Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Book To Be Savored

There seems to be no debate in baseball history circles about the identity of the game's greatest photographer: Charles Conlon. If/when the Hall of Fame stops dithering and institutes an annual award for baseball photography, it will be named after Conlon. With good reason: the New York-based Conlon took thousands of photos from 1905-1942, capturing two generations of players in images regularly published in The Sporting News.

In the early 1990s, the American public became re-acquainted with Conlon in two ways: The Sporting News issued over 1,000 baseball cards in several sets; and in 1993, BASEBALL'S GOLDEN AGE was published by Abrams. It featured over 200 Conlon photos in a large format, with captions by Neil McCabe. The book was terrific, full of Conlon's haunting portraits and images of bygone stars. Conlon photographed 128 (future) Hall of Famers during his career, and 63 were featured in BASEBALL'S GOLDEN AGE.

Now, a mere 18 years later, Abrams has published a second volume of Conlon photos, titled THE BIG SHOW. Again, it has just over 200 photos, with captions by Neil McCabe and a foreword by Roger Kahn. To celebrate the occasion, Abrams (www.abramsbooks.com) has also reissued BASEBALL'S GOLDEN AGE with a new foreword by Roger Angell. If you want to possess a shelf of the best baseball books, these two Conlon collections have to be on it.

McCabe says the new volume is better than the original, and I agree. Even better. For one thing, the selection is more democratic. This time around, only 41 Hall of Famers are included, leaving more room for lesser players and intriguing story-lines. For instance, where the first volume had ten Babe Ruth photos, the new volume has only two, but has a section including a number of men who intersected with important events in Ruth's career--Jack Warhop, who gave up Ruth's first home run; Guy Bush, who gave up his last; Duffy Lewis, who witnessed both; Sammy Byrd, who was nicknamed "Ruth's legs" because he replaced him so often late in games; and Ford Frick, Ruth's ghostwriter who later went out of his way to protect Ruth from the 1961 home run challenge by Roger Maris.

While the first volume had multiple photos of other stars besides Ruth, the new volume has only one player with as many as four, and that's Bob Fothergill, not exactly a household name. Many related players face each other as you turn the page, the neat connections provided by McGabe. There are also numerous paired photos showing a player early and late in his career, perhaps even later as a coach, eager young faces hardened by years of competition at a difficult and dangerous game. McCabe astutely points out many subtleties in the multiple portraits of certain players.

The true joy to be found in exploring this book is the attention it brings to players so obscure that even aficionados of the Deadball Era or the Golden Age haven't heard of them. But they have great names and faces, and great stories. Submitted for your enjoyment are the immortal Gabbo Gabler, Braggo Roth, Pete Sivess, Buddy Gremp, Smead Jolley, Buzz McWeeny, Pid Purdy, and many more. Look at their faces and see how Conlon's lens permeated their characters and souls. There are happy faces like Jim Bottomley, Melo Almada, and Jim Turner, and brooding faces like Urban Shocker and Charley Hollocher, who died young.

McCabe says the new volume is better because he had a better idea of how to go about the captions. Instead of the more statistical and anecdotal captions he provided the first time around, he has made ample use of quotes--contemporary statements about the player in the photo, or quotes from the subject--to tell each player's key story. So we get Stan Coveleski explaining how slippery elm was essential for throwing his spitball; Edd Roush on winning a rare argument with John McGraw; Slim Caldwell on getting struck by lightning on the pitching mound; Nick Altrock on how he wrestled himself into submission; I could go on and on.

I understand better than anyone why McCabe enjoyed this project so much. I had almost the same experience a few years ago, writing the captions for two photo collections by Neil Leifer, who will someday win the Conlon Award. The first, his baseball photos, is a good book, but the second (football photos) is much better. Leifer says his football photos are his best, and certainly football provides more dramatic and dynamic images than baseball. The football-book editor certainly did a better job of choosing a balanced mixture of images. But I think the text is the big difference. For the football book, the publisher, Taschen, got permission to use the football writings of Jim Murray, the best dispenser ever of sports one-liners. So I had the option of using Murray quotes and other quotes that I wasn't given in the baseball book. The result was that, when I had a photo of an offensive tackle with tufts of turf stuck to his face mask, instead of parading facts about the subject all I had to do was supply Murray's superb statement that "To a lineman, the football is just a rumor."

McCabe has made wonderful use of quotes in THE BIG SHOW to shed light on time-worn tales and to introduce readers to long-lost tales. They are the difference in this book. It is more than a collection of dramatic images by baseball's best photographer. It is a treasure trove of captivating stories and expert testimony about nearly 200 players whose lives were etched on their faces for Conlon to reveal. Get this book and savor it for a long, long time.

[NOTE: At the same time that this wonderful book has been published, the Rogers Photo Archive has established a website, www.theconloncollection.com, where high-quality prints of the entire Conlon collection can be purchased.]