Monday, November 23, 2009

Bowl Games

My friend Andy Strasberg is working on an interesting project he's titled "Fantography." His idea is to collect photos taken by fans that reflect personal moments in professional baseball. The ultimate goal is to produce a book of the candid photos and the stories behind them. You can learn more about the project at the Fantography web site.

Andy's already collected thousands of photos and he recently passed along a trio of snapshots from the project that begged for research. Here are the pictures:

While player identifications were included with the submission, Andy was looking for help in identifying where and when the photos were taken. But first I wanted to confirm exactly who's who.

In the uppermost photo, two Dodgers are featured with a young boy: Cal Abrams faces the camera, while Duke Snider walks by in the background. No need to corroborate Duke. He's a "gimme." But here's a photo of Abrams for comparison:

Photo courtesy of

The second photo, though a bit out of focus, features Braves pitching great Johnny Sain. Here's a photo of Johnny for those who are unfamiliar with the Braves star:

Photo courtesy of

And the bottom action photo shows the Dodgers' Tommy Brown rounding third base. Here's a detail of the image:

The identification of Brown was a bit tougher to corroborate, but the lanky infielder-turned-outfielder whose strong but wild throws earned him the nickname "Buckshot" can be seen at the far left in this photo from 1951:

Photo courtesy of Corbis Images

I'm confident the identification of Brown is correct. By the way, thanks to Mark Stang's invaluable encyclopedia of uniform numbers, Rosters, we can identify the Dodgers coach wearing number 27: it's former Brooklyn infielder Milt Stock.

Tommy Brown was signed by the Dodgers as a 16-year-old in 1944 and made his big league debut in August that season. Just over a year later, on August 20, 1945, Brown homered off Pirates southpaw Preacher Roe, setting the record for the youngest major leaguer to hit a home run at 17 years, 8 months, and 14 days of age. Brooklyn traded Brown to the Phillies in June of 1951, so we know the photo must have been taken sometime between 1944 and 1951.

Johnny Sain's uniform helps to further narrow the possible dates of the photos, as the Braves did not debut their famous tomahawk-logo jerseys until 1946. So we're down to six years: 1946 through 1951.

A quick look at the images makes it clear that the park at which the photos were taken is not a major league stadium, though obviously there is a significant stadium off in the background. But for now, the more important feature of the photos is the presence of palm trees, suggesting a spring training game. Going with the theory that the snapshots were taken at a preseason game, we can eliminate 1946 as a possible year, as ball clubs generally wore their previous season's uniforms in spring training, waiting for Opening Day before unveiling their new duds.

So, when between 1947 and 1951, did the Braves and Dodgers meet in spring training? Let's start by taking a look, year by year.

In 1947, the only time the Dodgers and Braves met in spring training was in Havana, Cuba. But in the background of the Johnny Sain photo one can see the word "GATE" underneath a large "10." If the photo were taken in Havana, the English word "GATE" would not be used.

In 1948, the Dodgers held pre-season camp in the Dominican Republic and did not face the Braves or any other major league club until Opening Day of the regular season.

In 1949, the Dodgers settled on Vero Beach, Florida, as their spring training home. But photographs of their home field during the late 1940s and early 1950s don't show a large stadium beyond the outfield wall. Additionally, the Braves' spring digs in Bradenton also does not match up. So where was this photo taken?

Well, in 1949, the Braves and Dodgers faced one another in spring training on two occasions: March 12 and March 13. Both contests were held at a neutral location in Miami, Florida. Indeed, on March 12, the Braves were designated as the "home" team, while the Dodgers played host as the "home" squad for the next day's game.

So what large stadium would be looming over a baseball diamond in Miami during this era? Well, I'm a baseball researcher, not a football researcher, but I had a hunch that perhaps this was Miami's famous Orange Bowl.

Thankfully, the State Archives and Library of Florida has a wonderful collection of digitized materials available at their Florida Memory Project. I searched for images of the Orange Bowl from the era and hit pay dirt. Here's an image of the celebrated football stadium in 1950:

Photo courtesy of Florida Memory Project

Note the baseball park in the upper left corner of the photo. Its position relative to the Orange Bowl matches that seen in the Fantography images. Also note the distinctive curved ramp ways on the outside of the stadium (just barely visible at the bottom right corner). They are identical to those seen in our baseball photos above.

There's no question that the ballpark we're seeing is the one right next to the Orange Bowl. Its name: Miami Field. So is this one of the games from 1949, or perhaps a different year?

Corroborating our dismissal of prior years as possible dates for the baseball photos is the fact that the second deck of the Orange Bowl (which necessitated the addition of the external curved ramp ways) was not completed until early in 1948. But what of the later years: 1950 and 1951?

Well, on March 11 and 12 of 1950, the Dodgers and Braves did indeed play one another in a pair of spring training games in Miami. They repeated the pre-season get-togethers on March 10 and 11 of 1951, as well. But each of those games took place at Miami Stadium (later known as Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium), a park that opened in August of 1949, a little over a mile from the Orange Bowl. We are left with but one conclusion: The only possible dates for our three photos are March 12 and March 13, 1949.

So which of the two 1949 dates is the most likely?

One helpful clue can be found in the photo of Cal Abrams. Note that the collar and the button-down placket on his Dodgers uniforms is highlighted with colored piping. Only the Dodgers' road jerseys featured this styling, a tradition they adopted in the late 1930s. Here's a close-up showing the detail:

This would imply that the Dodgers were the road club, thus dating the game to March 12. But sometimes in spring training, clubs were less-than-rigorous about their selection of uniforms. It would be best to confirm the date using other methods, as well. So, let's take a look at some newspaper coverage of the games.

