One of my favorite films is The Maltese Falcon. I must have seen the film noir classic at least 50 times, and each time it's a thoroughly enjoyable experience. And, like going to a ballgame, I see something new, something I haven't seen before, each time I watch.
So why am I discussing The Maltese Falcon on the Baseball Researcher Blog? What does The Maltese Falcon have to do with baseball?
Well, nothing much ... except for one scene that poses an interesting challenge to the baseball picture researcher. The scene occurs nearly halfway through the film and goes like this:
Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) enters the Hotel Belvedere in order to talk with Joel Cairo. He stops at the lobby desk and attempts to ring Cairo.
While on the phone, Spade notices Wilmer Cook (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.), the "gunsel" that has been tailing him, sitting in the lobby and reading (or pretending to read) a newspaper.
Spade walks over, stares at Cook, sits in a chair next to the young thug and coolly partakes in a bit of verbal sparring:
Spade: Where is he?
Spade: Where is he?
[Where are Abbott and Costello when you need them?]
Cook: What do you think you're doing, Jack? Kidding me?
Spade: I'll tell you when I am. New York, aren't you?
Cook: Shove off.
Spade: You're gonna have to talk to me before you're through, sonny. Some of you will. And you can tell the fat man I said so.
Cook: Keep askin' for it and you're gonna get it ... plenty. I told you to shove off. Shove off.
Spade: People lose teeth talkin' like that. If you wanna hang around, you'll be polite.
At this point, Spade gets the attention of Luke, the house detective. After exchanging hellos, Spade calls Luke's attention to Cook.
Spade: What do you let these cheap gunmen hang around the lobby for, with their heaters bulging in their clothes?
Luke [to Cook]: What do you want here? Well, if you don't want anything, beat it and don't come back!
Cook: I won't forget you guys.
And with that, Cook exits.
So, where's the baseball? Well, take another look at the newspaper held by Wilmer:
And here's a close-up of the paper:
There's the baseball ... smack dab in the middle of the paper is a picture of a catcher making a play at home.
And the mystery? Who's the catcher? What's the situation? Where and when was the photo taken? It's a great challenge that was originally posed back in 2001 by baseball historian Jules Tygiel on SABR-L , the listserve for the Society for American Baseball Research:
A friend has posed a somewhat esoteric but intriguing question. Most of you will want to pass on this one, but I know that there are a few movie buffs out there. In the Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) walks into a San Francisco hotel. Wilmer the gunsel (Elisha Cook, Jr.) is sitting there, face obscured by an open newspaper. On the back page of the newspaper is a picture of a catcher. Who is the catcher?
No guesses please. Has anyone ever freeze framed the movie and figured this out?
I thought I'd give it a try.
Unfortunately, the quality of the images I have been able to track down (capturing frames off DVD and reviewing publicity stills) is not good enough to make out the catcher, the sliding runner, or much else about the photo. The research will have to focus on other clues and I figured the best angle of attack would be to identify the exact issue of the newspaper, track down a copy and simply read the caption for the photo. But before proceeding further, we first need address the possibility that the paper is a manufactured prop.
Actually, fake newspapers show up here and there throughout the film. For example, early in the movie, when Spade gets the late night call telling him that his partner Miles Archer has been killed, the camera lingers not on the sleepy detective, but on the night table where his tobacco pouch and ashtray lay atop a newspaper.
Careful examination of the paper reveals it is a racing form, with the words "Yankee Do—" in a prominent headline, the last word cut off at the fold. I suspect this is supposed to be the name of a horse, likely "Yankee Doodle," a rather uninspired name for a fictional mount. (While it is not stated directly in the movie, Spade is a bit of a racing aficionado, as he has pictures of thoroughbreds scattered about his apartment.) The paper was almost assuredly created for the movie.
Another newspaper figures prominently in a later scene, with the front page taking over the full screen:
As one might guess, there never was a "San Francisco Post-Dispatch." The paper and its important headlines were obviously manufactured in order to further the plot.
