Monday, October 24, 2011

The Big Show

There is probably no other sport more photographed than baseball. There are myriad reasons for that, the chief being that baseball was the nation’s game at the turn of last century when the art of photography was just taking shape. Also the pace of baseball lends it to being photographed more than hockey, football and basketball.*

* During Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-game hit streak in 1941, there is a picture of DiMaggio ripping a hit. Most of the time this picture is cropped, but in the uncropped version there are three or four photographers five or six feet away from the batter’s box. I’m not sure when this practice fell out of vogue, but it’s startling to see people without protection so close to the action.

One of the better photographers of this early era of baseball was Charles M. Conlon. In a new book called “The Big Show” Neal and Constance McCabe gathered some of Conlon’s best work and preserved it in an exquisitely done coffee table book featuring a few hundred of Conlon’s 30,000 shots. There is also a remarkable foreword written by “Boys of Summer” author Roger Kahn.

There are plenty of stars littered through out this book: the aforementioned DiMaggio, Walter Johnson and Tris Speaker to name a few, but the main characters in this book are, to use baseball card parlance, the “common players”. Ballplayers that had solid careers, but weren’t household names. The McCabes did a fantastic job of choosing terrific shots and incorporating vivid stories to go with the pictures. And in a way, it underlines what baseball can be about.

In the annals of baseball, for every Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb story there’s a cool story about a guy like Fred Snodgrass, a player who had an auspicious past. He was a slick-fielding centerfield who dropped an easy pop fly for the New York Giants against the Boston Red Sox in the 1912 World Series. This is one of baseball’s biggest and most famous gaffes and the authors mention it in his write up in a roundabout way. Instead they focus on an incident in 1914 when he was almost plunked by a Boston Braves pitcher Lefty Tyler. Snodgrass took exception said some words and Tyler responded by throwing a ball in the air and dropping it, mimicking his mistake in the ‘12 Fall Classic. Snodgrass went back to the batter’s box, was promptly plugged and started a brawl.

After the brawl, Snodgrass went to first base and he thumbed his nose at the Braves fans who went bananas throwing bottles, cushions and anything else they could at him. The Boston mayor tried to have him ejected from the game from starting a riot and harbored a resentment towards him until the following year when he was dealt to the Braves. *

* A few things: one if this happened today both Tyler and Snodgrass would be internet sensations and talk radio would have a field day with this story. “Tyler did what?”, “What was Snodgrass thinking egging the crowd on like that?” And when Snodgrass died, his New York Times obituary headline read, “Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.” That just sucks.

And there are literally hundreds of players like this in the book all with thoroughly interesting stories.

But the real star of the book are the photos. When I was a kid, black and white pictures from around this time scared the crap out of me. I don’t know why, it probably had something to do with the fact that these guys don’t look like anyone that I was used to seeing. And it’s still true, these players all look like hardscrabble men who came to the wilds of the country to play ball in the big city. Their complexions and eyes are pointed and dark, their faces ragged with deep lines, their smiles crooked and wherever they’re standing, it looks cold and dank.

Most of these people were younger than me, yet they looked more world-weary than I will ever be. These athletes should be in the prime of their lives, but they don’t look it. And that’s what’s so interesting about them. They look tired, weary and like they have a million things on their mind other than baseball. The youthful exuberance that we associate with today’s game is nowhere to be found back then. But that’s the expression that all working men had back then and the baseball players found in this book are a reflection of that.

One hundred years ago, life wasn’t fun. If you lived in the city it was cesspool of crime and filth, if you lived in the country you were cut off from modern life and grew up backwards and (probably) illiterate. There wasn’t much to be happy about. Some time after World War II this all changed and Americans became a more “happy” people. Life simply wasn’t as hard and this continues today. Things are getting easier, but it’s important to remember where we came from and recognize the folks who pioneered for our way of life.

“The Big Show” brings those people to life.