Monday, December 16, 2019

Elizabeth Taylor Goes to the Ball Game


I love watching baseball and I love watching Elizabeth Taylor. But how often does one get the chance to combine the two pastimes? Alas, not often.

I’ve long been aware of a couple of instances in which Liz and baseball have crossed paths. The first occurred on August 1, 1949, when a 17-year-old Liz participated in a celebrity ball game at Gilmore Field in Hollywood, California. In this case the game was softball, not baseball, and Liz didn’t actually play, but let’s not quibble over minutia. Liz was one of a dozen “bat girls” that cheered on Frank Sinatra’s “Swooners” and Andy Russell’s “Sprouts” in a benefit contest for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s youth welfare fund. Players included stars such as Nat “King” Cole, Peter Lawford, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, and Mel Torme. Other bat girls included Ava Gardner, Virginia Mayo, and Jane Russell.

Here are a couple of photos of Liz at the 1949 game, the latter one with “Swooners” captain Frank Sinatra:





A few months later, on December 21, 1949, Taylor and Pirates slugger Ralph Kiner went on a well-publicized date, attending the premiere of “Twelve O’Clock High” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Afterwards, the couple drove to a star-studded supper party honoring the movie’s star, Gregory Peck, at Romanoff’s Restaurant in Beverly Hills. And that was that. The two stars never saw each other again. Thankfully for posterity’s sake, the paparazzi managed to snap a few pictures of Liz and Ralph that evening:





I thought these were the only notable instances in which Liz and baseball crossed paths, but thanks to a “head’s up” from my friend Mark Armour, it turns out that there’s another Liz-baseball connection. About 17 minutes into the forgettable (except for Liz, of course) 1952 movie “Love Is Better Than Ever,” Jud Parker (played by Larry Parks) takes Stacie Macaboy (played by Taylor) on a date to the Polo Grounds in New York. If you have a spare 80 minutes, you can watch the movie at archive.org.

After taking a cab to the ball park, we see a brief 10-second clip of real, in-game footage. More about that segment in a moment.

We also see footage of a batter awaiting a pitch. It is clearly staged for the film, most likely shot at Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field, for many years the “go-to” location for movie studios needing baseball shots.



But for most of the baseball-related scene, we see Liz and Larry talking in the stands. This includes an sequence in which Jud (and a boy in the stands) explain the infield fly rule to Stacie. Alas (and I don’t think the script writers did this intentionally) they get the much of the rule wrong. Again, these shots were not taken at the Polo Grounds, but more likely in the grandstand at Wrigley Field.



Here’s the approximately two-minute clip:



Tearing myself away from wondering about Liz, I got to wondering about the real, in-game baseball footage. What could I find out about it? Was it really shot at the Polo Grounds? What’s the date, which clubs are playing, and who are the individuals seen? Let’s dive in.

The Ballpark


While we don’t have the luxury of a long-range shot to help us identify the ballpark, it is quite obviously the Polo Grounds. Here’s a screen shot from the film (at top) and a photo of the celebration at home plate following Bobby Thomson’s famed home run at the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951 (below). Note the similarities of the wall and the fencing atop the wall in the backgrounds of both images. (By the way, pardon the low quality of the screen shots throughout this post. It’s the best I could do with the archive.org version of the film.)





Additionally, the left field corner seen in the footage matches perfectly with the infamously short porch and high wall at the Polo Grounds. Compare this screen shot from the movie (at top) with another photo from the playoff game of October 3, 1951 (below).





A List of Clues


Now that we know where the footage was taken, let’s assess what other clues we have.

  • Contemporary newspaper research shows that the movie was released in February of 1952, thus the action we see must have taken place in 1951 or earlier. However, the general quality of the real, in-game footage suggests it was not shot before the early 1940s.
  • It is a day game. The batter is wearing home whites and thus is a member of the Giants, while the visiting team (in road gray uniforms) is in the field. Other than home whites and road grays, the uniforms for both clubs are similar in that both feature all dark caps and apparently solid-colored stockings.
  • Decorative bunting is hanging on the third baseline grandstand walls.
  • The pitcher is right handed and it appears he is wearing a double-digit uniform number that ends with a “6.”

  • The left fielder is right handed and wears uniform #8.

  • The batter is right-handed.

  • After the batter hits what appears to be a single to left field, the left fielder throws the ball back in to the infield and we can see no base runner on third base. (The member of the Giants seen behind third base is most certainly the coach.)


Following the Clues


Now let’s see where these clues lead.

