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Behind That Beer Photo

By Mike Conklin

It's hard to believe the Cubs' gendarmes identified the wrong man at Wrigley Field last week in arresting that beer-tossing fan. There could not have been a lack of photos of the incident. In today's world, everyone's a photographer. Ballplayers cannot hit a loud foul these days without a thousand flashes. The news media has come to depend on this, turning their staff camera people into endangered species.

The Wrigley Field incident brought to mind the most famous beer-in-the-face photo of all time. This was taken in the 1959 World Series in Chicago, when a fan accidentally knocked his glass of beer into the face of White Sox left fielder Al Smith making a vain attempt to catch a home run sailing over the wall. The photo gained worldwide attention, but there are two back stories to the picture that still are not widely known.

The photographer was Ray Gora, one of a legendary group of "shooters" assigned to the Tribune sports department in an era when cameras were expensive and sports photography actually took knowledge of the games. In an interview not long before he died a few years ago, Ray, always a class act, told retold his tale emphasizing a couple of key points.

1. New technology played a big part in capturing the picture, which actually was part of an eight-page, sequential panel. The Tribune had been experimenting that year with a new, motor-driven camera initially designed by the government for recording rocket launches at then-Cape Canaveral.

This camera, according to Ray, was a Hulcher model with a fast-action, gear-driven shutter that allowed pictures - or individual frames - to be taken in rapid succession. The principle was much the same as a movie camera. This became standard equipment, but it was a big deal then. The Tribune, always quick to tinker with technology through the years, was among the first in the nation to have one for news purposes.

The equipment also was heavy and clumsy. Ray, a tall, strong guy, became the likely candidate to use it. He endured no shortage of good-natured insults at events from peers who could not see skill in simply pointing and keeping the "on" button pushed. Never mind that it also had a more powerful lens, allowing better focus from longer distances that produced more clarity for action shots. It is not likely this photo could have been taken any other way in 1959 than with this camera.

2. When the Tribune selected the sequence from negatives to run and prepared to print it, the graphic artist working that day felt the beer cup could barely be seen against the fan's light-colored clothing. He changed his jacket color to black in the sequence's featured photo. Newspapers did not use color at the time. They have routinely air-brushed and made minor edits to photos forever.

For some reason, the jacket color was not changed in the other photos in the panel, thus the Tribune's first edition hit the streets with the fan wearing a light-colored jacket in all but one photo in the sequence. There was a lot of scrambling, according to Ray, and the original color of the jacket was used for all the pictures in the day's final edition and special highlighting was done to the baseball to make it more visible.

Those are two stories behind the famous photograph. Maybe it's time to add a third.

3. Ray's name never appeared under the photos. This is probably impossible to grasp for many in journalism today, when bylines and credit lines get tossed around like candy. Everyone knew Ray took the photos, however, and he won several prizes for his effort.


When Smith died in 2002, the New York Times wrote an obituary under the headline "Al Smith, 73, Dies; Was Doused in Series."

The obit names a motor-oil company executive named Melvin Piehl as the third leg in the famous photo's tripod; Piehl is the guy who actually spilled the beer on Smith.

'Somebody wanted a sandwich,'' he told the Times. ''I put my beer on top of the wall and bent down to get a sandwich out of the basket. Then I heard the crack of the bat.''

Piehl stretched out an arm as his beer tumbled off the wall because ''I wanted to be sure the ball didn't hit my boss's wife.''

According to the Times, Piehl "shunned publicity over the dousing and turned down an offer to appear on television's I've Got a Secret."

Also unthinkable today - Steve Bartman notwithstanding.


Mike Conklin, who spent 35 years at the Tribune, teaches journalism at DePaul University. Comments welcome.

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021