look up who No. 29 was for the Pirates.

That was Rick Rhoden. He pitched only one game in April at Wrigley in that time span.

It might be dawning on you now, just as it did for me, that this has to be Opening Day. It is — though not the season opener. The year is 1986 and the Cubs opened that season with a seven-game road trip on which they went 2-5.

So for this home opener, the Cubs asked Walter Payton to throw out a first pitch, and that’s what you are seeing here. The date is Friday, April 18, 1986. Rhoden and three Pirates relievers shut out the Cubs 4-0, though the Cubs did manage nine hits. That wasn’t a good year for the Cubs, as they finished 70-90 and in fifth place in the NL East, ahead of only... the Pirates.

And yes, that’s Walter’s son Jarrett behind him. Jarrett Payton, who played briefly in the NFL and CFL, would have been five years old at the time.

Another nice snapshot of Cubs and Wrigley Field history.