For the years 1940 through 1951, only twice did the Polo Grounds host a contest against American Leaguers. In 1951, the Giants played the Yankees in the 1951 World Series. However, only Yogi Berra wore #8 with the Yankees and he did not play left field in any of that year’s World Series contests. And in 1942, the Polo Grounds was the site of the annual All-Star Game. But the American League left fielder that day was Boston’s Ted Williams, who wore #9, not #8. So we can now safely eliminate the footage as showing an interleague game.

By perusing the uniform database at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s online exhibit “Dressed to the Nines,” it becomes clear that in the dozen seasons between 1940 and 1951, there were only three campaigns in which the Giants wore solid-colored stockings as part of their home uniform: 1949, 1950, and 1951.



Another check of the uniform database eliminates the Cardinals (image at top) and Braves (image below) as potential opponents, because in each of these three seasons both of these clubs wore stockings with distinct white stripes, a characteristic not seen in the film clip.





This leaves only five possible opponents for the Giants in the game: the Dodgers, Cubs, Reds, Phillies, or Pirates. Of these clubs, which had one (or more) players who wore uniform #8? The uniform number data available at baseball-reference.com gives the following possibilities:

  • 1949: Brooklyn’s George Shuba; Chicago’s Smoky Burgess and Rube Walker; Philadelphia’s Dick Sisler; and Pittsburgh’s Monty Basgall and Clyde McCullough. But none of these men played left field in 1949.
  • 1950: Brooklyn’s Cal Abrams and George Shuba; Chicago’s Rube Walker; Cincinnati’s Hobie Landrith; Philadelphia’s Dick Sisler; and Pittsburgh’s Clyde McCullough. Of these, only Abrams, Shuba, and Sisler played left field in 1950, but we can eliminate Abrams as a possibility, as he threw left-handed.
  • 1951: Chicago’s Bruce Edwards and Rube Walker; Philadelphia’s Dick Sisler; and Pittsburgh’s Bill Howerton and Clyde McCullough. Of these, only Sisler and Howerton played left field in 1951.
To recap, we now have the following possibilities for the year and the left fielder:

  • 1950: Brooklyn’s George Shuba or Philadelphia’s Dick Sisler.
  • 1951: Philadelphia’s Dick Sisler or Pittsburgh’s Bill Howerton.
Thanks to the invaluable resources available at retrosheet.org, we can further narrow down possible dates of the real-game footage.

1950:

  • Brooklyn’s George Shuba played just one game in left field at the Polo Grounds: April 28.
  • Philadelphia’s Dick Sisler played 10 games in left field at the Polo Grounds: May 26, 27, 28 (doubleheader); August 18, 21; September 27 (doubleheader), September 28 (doubleheader).
1951:

  • Dick Sisler played 11 games in left field at the Polo Grounds: May 12, 13 (doubleheader); July 2, 3; August 11, 12 (doubleheader), 13; September 3 (doubleheader.)
  • Bill Howerton played left field in two games at the Polo Grounds: May 9, 10.

We’re now down to two dozen possible dates, but we can eliminate another three because they were played at night: April 28, 1950; July 2, 1951; and August 13, 1951.

The Exact Game


Now let’s turn our attention to the bunting seen hanging on the third baseline grandstand walls. These patriotic decorations at big league parks were reserved for special events and holidays, such as Opening Day, July 4th, Labor Day, the All-Star Game, and the World Series. We have already eliminated the latter pair of possibilities. Of the remaining 21 dates noted above, just one falls on such a special date: Labor Day, September 3, 1951.

On that day, the Giants hosted the Phillies for a doubleheader at the Polo Grounds. The first game saw Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts toss a complete game, 6-3 victory over New York. In the second contest, Phillies rookie Niles Jordan went the distance against the Giants, taking a 3-1 loss in just his third big league contest. But while Roberts was right-handed, Jordan was a southpaw, so we can eliminate the second game of the twin-bill as a possibility.

It appears that the only possible date for the game footage is the first game of the September 3, 1951, doubleheader. Recall that the pitcher in the clip wears a uniform number that ends with a “6.” This matches with our identification of Robin Roberts as the pitcher, as the future Hall of Famer wore uniform #36 throughout his career with the Phillies. Additionally, Roberts’ distinctive delivery, with a slight flip of his left foot as he strides toward home, matches what is seen in the footage. You can check out footage of Roberts’ pitching motion here.

By the way, this particular Labor Day victory over the Giants must have meant a great deal to Roberts, as he kept a ball from the game. It was made available at auction in 2011.



