Wednesday, May 27, 2020

"How many people do you think there are in that photograph?"

“The Great McGinty,” the celebrated political satire written and directed by Preston Sturges’ and released in 1940, isn’t a baseball movie, but our national pastime does play a prominent role in a scene about halfway through the film.

In the relevant sequence, Dan McGinty (played by Brian Donlevy) is a corrupt mayor who works out the details (that is, the dollar value) of a not-so-subtle bribe from the operator of the local bus line:

Mr. Maxwell: But how can the city even contemplate a municipal bus line when it has a 99-year contract with me? A contract that you may even remember something about, Mr. Mayor.
Dan McGinty: Look, Mr. Maxwell. I’m only the mayor, see? Now, if it was up to me, I’d make you a free gift of all the bus rides to this city. I think you run a beautiful bus. I travel on them myself. And I’ll be genuinely sorry to see them disappear from our streets.
Maxwell: Disappear? But there must be some way, some solution of mutual satisfaction. I don’t know how to talk to a mayor, but if I could only persuade you that ...
McGinty: You can’t persuade me, Mr. Maxwell, because it’s entirely out of my hands. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do, just for old times’ sake. I’ll send the chairman of the bus committee up , and if you can persuade him, it’s all right with me.
Maxwell: Is he, eh ... difficult to persuade?
McGinty: Well, he probably ain’t impossible. Glad to see you looking so well.
Maxwell: But, Mr. Mayor, can’t we ...
McGinty: Drop in again some afternoon. We’ll go to a game. You like baseball don’t you?
Maxwell: Well, I’m not a fan by any means.
McGinty: You know that’s where you fellows make your biggest mistake.
Maxwell: Yes ...
McGinty: You worry too much about business and contracts and the flaws in them, and things like that. Get out in the open, fill your lungs with fresh air. Forget your troubles.
Maxwell: But let me ...
McGinty: Now look at that crowd. How many people do you think there were at the game?
Maxwell: I’m sure I don’t have the faintest idea.
McGinty: Look again. How many people do you think there are in that photograph?
Maxwell: 10,000.
McGinty: Guess again.
Maxwell: 20,000. Mr. Mayor ...
McGinty: You’re not even warm, Mr. Maxwell.
Maxwell: Well ... [Suddenly realizing what
’s really going on.] Oh. You mean it’s more like 40,000?
McGinty: It’s more like it. But that ain’t it.
Maxwell: Mr. Mayor, about that flaw you mentioned ...
McGinty: There’s no flaw in that photograph, Mr. Maxwell. It’s perfect. What was your last guess?
Maxwell: 50,000?
McGinty: [Laughs]. There were 75,000 people in that stadium. Ain’t that wonderful? 75,000 filling their lungs with nature’s own sunshine. I’ll send the guy up to see you. Goodbye.

You can watch the scene here:

The photo to which Mayor McGinty refers is shown full screen.

Smack dab in the middle of this movie, McGinty has asked a baseball trivia question. Of course, for the mayor, he’s not asking about baseball at all. But for me, he is. So, let me pose the same question (but, lucky for you, I won’t expect a payoff): “How many people do you think there are in that photograph?”

To answer the question, we must first determine exactly what game is pictured.

The Ballpark

Take a close look at the upper deck and you’ll see that it is adorned with a unique and very familiar frieze, one that has long been associated with just one ballpark.

Detail from 1927 Osborne Engineering architectural drawing showing Yankee Stadium frieze

There’s no question we’re taking a look at Yankee Stadium. This also means that the photo was taken no earlier than the opening of the stadium: 1923.

The Decorative Bunting

Those with a keen eye will also notice that the photo shows that the facades of each deck at Yankee Stadium are adorned with bunting: patriotic fans (the arched, red, white, and blue bunting) and traditional U.S. flags. It was (and still is) common to decorate baseball parks in this fashion for special events such as opening days, patriotic holidays, All-Star Games, and World Series.

There’s little doubt that something special was going on at Yankee Stadium when the photograph was taken.

The End of the Right Field Grandstand

Another clue in the photo is that we can clearly see the end of the right field grandstand. It stops rather abruptly, short of the right field foul line. But during the 1937 season, the Yankees extended that grandstand such that it curved around into fair territory beyond the foul pole.

