A New Look at the Men of Baseball’s Past

Charles Conlon’s classic photographs of baseball players from the early 20th century offer a glimpse into a familiar sport at an otherworldly time

Baseball players
© Sporting News

Bill "Catfish" Klem

Bill Catfish Klem
(© Sporting News)
Bill “Catfish” Klem umpired 18 World Series during his Hall of Fame career. Charles Conlon tried to photograph every player from every team every year; he also made it a habit to shoot the umpires, even the crankiest ones. “What’s most different from Conlon’s age and today is the proximity of the photographer to the subject,” New York Times staff photographer Fred Conrad says. “There was a real interaction between Conlon and his subject, a real rapport. Today, with everything being shot digital, photographers have a computer in front of them and they’re downloading and transmitting images during every at-bat. There’s a disconnect between the photographer and the people they’re photographing.”

Read more about Conlon and the book of his work.

Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth
(© Sporting News)
Babe Ruth and Yankee pinstripes go together like beer and pretzels, but when Conlon shot this portrait in 1938, the Bambino had signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers as a coach and drawing-card. Ruth hoped the job would be a springboard to managing a club. Instead, it turned out to be Ruth's final season in a baseball uniform. “You can just see how miserable Ruth looks,” says Neal McCabe, co-author of The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs. “Charley captured his bittersweet mood just right.”

Edd Roush

Edd Roush
(© Sporting News)
The hands of outfielder Edd Roush. Players did not use batting gloves during this era, but that didn’t stop Roush from hitting .323 during his Hall of Fame career (spent primarily with the Cincinnati Reds). He was known for using the heaviest bat in the sport: a 48-ouncer that outweighed even Babe Ruth’s. Conrad praises the sharp detail that Conlon captured: “What made the Graflex camera that Conlon used so unique was that it had a focal plane shutter,” he says. “You could just focus and fire. You didn't have to put the camera on a tripod. The Graflex allowed for sports photography for the first time.”

Eddie Collins

Eddie Collins
(© Sporting News)
McCabe estimates that Conlon shot as many as 50,000 images. Of those, some 8,000 have survived, including this one of Eddie Collins, the great second baseman, and his ears. McCabe credits Conlon with taking baseball photography out of the studio and onto the field. “Charley wasn’t influenced by what he was supposed to do,” McCabe says. “Alfred Stieglitz once said of [fellow photographer] Paul Strand that he was ‘devoid of all flim-flam.’ That was Conlon. He never had any lessons to unlearn.”

Charles Albert Bender

Charles Albert Bender
(© Sporting News)
Along with Jim Thorpe and John Meyers, Charles Albert Bender was one of the few Native American baseball players to achieve mainstream success. (Bender and Meyers were saddled with the sobriquet of "Chief.") Bender’s baseball salary never topped $5,000 a year—and he was one of the American League’s top pitchers. “The athletes back then didn’t have bodyguards or PR guys surrounding them,” says Fred Conrad of the New York Times. “The players didn’t make astronomical salaries. And Conlon was there every day. He just lived for baseball at a time when no other sport could compete with it for fan interest.”

Fred Blake

Fred Blake
(© Sporting News)
Fred Blake was a coal miner’s son from West Virginia. When his pitching career fizzled, he returned home to work in the mines. “One of the things that I find interesting when you look at historic images of ballplayers and compare them to contemporary players is that you realize that the modern ballplayers have benefited from good nutrition from birth,” says Conrad. “They’ve had weight training and personal chefs and personal trainers. Many of the old-time players came from mining towns or farming towns. Life was tougher, and they were hardened.”

Joe DiMaggio

Joe DiMaggio
(© Sporting News)
Joe DiMaggio, at the height of his fame. Conlon’s contemporaries “airbrushed the imperfections in the players’ faces,” says McCabe. “Conlon didn’t do that. If the guy didn’t smile, he took his photograph and moved on. You see what the guy looks like and what he’s feeling. One of DiMaggio's teammates put it this way: ‘Joe’s one of the loneliest guys I ever knew.’ ”

Pete Sivess

Pete Sivess
(© Sporting News)
Conlon shot everyone, even the marginal ballplayers. Introducing Pete Sivess, who had a forgettable three-year stint with the Philadelphia Phillies in the late 1930s. In his second career, Sivess was a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War. He spoke Russian fluently—his parents were immigrants—and he debriefed and rehabilitated defectors from the Soviet bloc nations. “Thanks to Conlon, we can put a face to a name,” says McCabe.

Author Bio: David Davis is the author of Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush, an account of the 1908 Olympic marathon in London, due in June 2012 from St. Martin's Press.