Playograph Adds Zing to World Series

CVA 99-4059 – Crowd watching baseball results from the block on Pender St between Cambie and Beatty.
1931. Stuart Thomson.

The image shown above was encountered by me yesterday when I was researching a forthcoming post. When I saw the photo, I noticed that CVA’s description of the photo’s locale was wrong. It wasn’t “Hastings Street and Beatty Street” as they claimed [1]. It was actually the block on Pender between Cambie and Beatty. The buildings to the left in the image show those of the former City Hospital which, by 1931, was the site of the City’s “relief offices” (where today there is a parkade at the corner of Cambie at Pender). This is not an often-photographed block.

Playograph

Later, it occurred to me to ask myself where exactly the crowd was looking? If they were accurately described by CVA as “watching baseball results” versus simply “listening” to them over some sort of public address system, then what were they watching? And where were they looking ?

Starting with the World Series of 1925 and continuing for most years after that through World Series 1931, there was an American invention in town called the Playograph. For the first few years (1925-1930), this was the exclusive domain in Vancouver of the Province newspaper. Only in 1931 did the Sun get on the bandwagon and get a Playograph of its own.

The Playograph (shown below) appears to our modern eyes to be a pretty banal thing — basically a scoreboard.

Province 6 Oct 1929.

The playograph is one of the latest devices in baseball boards. It shows every play from the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hands until an “out” is registered or a run scored. It pictures the progress of a runner once he reaches first base, and also gives the running box score.

The Province, 5 October 1925

The Playograph was part of a system that included a special leased telegraph wire to the field in which the game was being played; it also had an audio component. A “baseball expert” would call the game for the fans that gathered before the Playograph board. And they would watch as hitters scored runs. And this audio information would be supplied in up-to-the-minute fashion, almost as quickly as it was seen by folks who were able to attend the actual ball game!

What Held the Crowd’s Attention?

But where were Vancouver ball fans looking in the image above? Where was the Playograph located in 1931?

CVA Str N164. Crop of Lion gargoyle at 2nd story of Edgett wing, Province building, Pender Street view.

This is where my brain needed some adjusting.[2] Partly because this city block was infrequently photographed in the 1920s and ’30s, I had a skewed notion of where the Province (and Sun) offices were located. When I think about the Province office, I typically think of it as the 7-storey building at Hastings and Cambie (shown here just above the cenotaph) at the site now occupied by the Vancouver Film School (aka the Carter Cotton building). It is easy to forget that the Province also occupied printing offices in the “Edgett wing” — shown here at the 420 Cambie entrance. What I overlooked, however, is that the Edgett wing is a three-dimensional structure with facings on Pender Street, too!

The Playograph was on an upper storey of the Pender side of the Edgett wing (see photos below; note, in particular, the lion gargoyles in common in the photo of the Province Playograph and the Edgett wing. That is where most of the crowd was looking — northwest toward the Province Playograph on the Pender Street wall of the Edgett wing.

The Province Playograph mechanism mounted on the Pender Street side of the Edgett Wing of the Province Building at Pender and Cambie. (Note the lion gargoyles). The Province. 6 October 1925.
Str N164 – View of Pender Street east of Cambie Street, showing the Bekins Tower (formerly the World Tower and ultimately to become the Sun Tower). Note the Edgett Wing (Pender St side) of the Province building at left foreground. Note also the Sun building on the north side of Pender across the street from Bekins Tower. 1927. W J Moore.

What About Those Looking North?

Some people in the crowd (mainly those who appear in the 99-4060 photo below) appear to be looking, principally, to the north (versus the northwest). What was going on there?

Crop of CVA Str N164 showing the Sun building on north side of Pender (across the street from the Tower, which would become in 1937 its primary HQ). The signage locates “The Sun” — where the Pendera apts are located today,

Once again, I needed to adjust my brain to the layout of the city in the latter 1920s and early 1930s. When I saw that the Sun jumped onto the Playograph bandwagon in 1931, I assumed that the Sun was located in the Sun Tower (aka, World Tower, aka Bekins Tower). But I was mistaken. As you can see in the 1927 image above, it was the Bekins Tower in the 1920s. The Sun didn’t become the principal tenant of the Tower until 1937, substantially after the Playograph had become a memory in Vancouver.

Where was the Sun office in the late 1920s and early ’30s? Its building is just visible in Str 164 in the left, middle-ground, two buildings west of the Lotus Hotel (where the Pendera residences are today). It is clearer in the crop of that image shown at the right.

So those in the crowd who appear to be looking north were looking at the Sun Playograph which was on the Sun building, located almost directly across Pender from the Tower.

Playograph’s Passing

The Playograph had limited utility and attractiveness to Vancouver ball fans and 1931 seems to have been the final year it was featured by either the Province or the Sun. It seems that radio broadcasts of baseball games had become commonplace and, with that, the appeal began to fade of gathering with your neighbours at a central location to watch changes to a glorified scoreboard. It was the first step towards the isolationism that would eventually come with television.

But in the early years of the Depression, and a good two decades before televisions were available for purchase, the Playograph contributed to the entertainment of thousands of Vancouver ball fans.

In conclusion, I’m reminded of another American export (in addition to the Playograph device and the World Series of baseball). Radio journalist, Paul Harvey, used to wrap up his syndicated broadcasts on our local radio station when I was growing up in the ‘70s with a simple sentence that seems apt here: “And that’s . . . the rest of the story.”

CVA 99-4060 – Crowd watching baseball results. Camera facing east and south down Pender and Beatty. The Bekins Tower is the structure at corner of Pender at Beatty. 1931 Stuart Thomson.

Notes

  1. Hastings and Beatty is an impossible address. Beatty dead-ends at Pender; it doesn’t intersect with Hastings.
  2. I am indebted to Tom Carter for his help adjusting my thinking about the urban landscape during these years. He lives in the neighbourhood of the World/Bekins/Sun Tower and was very helpful in straightening out my understanding of where the Sun and Province offices were in 1925-31.

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7 Responses to Playograph Adds Zing to World Series

  1. Terry Biddlecombe says:

    Very interesting! Thanks for telling us about the Playograph, I had never heard of it until now. I wonder how the live action was received in Vancouver to be transferred to the Playograph board. No data circuits or TV then and if it were a radio broadcast people would be at home listening. An open Long Distance telephone call is very unlikely so quite likely by Telegraph presumably.

    • mdm says:

      I neglected to add that important detail…the connection was via a dedicated private leased wire. Can’t have been cheap, I suspect! Thanks for asking about this. I’ll update the post with this info.

    • Peter Findlay says:

      Twenty some odd years later legendary play-by-play man Jim Robson got his start by taking the baseball feed off the wire and turning it into a “live” broadcast. Playograph meets radio, so to speak. And, they added in sound effects to re-create the sounds of the stadium – just like they do this year with NHL games.

  2. Ken says:

    This piece is STRONG evidence for the case this blog NEEDS to become a book.
    Great stuff

  3. Kathy says:

    Yes, a book!! Please!!
    I live historical photographs of Vancouver and surrounding areas, the top picture to this post is one I had not seen before. Amazing the heavy crowd numbers for baseball, I thought the Queen was about to drive by 🙂

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