Here’s a photo of Yankee Stadium during the 1936 World Series:

... and here’s an aerial photo taken during the 1937 World Series, showing the extended grandstand:

LIFE, October 18, 1937

This means that McGinty’s photograph must have been taken before the extension was completed, we now have a “no-later-than” date of 1937.

“It’s a Grand Old Game”

After a good deal of searching, I managed to stumble across this piece of sheet music for a 1931 tune titled “It’s a Grand Old Game”:

That sure does look like the same photo as that seen on the wall in McGinty’s office. However, when I cropped that photo (removing the picture frame) and laid it over the sheet music cover, I noticed some very subtle differences.

In particular, notice that the bunting on the very corner of the right field upper-deck grandstand has moved slightly. Also notice that the players and umpires on the field are not in the same positions. There’s little question that the photos, while not identical, were taken just minutes apart.

Given that the sheet music was published in 1931, we now know the photo must have been taken sometime between 1923 and 1931.

A few web sites state that the photo on the sheet music shows action during a World Series game between the Giants and Yankees in 1923. For example, the KeyMan Collectibles web site notes that “the front cover shows a scene from a World Series game between the New York Giants and the New York Yankees in 1923 at Yankee Stadium.” And, a picture of the sheet music at Getty Images states that the cover “shows a scene from a World Series game between the New York Giants and the New York Yankees in 1923 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York.”

However, there is a problem with this identification. Known photographs of Yankee Stadium during the 1923 World Series show no bunting on the facades of the grandstand. For example, here’s a photo that was published in the October 13, 1923, issue of the Washington (D.C.) Sunday Star taken prior to Game Three at Yankee Stadium:

No. The sheet music photo, and therefore McGinty’s photo, are not from the 1923 World Series.

So, what is the exact date of the game we see in the photo? To answer that question, we must consider three additional clues: the umpires, the visitors’ baseball caps, and a second look at the decorative bunting.

The Umpires

As the umpires are all wearing black, it makes it quite easy to count just how many are on the field in McGinty’s photo. There are four. On the face of it, this clue doesn’t seem to be of much help, as we are familiar with most every big league game having four umpires. But such was not the case during the time frame we are considering.

By analyzing data made available (for free!) at the always-invaluable Retrosheet web site, I was able to determine the number of umpires used in each of the 11,092 regular season games played in the major leagues from 1923 through 1931. Here’s the breakdown:

  • A four umpire-crew was used in 27 games (0.24% of games)
  • A three umpire-crew was used in 7,897 games (71.20% of games)
  • A two umpire-crew was used in 3,167 games (28.55% of games)
  • A single umpire was used in 1 game (0.01% of games played)
In other words, the vast majority (a whopping 99.75%) of all big league games played during this window of time featured either a two- or three-man umpiring crew.

But for our purposes, we only need to take a look at the 692 regular-season games played at Yankee Stadium from 1923 through 1931. When we do, the breakdown is as follows:

  • A four umpire-crew was used in 4 games at Yankee Stadium (0.58% of games)
  • A three umpire-crew was used in 548 games at Yankee Stadium (79.19% of games)
  • A two umpire-crew was used in 140 games at Yankee Stadium (20.23% of games)
  • A single umpire was never used in a game at Yankee Stadium (0.00% of games played)
Again, nearly every game featured a two- or three-man umpiring crew: 99.42%! And over our nine-season span just four games at Yankee Stadium were umpired by a four-man crew. In fact, these games were all part of just one series between the Philadelphia Athletics and New York Yankees played in September of 1928: a Sunday afternoon doubleheader on September 9, followed by single games on September 11 and September 12. The fourth umpire was added by American League President Ernest S. Barnard because of the importance of the games: the Yankees trailed the first-place Athletics by just half a game as the clubs headed into the opening doubleheader.