In the March 13, 1949, issue of the New York Times, sportswriter Roscoe McGowen wrote:

With a record crowd of 7,518 cash customers filling all available seating and standing room, the Dodgers opened the citrus circuit season here today by trouncing the champion Boston Braves, 5-2, at Miami Field.

And the following day McGowen stated:

Today, before an all-time record Miami crowd of 9,675 cash clients, the battling Brooks made it two straight over the National League champions, beating them, 6-0. ... Ground rules were invoked because of the great outpouring of Negro fans, who had to be spread out on part of the playing field from the Dodger dugout all the way around center field.

Amazingly, the record crowd of March 12th was exceeded by another 2,000 fans on the 13th. But looking at the photo featuring Tommy Brown rounding third, it is clear there are just a couple of people in the outfield ... nothing like the crowd reported by McGowan as being "spread out on part of the playing field ... all the way to center field." The lack of a crowd in the outfield suggests the March 12 game as the best bet for our three photographs.

Finally, what about that image of Tommy Brown? What's going on? The Braves shortstop seems to be looking straight ahead, not at Brown. The umpire is wandering off toward the left field foul line, paying no attention to the action at third. And, the third base coach is apparently approaching Brown, congratulating him. All evidence points to Brown having just hit a home run. Checking the game accounts, it turns out that Brown homered in the March 12 contest, but not that of March 13.

Thanks to some baseball research and (dare I say it?) a little football research, it looks as though the photos sent to Andy were taken at Miami Field on March 12, 1949, when the Dodgers topped the Braves, 5-2.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

May Day at the Polo Grounds

My sister-in-law recently sent me an image of her grandfather, Lazar Weiner, conducting a chorus at a ballpark. She asked me if I could track down when and where the photo was taken. Here's the picture:

The "where" was simple. The facade of the ballpark makes it clear that it is the Polo Grounds. It was the "when" that was a challenge.

The critical clue was some information we knew about Weiner: that he conducted the ILGWU chorus and was the national director of the Workmen's Circle chorus for many decades. Given this information, the banners on the facade at the park took on special meaning. Here's a detail showing the banners:

These were hung especially for the event that was being hosted at the park, as they were certainly not a regular feature at the Polo Grounds. Note that the banner at far right promotes the ILGWU, the very union whose chorus was headed by Weiner.

Everything pointed to some sort of union-related event being held at the Polo Grounds. After some brief searching, I came across an article in the New York Times from May 2, 1936, that read in part:

A group of labor unions and the Old Guard of the Socialist party celebrated May Day yesterday with a rally and open-air festival at the Polo Grounds that attracted a crowd estimated by the police at 45,000.

From noon to almost 6 o'clock there was a program featuring athletic games, pageants, a chorus of 500 mixed voices, concert and radio singers and addresses by labor leaders.
This seemed to be a perfect match for the event in the photo. But I still felt I needed something more to corroborate this, so I browsed through the same edition of the paper and came across a photo of the event at the park:

Though the photograph is taken from a slightly different angle, it is clear that the speaker system seen in both images match perfectly. Here are details from both photos that show the match:

So the image of Lazar Weiner and his chorus was taken on May 1, 1936, during a May Day rally at the Polo Grounds.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cut to the Chase

The famous, rare and much sought-after Honus Wagner baseball card is just one of well-over 500 cards that are part of what is known as the T206 White Border set. The cards were issued as premiums in tobacco packs from 1909 through 1911 and feature colorful images of both major and minor league baseball players. While the Wagner card garners most of the press, it is a different card in the set that has me intrigued: that of legendary first baseman Hal Chase.

Actually, there are a few different Hal Chase cards in the set:

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-bbc-0969f

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-bbc-0968f

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-bbc-0970f

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-bbc-0971f

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-bbc-0972f

It is this last card, often noted on T206 checklists as "Hal Chase (Holding Trophy)," that has me wondering. The image on the card is clearly based on a photograph, though the background is just as clearly the result of artistic license. Does a copy of that photo still exist? And just what is that trophy?

While I haven't been able to track down the photo upon which the image was based, I did manage to determine the story behind Chase's hefty hardware.

Back in spring training of 1909, the New York American League club (often called the Highlanders, but rarely known as the Yankees) was barnstorming their way back home for the opening of the American League season. In Augusta, Georgia, Chase fell ill and it was initially reported that he had malaria. Actually, he had varioloid, a relatively mild form of smallpox.

It was reported that Chase had contracted the disease from some bellboys at a hotel in Macon, Georgia, where the team had previously stayed. So, while Chase was quarantined in a hospital in Augusta, his teammates were vaccinated and their belongings "fumigated." The hope was that this would protect the Highlanders against infection and, perhaps more importantly, reassure the various host cities, opposing players, and fans that it was safe to play against and attend exhibition games as the big leaguers worked their way north.

The club met with some resistance along the way and there even were fears that the opening of the season might be delayed. However, no games were canceled and the club played its Opening Day game on April 12 as originally scheduled.

Chase was released from the hospital near the end of April and made his season debut on May 3. As he approached the plate for his first at bat of the game, former manager Kid Elberfeld interrupted the proceedings with a short speech, followed by the presentation of a silver "loving cup," the very one depicted in the T206 card.

That's the story behind the picture. Now all that is left is to track down the original photo of Chase holding the cup.

Update of December 30, 2014:

Baseball Researcher reader Graig alerted me to the following photo at the Detroit Public Library Digital Collections:

Detroit Public Library Digital Collections, Resource ID: hr002587

The photo, taken by famed baseball photographer Charles Conlon, is obviously the one used as a model for the Chase T206 card. Chase wears the home uniform of the 1909 Highlanders and he's posed at Hilltop Park, May 3, 1909.

Case closed.