This was a healthy rivalry.
On Jan. 26, 1919, the Pasadena Merchants hosted the Standard-Murphys in a Southern California Winter League game to decide what was billed as the “Southern California baseball championship.”
But it was more than that. In an article previewing the game at Pasadena’s Carmelita Park, the Los Angeles Evening Express called it “baseball en masque,” and for good reason — every player, coach, manager, umpire and fan was forced to wear a mask. Even the team mascot — a dog — donned a gauze mask.
An iconic photo of the players, “or masked marvels,” is part of the new RMY Auctions sale that ends June 6 at 8 p.m. EDT. The photo, with its original caption on the back and stamped Feb. 10, 1919, for Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), is a stark reminder of the pandemic that raged worldwide in early 1919.
In the photo, titled “Masked ball game,” members of the Standard Murphys squad posed before the first pitch wearing masks, which were mandatory throughout the game. Police officers wearing face coverings patrolled the stadium, prepared to hand out a $50 citation to anyone violating the rule. That included scorekeepers and concessionaires.
It game believed to be the first time baseball players had worn masks during a game; it certainly was the first instance of face coverings during a game in California. The photograph serves as a stark reminder that the world has experienced devastating epidemics before.
This year’s coronavirus pandemic has caused nearly 6 million deaths worldwide and more than 101,000 fatalities in the United States, according to the official tally by Johns Hopkins University. That pales in comparison to the 1918 H1N1 virus, sometimes referred to as the Spanish flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 1918 pandemic caused 50 million deaths worldwide and more than 675,000 fatalities in the United States.
More than 500 million people — one-third of the world’s population at the time — were infected by the flu a century ago.
The photo up for sale at RMY Auctions shows several players who had major league experience. Two of them — Chick Gandil and Los Angeles native Fred McMullin — would figure prominently in the Black Sox scandal that tarnished the 1919 World Series. The photograph is the only example ever offered publicly and also includes the original caption on the back, the auction house said in its listing.
It is hard to discern the players’ feelings that day, although the masks certainly made for a grim-looking photograph. It is surprising the game was played at all. It was originally scheduled for Jan. 19, 1919, but according to the Examiner Express, it was postponed for a week.
“The players of both teams rebelled against playing when they learned they were supposed to wear flu masks while engaged in the national pastime,” the Examiner Express reported on Jan. 19, 1919.
Merchants manager L.G. Ury, a Pasadena semipro magnate and shoe dealer, was happy about the face coverings, claiming Standard-Murphys pitcher Doc Crandall’s spitball would not be effective.
“He will be unable to use that delivery without violating the mask ordinance,” the Examiner Press reported.
Certainly, the cheers of the fans were limited by their masks.
“The rooting of the fans and their ‘kill the umpire’ cry was somewhat muffled,” the caption for the iconic photo reads.
The Standard-Murphys won the game 10-9 in 11 innings. “The Oil Drillers won … in an exciting game,” the Examiner Express reported.
The photograph is chock full of players with major league experience.
Notably, the photographer for Central Press Photo Service botched several names. McMullin was identified as “McMillan,” while Gandil was labeled “Gandel.” Crandall, who was coming off what would be his final major league season in 1918 for the Boston Braves, was identified as “Crandal.” Yankees catcher James “Truck” Hannah was identified as “Trash.” Hannah, by the way, is one of only a few players to collect a hit in five different decades of professional baseball, starting in 1909 with Tacoma and ending with Memphis in 1940. He also caught the first pitch when the Los Angeles Angels had their home debut in the major leagues on April 27, 1961, a fitting honor for a man who managed the Angels when they were part of the Pacific Coast League.
Pittsburgh second baseman George Cutshaw’s name is spelled “Gutshaw” in the caption. Pitcher Ole Olsen, who would reach the majors in 1922 with Detroit, had his first name spelled as “Olie.”
Pitcher Bill Piercy, whose name was spelled correctly, saw brief action with the New York Yankees in 1917 and would make it back to the majors in 1921. Infielder Carl Sawyer saw two years of action with the Washington Senators (1915-16), and Art Griggs was a year removed from his utility role with the Detroit Tigers.
The photograph appeared in the March 9, 2020, edition of Sports Illustrated, along with several other fascinating shots.
Another famous shot showed Sawyer holding the team’s mascot, who was sporting a different kind of muzzle.
It was probably the only time a game was played under these conditions, and Pasadena received quite a bit of publicity. The photo of the masked players is resurfacing at an appropriate time in American history and will be an interesting collectible for the person who has the highest bid.