Now take a look this wonderful panoramic photograph of Yankee Stadium from the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum:

Don’t be fooled by the handwritten label in the top right-hand corner of the panoramic that reads “WORLD’S SERIES / 1928 / N.Y. YANKEES – ST. LOUIS CARDINALS.” That information is incorrect, as detailed in my blog titled “A Yankee Stadium Mystery: Rare Footage of Babe Ruth and the Puzzling Panorama of a Packed Park.” The correct date for this photo is September 9, 1928. That’s right! Conveniently for our research, the picture was taken during the very doubleheader that led off the four-game set at Yankee Stadium in which four umpires took the field.

And now let’s take a closer look at the panoramic:

Here we clearly see the four umpires (circled). What we don’t see, however, is any bunting at the park. We can safely assume that if there were no such decorations for the doubleheader, the club wouldn’t bother to add bunting for the third or fourth games of the series. In other words, the photo from “The Great McGinty” is inconsistent with any of these four games and so it must not have been taken during the regular season. Yankee Stadium did not host its first All-Star Game until 1939, which means that the only real possibility is that the photo was taken during a World Series.

From 1923 through 1931, the Yankees played in four Fall Classics: 1923, 1926, 1927, and 1928. But as we have already determined, 1923 can be ruled out (no bunting at Yankee Stadium during that World Series). This leaves us with just the 1926 and 1928 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals and the 1927 Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Visitors’ Baseball Caps

Careful examination of McGinty’s photo, as well as the sheet music photo that was taken at nearly the same time, shows that the players on defense are wearing light-colored caps. As the Yankees wore their traditional dark caps during the 1926, 1927, and 1928 World Series, the players in the field must be members of the visiting club. In both the 1926 and 1928 World Series, the Cardinals wore caps with a light-colored crown (and dark bill), which you can see in these World Series photos:

Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby meet at the 1926 World Series

Bill McKechnie and Miller Huggins meet at the 1928 World Series

But during the 1927 Series the Pirates wore dark caps, as worn by the base runner in this photo:

Action from the 1927 World Series

And so we have now eliminated 1927 as a possible year for McGinty’s office photo, leaving us with just 1926 and 1928.

A Second Look at the Decorative Bunting

Take a look at the following pair of pictures taken at Yankee Stadium. The top photo is from the 1926 World Series and the bottom from the 1928 World Series.

Yankee Stadium during the 1926 World Series

Yankee Stadium during the 1928 World Series

Notice that unlike the photo of the 1928 World Series (bottom), the photo from the 1926 World Series (top) shows no decorative bunting at Yankee Stadium. Just why the club opted not to adorn their park that fall is unknown, but it eliminates 1926 as a possible year for McGinty’s photo. We are now left to look for a matching photo in the 1928 World Series.

Finding a Matching Photo

In 1928, the Yankees avenged their 1926 World Series defeat at the hands of the Cardinals by trouncing St. Louis in a four-game sweep. Only the first two games of the Series took place at Yankee Stadium, suggesting that McGinty’s photo captures a scene from either Game One (October 4) or Game Two (October 5). On October 14, 1928, the Washington (D.C.) Sunday Star published this photo of Game One in its Gravure Supplement:

The picture is the same one that was used on the cover of “It’s a Grand Old Game,” and (as previously discussed) taken at nearly the same as the one seen in “The Great McGinty.”

Having determined the exact game pictured, let’s get back to our original question ...

How many people do you think there are in that photograph?

According to most every source, the reported attendance for Game One of the 1928 World Series was 61,425 ... a figure far short of McGinty’s claim of 75,000. But is that really the correct number?

The reported attendance was the total number of people who paid to attend, not the total number of people in the park. The latter number is much more a matter of conjecture, but is most certainly larger than 61,425. Contemporary newspaper accounts generally estimated the crowd to be anywhere from 70,000 to 80,000. Here are just a few notes from contemporary newspaper stories:

Binghamton (NY) Press and Sun Bulletin, October 4, 1928

Binghamton (NY) Press and Sun Bulletin, October 5, 1928

Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, October 5, 1928

In summary, while it’s not possible to know the exact number of people at Yankee Stadium that day, we can be sure that the figure exceeds Mr. Maxwell’s final guess of 50,000. Indeed, The Great McGinty may very well have been correct when he said, “There were 75,000 people in that stadium. Ain’t that wonderful? 75,000 filling their lungs with nature’s own sunshine.”