In the scene in which Spade awakens after being drugged, he pulls himself together and proceeds to turn Casper Gutman's hotel room upside down, looking for clues. He happens upon a newspaper in which the name of a ship (the La Paloma) has been circled.
Bogart is likely holding a real newspaper (above), but the paper used in the close-up (below) showing the shipping news is a fake:
And when Captain Jacobi (played by director John Huston's father, Walter) stumbles into Spade's office with the Falcon, it is bundled in yet another newspaper ... this one in Chinese (the La Paloma had just arrived from Hong Kong).
Whether or not this is a real paper (or papers?) is unknown. (Bonus points if anyone can decipher anything about this paper.)
But, what of Wilmer Cook's paper? Is it, like the others, a manufactured prop? Well, it's not easy, but the careful eye can make out a few headlines.
Most prominent, at the top left is a headline that reads "SEALS OPEN SERIES WITH STARS TONIGHT" with an impossible to read byline. Below the photo of the catcher are headlines for two separate stories. The one at far right reads "OAKS OPEN L.A. SERIES TONIGHT" and the other "PEARSON AND BALASKI TOP HOLLYPARK RIDERS." Another headline that runs over the fold at the bottom-right reads, in part, "DiMag—" and near the very bottom there appears to be a headline starting with the words "FIGURE SKATING." Finally, at the upper right of the folded paper there appears to be a headline that reads (in part) "NICK WILLIAMS," with an accompanying photo.
Obviously we're seeing the sports section, but the headlines are so specific that it simply cannot be a manufactured piece. So, can we determine the date and name of the paper?
The Maltese Falcon was released in October of 1941, but shooting took place in Hollywood during the summer of '41. In fact, the entire film was shot in just about six weeks, starting in early June and ending in mid-July. Thus, the paper must have been printed no later than mid-July of 1941.
I decided to run through the headlines as clues, seeing if any could help nail the date of the paper.
There are two headlines referring to openings of series. Both refer to clubs in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), the top one referring to the San Francisco Seals and Hollywood Stars, while the lower headline calls out the Oakland Oaks and Los Angeles Angels. Conveniently, both stories feature Bay Area clubs, which is important for continuity as the movie is set in San Francisco. But if we assume that the paper is from 1941, when did those teams meet?
I tracked down a 1941 PCL schedule and quickly two dates emerged as the only possibilities. The Oaks and Angels faced each other in series openers on Tuesday, June 3 (at L.A.) and Tuesday, July 1 (at Oakland). Those dates also match when the Stars played the Seals: June 3 (at Hollywood) and July 1 (at San Francisco). The same pairs of clubs also met for two series in August, but those occurred after shooting was completed, so they are not possibilities for the date of the paper.
So, quickly I was able to narrow down the date of the paper to either June 3 or July 1, 1941.
What of the clue that both series opened at night? Perhaps that would isolate one of the two remaining dates. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, series openers at that time in the PCL always started on Tuesday nights, so we make no headway there.
The headline that reads "PEARSON AND BALASKI TOP HOLLYPARK RIDERS" seems promising. Billy Pearson and Lester Balaski were both jockeys at Hollywood Park (often shortened to "Hollypark" to save headline space). Pearson was an apprentice jockey at the time, while Balaski had been riding since the mid-1930s. Perhaps their positions atop the jockey standings would determine the correct date for the newspaper.
The Los Angeles Times generally published the jockey standings on Mondays, so I checked both the June 2 and June 30 issues to see who were the top riders. Alas, both Pearson and Balaski were one-two on both occasions! This nicely corroborated the two dates I had already determined, but (once again) failed to eliminate either.
Thankfully, the "NICK WILLIAMS" headline managed to do the trick. Richard Lloyd "Nick" Williams was a former minor league ballplayer and scout. But he was best known as manager of the San Francisco Seals in the late 1920s and early '30s. His clubs featured future Hall of Famers such as Paul Waner, Earl Averill and Lefty Gomez, along with star players like Frankie Crosetti, Dolph Camilli, and Lefty O'Doul. But more importantly for my research, Williams passed away on June 2, 1941. The headline was for his obituary that ran the next day, June 3, 1941: the date of the paper held by Wilmer!
