Friday, May 1, 2009

A Mysterious Armband

The Harris & Ewing Collection at the Library of Congress offers a wealth of wonderful baseball photographs. A search of the keyword "baseball" results in some 356 returned records. While most (if not all) of the pictures are downloadable in extremely high detail, most also have minimal descriptions. In short, this resource has great potential, but it is currently unfulfilled.
Thankfully, the Pictorial History Committee (PHC) of the Society for American Baseball Research is working to add full identifications to each photograph, with committee member Mark Fimoff, an exceptional baseball photo researcher, heading up the project. It is just the sort of thing that the PHC should be working on, and with Mark at the helm, I am certain it will be done well.

I've been tasked with adding information to some of the unidentified Cleveland baseball photographs and bumped into an interesting little mystery. The following photo is currently described as "BASEBALL, PROFESSIONAL. CLEVELAND PLAYERS" with a date of 1913:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, LC-DIG-hec-02801

Obviously it's a photo of a player with Cleveland, a team at the time known as the Naps. These were the days when Cleveland team captain Nap Lajoie practically owned American League pitching and Forest City fans rewarded him by renaming the team in his honor. (Hmm ... the "St. Louis Pujols" doesn't quite have the same ring.) Here's a detail showing the Cleveland lefty:

Identifying the player was pretty straightforward. It is clearly Doc Johnston, first baseman for Cleveland from 1912 through 1914. The Library of Congress includes a few other photos of Johnston that corroborate the match. Here's a detail of one:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, LC-DIG-ggbain-27243

Johnston's uniform, with its cadet collar and lack of pinstripes, is consistent with that worn by Cleveland on the road in 1913 or 1914. Other Ewing & Harris baseball photos corroborate that the venue was National Park, later the site of Griffith Stadium. But what caught my eye was the strange armband on Johnston's left sleeve. Here's a detail showing his unusual arm-wear:

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a bit of an obsession with baseball uniform memorial markings of all sorts. For more on that, check out the memorial markings section of an online exhibit I curated titled Dressed to the Nines: A History of the Baseball Uniform. It's a problem I have ... I know.

Anyway, it appears that the first four letters on the armband are "BOOS," but what could this mean?

Furthermore, look closely between the top two buttons of Johnston's jersey:

There appears to be some sort of floral pin. Very strange, indeed.

I compared this photo with others that were taken at apparently the same time, all shots of Cleveland players at American League Park. I could find no one else on the club who was wearing either the armband or the pin. What gives?

As Donald Rumsfeld said (and this is the only time I'll ever quote Rumsfeld): "There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. " So here's what we have ...

Known knowns:
  • The photo shows Cleveland's Doc Johnston at American League Park in Washington, D.C. in either 1913 or 1914.
Known unknowns:
  • Johnston's wearing a pin near the top of his jersey and an armband on his left sleeve with the letters "BOOS."

Using ProQuest, I searched various digitized newspapers for more information. Happily I ran across a number of articles that not only explained the armband and pin, but nailed the exact date of the photo.

An article titled "Boosters' Club Growing At a Tremendous Rate" in the Washington Post of June 12, 1913, reads in part:

Boosters' Day, planned by the fans of Washington to usher in the series with [manager] Joe Birmingham's despised Naps, is gaining ground daily, and has already assumed wide scope. ... Manager George Peck, of the Gayety Theater, has turned over the use of the theater for a mass meeting on Monday night, when the club will be formally organized and officers will be elected.

Perhaps you've heard of the famed "Royal Rooters," the Boston baseball fan club that formed in the late 19th century. (If not, I suggest you check out Peter Nash's book on the subject, Boston's Royal Rooters). Well, there were other such fan clubs, though I was unfamiliar with this version.

An article in the Washington Post of June 17, 1913, reads:

We have with us this afternoon Birmingham's braves from Cleveland, the club that is closest on the trail of the pace-setting Philadelphia Athletics, and the combination, with the fact that it is Washington's first "boosters'" day, is expected to draw out one of the largest crowds of the year to National park.

And the following day, the Washington Post ran this note:

Some of the Nationals wore Boosters' bands on their caps, and the rest had on pins which were made especially for the day.

So, the armband was actually supposed to be worn by the Washington players on their caps, and Johnston's pin is likely the Booster pin described above. I don't know why an opposing player chose to wear the Boosters' accoutrements on his jersey. Perhaps he was just having a bit of fun. He certainly appears to be wearing a knowing smile.

Whatever the reason for Johnston's behavior, our case is closed. The photo shows Cleveland's Doc Johnston warming up prior to the Cleveland vs. Washington game at National Park in Washington, D.C., June 16, 1913.


  1. Do the newspapers state if Johnson wore the armband during the game?

    1. I don't believe the papers specifically noted if Johnston wore the band during the game, but I suspect so.