Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs
What are baseball’s greatest photographs? That question came up on Twitter over the weekend. Some fellow tweeps offered World Series highlights, others offered sterling Sandy Koufax moments, or inspiring Jackie Robinson shots. It all boils down to criteria, I countered. Do you mean a great moment captured by the camera? An evocative portrait? A sweeping landscape? A favorite ballplayer or ballpark? A favorite photographer? For me, any of these groupings is sensible–and large enough that to select a top ten would be tough. But I promised to offer my thoughts here at Our Game, where the 140-character limit holds no sway.
In a way, I have tackled this question previously through subsets, most recently “Lost Ballparks” (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2014/09/03/picture-portfolio-no-7-lost-ballparks/). I devoted separate 15-picture portfolios to Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Jackie Robinson; another to the game in the 1880s; and yet another to women in baseball (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2014/03/28/picture-portfolio-no-3-women-in-baseball/). At the site I created to accompany publication of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I provided many of the best images (not only photographs) from the period covered in that book: https://baseballeden.com/Images.html. So this subject has interested me ever since I became a fan, back in the Pleistocene Era.
But let’s return to that big question of the game’s greatest photographs, cutting across all imaginable subsets. For this, I think the criterion must be … beauty.
Baseball and photography were made for each other, and in fact they share a traditional, if erroneous, birthdate of 1839. In that year Abner Doubleday is supposed to have had the brainstorm that we now know as baseball—a pretty tale, but one that scholars have winked at for years—and Louis Daguerre presented to the French Academy of Sciences a new process for capturing images on light-sensitive coated plates that he immodestly named daguerreotypes. One baseball “dag” survives from the mid-1840s, depicting six members of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club (a dispute has lately arisen over the identities of those depicted). The first photograph of a baseball team survives only in a newspaper halftone from the 1930s: the Gotham Base Ball Club of 1855. Salt prints survive of the Knickerbockers and Excelsiors, posed on the playing field in 1859; and another of the Excelsior with Jim Creighton from 1860. These are beautiful to those of an antiquarian bent, but if they are among the game’s greatest photographs it is because of their historical importance.
I was asked on Twitter to offer my personal top five, and with trepidation I do so below, reserving the right to post five more tomorrow, and maybe five more each day of this week. (We’ll see about that.) To limit the millions of candidates just a bit, I have not considered any photos of Little League, amateur, collegiate, semi-pro, or minor-league baseball. Many posed images are gorgeous testaments to the skill of the studio or sideline photographer, but these take a back seat here.
I caution readers that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so I offer my selections from no perch of special expertise. You will have your own favorites, and I’ll be happy if you share them with me. A story could be written about each of the photographs to follow, but not today. Enjoy, and argue, and enjoy.
[Clicking on a photo will enlarge it.]