Monday, December 26, 2011

Who is Ray Lankford Mourning?

I recently bumped into this picture of the Cardinals' Ray Lankford as published in The Sporting News of August 4, 1997:

The caption reads: "Homecoming dance: For most of his career, Cardinals center fielder Ray Lankford appeared to be on a collision course with greatness. Now that potential finally is translating into success."

I was interested in the image because Lankford is clearly wearing a mourning band on his left arm and I have long kept track of such memorial markings. But this armband had me stumped.

Ray Lankford played with the Cards from 1990 to 2001, but only once during his tenure with St. Louis did the club wear black armbands. That was during Spring Training of 1990 when the club mourned the passing of owner August A. Busch Jr., who died during the last road trip of the 1989 season. But as far as I am aware, those armbands were worn only on the special all-red Spring Training shirts. This 1990 Bowman baseball card of Bryn Smith shows that armband/jersey combo:

Clearly the Lankford photo does not show the Busch armband, so I was left wondering: Who was Ray Lankford (and presumably the rest of the Cardinals) mourning?

My first step in answering this question was to determine as much about the photo as possible. Beyond identifying Ray Lankford with the Cardinals, we can quickly see that St. Louis is wearing road grays, while the catcher is wearing home pinstripes.

A closer look at the picture reveals that the catcher's mask is one of the hockey-style variety. Here's a closer look:

Toronto Blue Jays catcher Charlie O'Brien was the first to wear the innovative mask, introducing it to the big leagues on September 13, 1996. Given this earliest limit for the date and combining it with the fact that the photo was published in the August 4, 1997, issue of The Sporting News, I was able to whittle down the possible dates of action to sometime between late September of 1996 and early August of '97. But, since no big league catcher other than O'Brien wore the new mask until 1997 and the catcher depicted is not wearing a Blue Jays uniform, I felt comfortable eliminating 1996 and focusing on a pre-August 4 date in the 1997 baseball season.

At this point, however, my research started to fall apart. Further examination of Lankford's uniform shows that it doesn't match the duds worn by the Cardinals in 1997 (or 1996, for that matter). For example, in 1997 St. Louis donned dark blue helmets on the road, but despite the black-and-white version of the Lankford photo, it is clear that Ray's helmet is red. Furthermore, the Cardinals had dropped the red, white and blue stripes at the ends of their sleeves after the 1991 season, but there they are on Ray's jersey. Finally, Lankford is seen wearing the "sansabelt" pants that the Cardinals had worn from 1971 to 1991, but how could this be if there's clearly a hockey-style mask in the picture?

Hitting a bit of a dead-end with this line of research, I turned my attention to the catcher's uniform to determine ]what club he played for. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of clues provided in the picture. The catcher is clearly wearing pinstripes, but we cannot see his stockings, nor much else that might help identify his club. However, examining this detail from the picture, one can see what appears to be the letter "s" peaking just behind the catcher's chest protector:

The font of the "S" appears to be sans-serif and somewhat block-lettered, which eliminates numerous clubs that otherwise have "S"-ending nicknames or locales that adorn their jerseys. So, for example, the Braves and Expos, both clubs that wore pinstripes at home, can be eliminated as their shirt-front "S"-style does not match that seen in the Lankford picture. Alas, as I ran through all the clubs that wore pinstripes in 1997, none of their shirt-front lettering matched with that seen in the Lankford picture. Once again, I had hit a dead-end.

It seemed to me that the only way the photo made sense was if a time machine was somehow involved. As ridiculous as that sounds, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that perhaps that was a distinct possibility.

On July 11, 1990, the Chicago White Sox staged the first-ever "Turn Back the Clock" game, in which the club wore "retro" uniforms similar to those worn by the club back in 1917. I wondered if perhaps the Lankford picture came from a just such a "time machine" game.

A quick look at the list of memorial markings that is part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame's online exhibit titled Dressed to the Nines: A History of the Baseball Uniform revealed that in 1982, St. Louis wore armbands in memory of former player, coach and manager Ken Boyer, who had died on September 7 of that year. And 1982 wasn't just any old year. It was the season in which the Cardinals had last won a World Championship, topping the Milwaukee Brewers in seven games.

Is it possible that the Brewers hosted a "Turn Back the Clock" game against the Cardinals, celebrating the 15th anniversary of the '82 World Series? If so, the Brewers and Cardinals would be wearing uniforms similar to those worn by Lonnie Smith and Robin Yount on the cover of this October 25, 1982, issue of Sports Illustrated:

The uniforms seen above match those in the Lankford photo perfectly. Lonnie Smith's uniform features the armband, the red, white and blue stripes on the sleeves, and the "sansabelt" pants worn by Lankford. And Robin Yount's uniform is pinstriped, with the same "S" of the "BREWERS" across the jersey front, just like the catcher in the Lankford image.

In 1997, the Cardinals and Brewers were still in different leagues (the Brewers would move to the National League the following year), so if this was a "Turn Back the Clock" game, it was an interleague contest. I checked the 1997 Brewers Media Guide and found the confirmation for which I was looking. On June 17, Milwaukee hosted the Cardinals on Pick 'n Save Turn Back the Clock Night, celebrating the 15th anniversary of the clubs playing one another in the 1982 World Series.

With an exact date to work with, I was able to track down the Lankford photo with its original caption. Here's how the Associated Press image looked, for example, in the Huntington (PA) Daily News of June 18, 1997:

The caption reads:


Ray Lankford of the St. Louis Cardinals collides with Milwaukee Brewers' catcher Mike Matheny at home plate in the third inning Tuesday night. Lankford tried to score on a ball hit in the infield by Gary Gaetti, but was out on the play. The teams wore 1982 replica uniforms as part of a "turn back the clock" promotion.
Talk about "Turn Back the Clock!" The Brewers' catcher was Mike Matheny, who would later gain fame as a member of the Cardinals, winning three Gold Gloves in five seasons with St. Louis. Additionally, the Cardinals' starting pitcher that night was Fernando Valenzuela, making his first appearance with St. Louis after being acquired from the Padres just days earlier. Fernando made just five starts with the club, posting a record of 0-4 before being released in mid-July, never to play in the big leagues again.

Coincidentally, by the way, the uniform that Ray Lankford wore that night is apparently in the hands of a collector. Here's an image of the jersey as posted at the Game Used Universe Forum:

So, to answer the original question: On June 17, 1997, Ray Lankford may not have realized it, but he was mourning the passing of Ken Boyer ... almost 15 years after the Cardinals great had passed away.