The Hoffarth HOF tour of Cooperstown V: A ruthless pursuit of the truth

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National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
There’s Babe Ruth, third from right. And Walter Johnson, third from left. And is that Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in the catcher’s gear?

Tom Shieber was stumped, but that comes with the job. And why he loves it.

The senior curator for the National Baseball Hall of Fame had come across a photograph that grabbed his attention — Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, pictured together. With a bunch of strange Persian palaces in the background. And a few other people in the frame who probably weren’t baseball players.

And there’s the famous actor of the 1920s, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in catcher’s equipment.

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What’s the deal? Why did it happen? How did these people get put together?

What has Shieber gotten himself into now?

“I had to find the story behind this,” he said as he lifted the photo out of a stack of other things he’d pulled that day during a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hall of Fame’s basement, leading a group through a series of unmarked doors behind the first-floor gallery of plaques and across from the museum bookstore.

Shieber led the group deep into the libraries’ archive section, and hadn’t even made it over to the really cool stuff — the artifacts room. Here, in the photo storage facility, where humidity-controlled coolers are vital to the preservation of some half-million prints, Shieber raised the temperature a little as he described the process of a typical resourceful pursuit of the truth.

Like, with this 1912 panoramic view of Fenway Park. There’s no Green Monster, but instead, what’s called Duffy’s Cliff out in left field, where extra seats were put in the World Series. There’s a 1949 shot from Chattanooga Stadium in Tennessee. Two years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in the major leagues, this minor-league facility clearly still had a section for African-American spectators only.

Shieber lifted a team picture from an All-Star Game predating by more than 20 years the first official one held in 1933 in Chicago. Here, in 1911, there’s Tris Speaker, Home Run Baker, Smokey Joe Wood, Cy Young, Nap Lajoie and Ty Cobb — the later wearing a Cleveland Indians road uniform, because he didn’t have one from the Detroit Tigers. The event was held after future Hall of Famer Addie Joss had died from meningitis at the peak of his career, age 31. Over opposition from the owners of the American League, an All-Star game was assembled to benefit the Joss family.

And there’s this one, with Ruth and Johnson. So bizarre.

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The Hall of Fame had been given a scrapbook from Ruth’s former press agent, Christy Walsh, and through a grant called “Saving America’s Treasures,” a national trust for historical preservation (site linked here), Shieber was put in charge of disassembling this collection and identifying why they were worth archiving.

First strange thing: Ruth is wearing an odd “New York” jersey, capital letters across the front that is more like what the current Mets wear instead what his “NY” Yankees uniforms would have had him in. Johnson is in street clothes.

In the background, there’s a bunch of Persian-style buildings.

“Maybe they’re attending the World’s Fair,” Shieber reasoned.

He knew that Ruth often went on barnstorming tours to the West Coast every fall. Since Johnson was present in this one, Shieber narrowed it down to 1924.

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He also knew of a game that Ruth and Johnson played against each other in the city of Brea, on Halloween, 1924 — the only time they did such a thing on all of Ruth’s tours. Local historians recall how Ruth homered twice off Johnson — one purported to be 550 feet — and also pitched a complete-game victory. Not a nice way to treat Johnson, an Orange County native who prepped at nearby Fullerton High.

Look closer. Go deeper.

Shieber pulled more photos the Hall had already of Ruth and Johnson. One of them was with Fairbanks, a donkey cart, with the words “Thief of Bagdad” written on the side.

(In further research, we found this shot offered by Senatorscollectables.com — It was taken by the Keystone Photo Service, linked here) and is part of the Hall of Fame collection.

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“So now I’m thinking, this must be a movie set,” Shieber said.

With more research, Shieber puts the date at Nov. 1, 1924 — a day after their Brea exhibition — Ruth and Johnson ventured over to Fairbanks’ United Artists Studios in Hollywood, where he was filming “Thief of Bagdad.”

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Shieber felt good that he’d put all the pieces of the puzzle together. But something was still nagging.

This time, he went to an unlikely source — his personal Netflix account — and rented the movie “Thief of Bagdad.” He studied it. Stopped and paused it.

“There was a scene I found that matched the picture perfectly,” Shieber said with a sense of sleuthing success.

Simply ruthless.

Shieber, who maintains a blog about his researching adventures called “Baseball Researcher” (linked here), will be in Anaheim next week. He’s coming along with a 100-plus-artifact display from the Hall of Fame that will be included in the Anaheim Convention Center’s All Star Fan Fest from July 9-13.

Perhaps, Shieber’s visit will include a side trip to Brea. Or a nearby Hollywood studio. Just to get to the truth.

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