Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Pair of Photo Opportunities

Working at the Hall of Fame library, we never know what the next phone call or the next person to come through the door will bring. It can range from the mundane ("Who has more Hall of Famers, the Yankees or the Dodgers?" A: Yankees) to the exotic ("What did Babe Ruth eat for breakfast?" My answer: relief pitchers). It could be an ex-player, a descendant of a Hall of Famer, or someone who doesn't even care much about baseball but wonders if we have any information on Grandpa Gus who played pro ball back in the 1920s.

Sometimes the connection we make is special, and I'm going to write about two of them here. One happened last Friday afternoon, when I got a phone call from Gary Brown, who lives on the New Jersey shore. He calls me a couple of times a month, and we talk about baseball, movies, theater, and a lot more. There's always a little piece of research he needs to help him complete his book on the 1954 New York Giants which will be published later this year. The research tidbit is just the excuse we have to share history and laughter for 15-20 minutes until one of our jobs beckons. He visited the library once a couple of years ago to do research, but otherwise our friendship has flourished just through these phone calls.

After we talked awhile on Friday, he said, "Hey, I have a needle-in-a-haystack thing for you, if you're interested and have the time." Sure, bring it on! "I have a friend, a guy I've interviewed for my book, who was a batboy at the Polo Grounds from late in 1953 through the middle of 1955," he explained. "The other day he asked me if maybe my guy at the Hall of Fame could find a photo of him." Quickly I thought about the likelihood of finding a photo of a Polo Grounds batboy. We have photo files on the stadium, another general file of Giants players, and other possibilities. Then he threw me a curve: "The catch is that he was the visiting team's batboy." Yikes! I thought. No looking through Giants files, now I have seven visiting teams to scour. That would be a pretty damn large haystack.

Good news came next. "I went through Retrosheet [www.retrosheet.org, which has batter-by-batter results of games back to 1954] and listed every home run hit by a visiting player when my friend was the batboy," Gary told me. "Maybe there's a photo of him shaking someone's hand when he crossed the plate. There were 164 home runs hit by 75 players." That didn't sound promising. "I've got the four who hit the most. If you could just check their files, maybe you'll get lucky and find something." That sounded reasonable. The four likeliest suspects were Roy Campanella, Stan Musial, Ted Kluszewski, and Rip Repulski. Two Hall of Famers and one other big slugger, and the haystack was now smaller and more manageable. I told Gary I'd have a look when I got a chance.

Curiosity got the better of me, and it wasn't long before I headed downstairs to our photo vault, where over 500,000 photos are stored in thousands of files. For Campanella, Musial, and Kluszewski, there are numerous files: batting, portraits, street clothes, groups, etc. I gathered up the files labeled "Action" (these show events on the field like running and crossing the plate, as opposed to the "Batting" file which would only show them wielding their bats) and went to work. There were two photos in the Campenalla file showing him crossing the plate and shaking the batboy's hand, but both were from Ebbets Field. Likewise with Musial: one such photo, also from Ebbets Field.

Next up was Ted Kluszewski, and there it was: Big Klu crossing the plate in a game played on June 1, 1955, and shaking the batboy's hand. A few minutes later I was on the phone to Gary. "What's your friend's name?" I asked. He told me. "Oh," I deadpanned. "Number 32." "I wouldn't know that," said Gary. I grinned. "Well, I do. I'm looking at him right now. A tall, skinny geek." "That's him!" Gary exclaimed. "You've got to be kidding me! You found it!"

Yes I did. The batboy, with his back to the camera, stood at home plate, a bat in his left hand and his right hand shaking that of Kluszewski as he stepped on the plate. I knew the date from the caption and other markings on the back of the photo. It was taken by a photographer from the New York Herald Tribune, whose photo morgues were given to the Hall of Fame decades ago when the newspaper folded. The funny thing about the caption was that it mentioned two other batters in the photo along with "the batboy shaking Klu's hand." Someone had circled "batboy" and added an arrow pointing to the batboy's name. Most likely it was someone at the Herald Tribune who happend to know his name. That's how I was able to spin Gary's head around. He was thrilled, of course, and couldn't wait to tell his friend that his photo is in the Hall of Fame and a copy of it is on the way to him.

It's a beautiful feeling to help someone make a baseball from more than a half-century ago, and I was reminded of the day five years ago when I was the one who got a thrill from a photograph. I was manning the desk in the public area of the library when a man walked in and asked whether we had photos from the 1955 World Series. Sure. He asked if he could see the file. Sure. While someone went to fetch the file, the man said, "Have you ever seen the famous photo of Sandy Amoros making his catch?" Sure, I told him. Amoros made a terrific running catch in Game 7, turning a potential game-tying double by Yogi Berra into a game-saving double play.

"I think I'm in that photo," the man told me. Oh really?

A few minutes later he located the photo in our file. It was taken with a zoom lens from above home plate, showing the left field corner as Amoros speared the ball just a few feet from the fence and the foul pole. He peered at the image. "Yep, there I am." He pointed at a face, just the face visible, of a boy in the second row, a few feet in fair territory, swallowed up in the crowd.

"I was eight years old," he explained. "My father took me to the game. That's him there, standing." He pointed at the cheering man around whose body his little face peered. "I can still see that fly ball. As soon as it came off the bat I knew it was headed right to me. I followed it all the way, knowing it was coming right into my lap, looking up at it--and at the last second there was a blur from the left. That was Amoros. He caught the ball, and the crowd went nuts. Absolutely nuts." He paused, gazing at the photo of his father and the other men in the corner jumping exultantly to their feet after Amoros' miracle catch. He smiled. "My father patted me on the shoulder and said, 'son, you've just seen history made.'"

Indeed. And there he was, fifty years later, sharing that moment, that connection, with me. That's why we go to games, to witness historic events, and that's what keeps me coming back here every day, the thrill and deep satisfaction of making those connections with the fans and participants who were present when history was made.

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