Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs

Hy Peskin at Yankee Stadium

Hy Peskin at Yankee Stadium

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.

Boy with Ball; 1850s Daguerreotype

Boy, ball, bat; 1850s Daguerreotype.

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.]

1.  Babe Ruth’s Farewell, June 13, 1948;  Nat Fein, New York Herald Tribune.

2. Ty Cobb (Detroit Tigers) sliding into Jimmy Austin (NY Highlanders); Charles M. Conlon, 1909-10.

2. Ty Cobb (Detroit Tigers) sliding into Jimmy Austin (NY Highlanders); Charles M. Conlon, 1909-10.

3. Hack Wilson, ca. 1930; photographer unknown, National Baseball Library.

3. Hack Wilson, ca. 1930; photographer unknown, National Baseball Library.

4. Mickey Cochrane tags out Phils' base runner Pinky Whitne, preseason exhibition at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, April 1, 1933; photographer unknown.

4. Mickey Cochrane tags out Phils’ base runner Pinky Whitney, in preseason exhibition at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, April 1, 1933; photographer unknown.

5. Hank Aaron on deck, 1957 World Series; Hy Peskin.

5. Hank Aaron on deck, 1957 World Series; Hy Peskin.

10 Comments

A fine selection indeed. One would have to argue that the quality of baseball photographs diminished exponentially when photographers were banned from the playing field sometime in the 50s(?). Also there is a quality in the large format work of Charles Conlon, (especially his portraits) and others, that has never been surpassed.

Yes, something gained, something lost. The telephoto lens makes easy what once was hard, but beauty is the casualty. I would say that Colon’s portraits were exceeded by Paul Thompson’s, but his on-field work was rivaled only by Louis Van Oeyen.

I spoke about John Dominis’s 1965 photo of Mickey Mantle at last year’s Cooperstown Symposium. This was in a LIFE magazine feature on the decline of the Yankees, and the photo of a downcast Mantle spoke volumes of – and presaged – what we now know as the end of the Yankee dynasty. I’d be happy to email my narrative and PowerPoint slides to you…

Thanks, Paul. But I’m trying to avoid lengthy discussion of the the five images already offered and the 20 to come. The Mantle image is a fine and famous one, but it didn’t make the cut here (along with many, many others!).

Pingback: Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs, Part 2 « Our Game

Reblogged this on MLB.com Blogs Central and commented:
John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball, currently is doing a series of posts in his excellent Our Game blog on baseball’s greatest photographs. See which images made his Top 10 and follow along as he continues the reveal.

Pingback: Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs, Part 3 « Our Game

Pingback: Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs, Part 4 « Our Game

Pingback: Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs, Part 5 « Our Game

Pingback: Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Illustration Art « Our Game

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