The Exact Play


Now that we know the exact game, that our pitcher is Robin Roperts, and the left fielder is Dick Sisler, let’s turn our attention to the final clues: The batter is right-handed, hits what appears to be a single to left field, and when Sisler throws the ball back in to the infield we can see no base runner on third base. A check of the play-by-play data of the game made available at Retrosheet, this only occurred twice during the first game of the Labor Day doubleheader:

  • In the 4th inning, when Willie Mays singled with one out;
  • In the 8th inning, when Eddie Stanky singled with one out.
But Eddie Stanky notoriously choked up and wiggled his bat while at the plate, something we do not see the batter doing. Here’s a photo of Stanky in his typical batting stance:



No. The batter in the film is not Stanky. It is none other than the great Willie Mays nearing the end of his rookie season.

Looking over the box score of the game, the rest of the men seen in the 10-second clip can now be identified: catcher Andy Seminick, home plate umpire Babe Pinelli, shortstop Granny Hamner, and third baseman Eddie Pellagrini.

And now that we know which ballgame Stacie Macaboy attended, I’d suggest we get back to the movie and pay a little more attention to Liz.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Death of "Death to Flying Things"


The Web is chock full of lists of the greatest (coolest, most unusual, favorite, etc.) nicknames in big league baseball history. Here are just a few such lists:

All of these lists (and lots of others) call out the eminently enjoyable nickname “Death to Flying Things.” I think we can all agree that it’s cool, fun, and unique. Well, except for the part about its being unique. Indeed, most sources today attach this nickname to not one, not two, but three big leaguers.


Jack Chapman — A baseball “lifer” who played the outfield from 1860 through 1876, he also managed in the big leagues for 11 seasons.


Bob Ferguson — An infielder and catcher whose on-field career lasted from 1865 through 1884, he is often credited with being the game’s first switch-hitter.


Franklin Gutierrez — A veteran of 14 years in the big leagues, he won a Gold Glove Award in 2010 as a center fielder.

Gutierrez was certainly an exciting outfielder and talented with the glove. And I love that, soon after his trade to Seattle in 2009, Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus christened him with the “retro” nickname, both as a compliment to the Venezuelan’s abilities and a nod to the nickname’s prior attachment to Chapman and Ferguson.

As for Chapman and Ferguson, the “Death to Flying Things” sobriquet makes sense, as well, for both players were known to be excellent fielders.

For example, in a much-anticipated, well-attended, and exciting contest between the Mutuals of New York and the Atlantics of Brooklyn on August 17, 1868, Atlantics left fielder Chapman saved the day. As reported in the next day’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle:



Regarding Ferguson, time and again contemporary newspaper accounts sang his praises as a stellar third baseman:

  • “Ferguson made a splendid catch of a line ball, and stopped the run-getting.” — The Brooklyn Times-Union, June 10, 1873
  • “Ferguson made a great running catch, and this was the only brilliant play of the game.” — The Philadelphia Times, May 18, 1883
  • “Ferguson made a brilliant catch of a hot liner and made a double play.” — The Philadelphia Times, September 23, 1883
But in researching the nickname, I simply cannot find any contemporary evidence that the sobriquet was used for either Chapman or Ferguson. The first reference of any player being dubbed “Death to Flying Things” is found in Alfred Spink’s “The National Game,” a history of baseball published by The Sporting News in 1910. On page 10, Spink recounts how Chapman earned the nickname:



After this mention, I don’t find another independent reference to the nickname until 1969, when the inaugural edition of “The Baseball Encyclopedia” included it in its entry for Ferguson ... but surprisingly not for that of Chapman. Here are those entries from the 10th edition of “The Baseball Encyclopedia”:





To add to the confusion, while the entire run of “The Baseball Encyclopedia” tags Ferguson with the nickname and Chapman without it, the exact opposite is the case for the full run of “Total Baseball”: Chapman is listed with the nickname and Ferguson is not. Here are those entries from the fourth edition of “Total Baseball”:





(For what it’s worth, baseball-reference.com gives the nickname to Chapman, Ferguson, and Gutierrez.)

Note that in Spink’s “The National Game,” the statement about Chapman’s nickname comes just a few paragraphs below a note about Ferguson and under a heading calling out Ferguson as “THE FIRST GREAT CATCHER.” Here’s that full paragraph:



Perhaps in prepping “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” a researcher found the nickname in Spink’s book and made two errors:

1) mistakenly assuming the nickname to be accurate; and,
2) mistakenly assuming the nickname belonged to “THE GREATEST CATCHER,” Bob Ferguson.

Who knows?