Now that the date of the paper was settled, I needed to determine what paper it was. My first guess was that it was a Los Angeles-based paper, since it seemed more likely that a real paper used as a simple prop would most likely be obtained near the studio. Furthermore, the headline related to Hollypark seemed to point in the direction of a paper from the Hollywood area. I contacted SABR member Bob Timmerman, Senior Librarian at the Los Angeles Library, and briefed him on the project. He graciously checked numerous Hollywood and LA-based papers from June 3, 1941, but couldn't find a match.
Then I noticed a subtle clue that had earlier eluded me. Above the headline that reads "SEALS OPEN SERIES WITH STARS TONIGHT" there is a smaller lead headline. It is difficult to discern, but it reads: "IN THE LAND OF MAKE BELIEVE." Since the date of the paper is June 3, we know that the Seals are playing the Stars in Hollywood (not in San Francisco, which would have been the case if the paper had been from July 1). Hollywood is "the land of make believe." But it didn't seem likely that an LA-based paper would refer to Hollywood as "the land of make believe." That would be a title that a paper from a different locale would use. Perhaps this paper wasn't from LA after all? My thoughts turned north ... to San Francisco.
Like Los Angeles, San Francisco boasted numerous newspapers in 1941, but I hoped that a match would surface in one of the two biggest: The Chronicle or The Examiner. I managed to obtain a copy of the sports page from a June 3, 1941 issue of the San Francisco Examiner by way of a kind librarian at York College, but it definitely did not look like Wilmer's paper.
Now my hopes were pinned on The Chronicle. While microfilm of the newspaper can be found at many libraries, I managed to make a connection with Ted Smith, librarian at the University of Oregon, and he agreed to take a look. Initially, the report wasn't good. The page didn't match that seen in the movie still. But upon further review, something interesting was revealed. A pair of headlines in The Chronicle of June 3 were identical to those in our mystery paper: "SEALS OPEN SERIES WITH STARS TONIGHT" and "OAKS OPEN L.A. SERIES TONIGHT." Furthermore, the Stars story had a byline: "by BOB STEVENS."
Bob Stevens had covered baseball in the Bay Area since the mid-1930s and was The Chronicle's beat writer for the Seals for 17 years. He then covered the Giants from their first year following their move out from New York until 1978. While the byline under the Seals headline in the mystery paper is impossible to read, it matches the length of the words "By BOB STEVENS." The matchup of headlines and bylines couldn't be a coincidence ... it had to be The San Francisco Chronicle. But the rest of the page didn't jibe. How could this be?
In fact, there was another problem with the June 3, 1941 date altogether. Basically every paper I could track down from that day featured columns upon columns of coverage of a major sports story: the death of Lou Gehrig. How could it be that Wilmer was holding a sports page from June 3, yet there is apparently not a word of Gehrig's demise?
It seems to me there is only one possible resolution. As was generally the case at the time, The Chronicle published numerous issues of their paper throughout the day. Perhaps the early morning edition had already gone to press before news of Gehrig's death had made it to the paper's offices. After the big news hit The Chronicle, they rearranged the paper, cut various stories (Balaski and Pearson, figure skating, and our mystery catcher), and added in the news about Gehrig. The edition that Wilmer is holding had to be that early morning edition, while the edition on microfilm at the University of Oregon, was from later in the day.
And so, I am left searching for an early morning, June 3, 1941 edition of The San Francisco Chronicle, in hopes that my theory is correct and the mysterious catcher can be identified. Ironically, I'm left in much the same position as Casper Gutman and Joel Cairo at the end of The Maltese Falcon, having come so close to finding the Falcon, yet so far. Like them, I'll not give up. I'll track that paper down someday, somehow. But, until then, the mystery will remain "the stuff that dreams are made of."