Dating an old photo

The picture above was referenced in an earlier piece I wrote in this space. But I wanted to return to it once again, to show how the internet has changed things. This is especially true of doing research. What once took days to track down, or just couldn’t be tracked down at all, can now be accomplished in 10 minutes or less online. I offer this old photo as a case in point.

I received this as a freebie giveaway at a Cubs game, I’m guessing at some point in the early 1990s. I say that because I didn’t exactly write the date down, and I somehow managed to hang onto this through all the years since. Whoever was tasked with trying to date this photo took a semi-educated guess as to when it was taken, and then sent it out to the print shop, where thousands and thousands of these things were printed up to be given away at the ballpark.

But before I get to the actual date (and yes, I have been able to pinpoint it exactly), here’s what was probably going through the mind of the person who had to do the dating of this photograph:

Let’s see, the Cubs began wearing numbers on their uniforms in 1932, so it couldn’t have been any earlier than that. And Babe Ruth called his shot in the 1932 World Series and the Baby Ruth candy bar people put up that sign to call attention to themselves the next year, so it had to be 1933 or 1934 at the latest. Call it “Early 1930s” and be done with it.

In the years since this guesstimation was done, the internet came along and allowed us to determine a few things, such as:

The Prager Beer sign in the right field bleachers would not have appeared as long as Prohibition was going on. Prohibition came to an end in December of 1933, meaning that this picture had to date from 1934, at the earliest. Still, that might be considered “early 1930s.”

The numbers on the backs of the uniforms are a big clue. There’s a website that tracks all Cubs players that have worn every possible number available over the years. Players, managers, coaches, you name it. Its a great resource for something like this.

It appears as if the players are taking fielding practice, and the player wearing 2 on his back seems to be the one hitting the balls to the players in the field. This is the kind of a drill that big leaguers would never do today, but I remember these kinds of drills well from when I played baseball many, many years ago.

It turns out that 2 was the number worn by Gabby Hartnett when he was a player-manager, beginning with the 1937 season. That’s no longer the “early 1930s,” is it?

There’s another piece of evidence that allows us to put this picture in the 1937 season. Bill Veeck worked for the Cubs that season, and he built the centerfield scoreboard that we know today, and the brick outfield wall with the ivy on it, beginning in early July of 1937. What that means is that this picture has to date from opening day of the 1937 season to some time before July, when the construction of the wall and the scoreboard began. They are clearly nowhere to be seen in this picture, after all.

So now it’s time to look at the scoreboard itself. It’s off to the left field side of dead centerfield, with a big pitcher and batter on the top and an enormous American flag on either side. It’s clearly not the scoreboard as we know it today, but there are some similarities. The National League scores are on the left hand side, and the American League’s are on the right.

The Cubs’ score, which is at the bottom of today’s scoreboard, appears at the top of the 1937 scoreboard. It reveals that the Cubs were playing the New York Giants on that day. It also reveals, on the right hand side near the bottom, that they were playing New York again the next day. That will be an important piece of the puzzle, as we’ll see in a moment.

The next place to go is the website I search for the 1937 Cubs page. click on the Schedule & Results tab, and I find out that the New York Giants played in Chicago on Friday, May 21 and Saturday, May 22, and again on Wednesday, June 23 and Thursday, June 24. We can eliminate the games on May 22 and June 24, because the Boston Bees (now known as the Atlanta Braves) came in on May 23, and the Brooklyn Dodgers came in to Chicago on June 25. But the picture itself doesn’t reveal whether the picture was taken in May or in June. What other clues are there?

Let’s go back to the player numbers page from before. There is a number 39 standing at home plate, with a catcher’s mitt on. Who wore number 39 for the Cubs in 1937? Apparently, two players did: Bob Logan and Bob Garbark. Going back to again, Bob Logan, the first player listed, was acquired by the Cubs on September 6, 1937, which was around the same time that the outfield wall and the scoreboard were completed. So it has to be Bob Garbark wearing number 39. But that doesn’t help with the date, does it?

I search for Bob Garbark on the page, and I learn that there is a biography of him written by a member of SABR, or the Society for American Baseball Research. These are my people, and one day i may get around to joining them. But for now, they’ve provided me with more information about solving this puzzle. Bob Garbark apparently had one pinch-hit at bat on May 15, and was sent to the minor leagues on May 27. Bingo. The June date won’t work, because Garbark had left the team by then.

After a few minutes of internet research, I was able to learn that the date of this picture, which someone had labeled “Early 1930s,” was actually Friday, May 21, 1937. My point in doing this is that the internet, and the incredible amount of information it puts at your fingertips, made this possible. Without it, well, you just pick a vague number and hope for the best. And now, if ever this picture should reappear as a promotional giveaway, they’ll be able to date it with a little bit more precision. Well done, internet.


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