For now, all we can say for certain is that while the nickname is most certainly fun, there is no evidence that it was contemporaneously connected to either Ferguson or Chapman. Ironically, despite being based on the erroneous belief that the moniker first belonged to those two 19th century ballplayers, the nickname can only truly be linked to Franklin Gutierrez!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Tragedy and Comedy (and Beer) on the Diamond


On September 13, 2019, @TheSkimmers shared this wonderful photograph on Twitter.



First of all, if you love vintage (and often overlooked) baseball pictures, you need to follow @TheSkimmers on Twitter. Second, let’s see what can be learned about this particular image.

According to the caption on the photo mount, this picture was apparently taken on May 25th, sometime in the 1880s. A quick search of newspapers of the era turned up this note in the Boston Globe of May 25, 1886: “There will be a quaint game in New York today, when it is expected an enormous crowd will gather on the Polo Grounds to see the disciples of Thespia wrestle with the sphere for the benefit of Bartley Campbell.”



About a week earlier, celebrated American playwright Bartley Campbell, suffering from dementia, had been transferred from Bellevue Hospital to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. This exhibition baseball game was just one of a number of benefits that were organized in order to raise money for Campbell, his wife, and his two boys.

Poorly promoted and staged in uncomfortably cool and damp conditions, only around 500 patrons attended the contest. Still, the game raised $430.25 for the unfortunate Campbells.


Illustration from Harper's Weekly of May 8, 1886, depicting Opening Day at the Polo Grounds, April 29, 1886, just one month before the benefit game for Bartley Campbell

Stage actors and others who made their living in the theater formed two competing nines: the Tragedians and the Comedians.

George Boniface Jr. pitched for the Comedy Nine, while Burr McIntosh, who the previous August made his theatrical debut in Bartley Campbell’s “Paquita,” did the catching. Comic star De Wolf Hopper, a well-known baseball fanatic and the man who popularized the poem “Casey at the Bat” in August of 1888, manned first base. The rest of the infield included famed comedian Nat C. Goodwin at second base, theater manager Robert Hilliard at third, and Francis Wilson at shortstop. The outfield featured Charles Bowser, James T. Powers, and Victor Harman.


George Boniface Jr.


De Wolf Hopper


Nat Goodwin

Will Rising took the mound for the Tragedy Nine and theater manager G.W. Sammis handled the role of catcher. Randolph Murray, best known as the then-husband of well-known singer and dancer Pauline Markham played first base. Joseph Frankau (second base), R.E. Graham (third base), and Edwin Cleary (shortstop) filled out the infield. Italian actor Alexander Salvini (who had now idea what he was doing) played left field, H.S Hilliard manned center, and Paul Arthur stationed himself in right.


Will Rising


Joseph Frankau


Alexander Salvini

Many of the contestants donned theatrical costumes. For example, Robert Hilliard dressed as Romeo, Joseph Frankau as King Lear, and Alexander Salvini as Ingomar the Barbarian.

A few special rules were adopted for the game. Five innings, not nine, would decide the contest, and no team was allowed to score more than nine runs in an inning. Additionally, two (some sources say three) kegs of beer (humorously labeled “Arnica”) were stationed next to third base, with players reaching the base being rewarded with the refreshment.

Incidentally, this humorously innovative idea to encourage base runners to try for third base was not new. As far as I am able to determine, the gimmick was first introduced in a baseball game played on July 4th, 1882, in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. A notice about the game was published in the Philadelphia Times on July 6th, 1882:



The keg-of-beer-at-third-base gimmick was popular throughout the late nineteenth century. Sometimes the kegs even showed up at first and/or second base, as well. An illustration in the May 1896 issue of Judge, shows the practice in full swing (or, perhaps more accurately, full swig):


Later, well into the 20th century, the concept was twisted a bit, generally being seen in games of softball. Instead of rewarding a player with a beer for making it to third base (and/or second and first), the base runner was required to drink a beer before leaving the base. This form of the game is still played today.

But getting back to the Comedy vs. Tragedy contest of May 25, 1886 ...

From the moment the game began, chaos ensued on the field. Other than just a few of the participants, most had limited ability in playing baseball, and some had no clue at all. And with confusion and inebriation being the order of the day, umpire Gus Heckler and official scorer John Mackay had their work cut out for them. Sources differ on the final score (20-9, 20-10, 19-7), but all credited the Comedians with the victory.

A few weeks later, on June 11, another benefit baseball game was staged by actors for Bartley Campbell. The exhibition contest took place at the home grounds of the Philadelphia Phillies and this time some 1,000 spectators raised over $500. While these games and various other fundraisers no doubt helped the Campbells, the playwright never recovered from his illness and passed away in the summer of 1888.