LIFE magazine’s coverage of the American pastime—while always steeped in a genuine appreciation for the nuances, intricacies and thrills of the game—was often as much personality-driven as performance-driven.
George Silk, Ralph Morse, Mark Kauffman, Francis Miller and the other photographers who so frequently covered baseball for LIFE beautifully captured the action unfolding on the field. But they were also photojournalists: pretty much every photographer on the LIFE staff who was shooting baseball in the 1940s and ’50s (and even into the ’60s) also had occasion, throughout their careers, to photograph . . . well, you name it. War, science, technology, the arts, pop culture, politics, other sports from yachting to boxing to golf: the breadth of the subjects covered by LIFE, and the necessity for LIFE’s photographers to ably capture the heart of the matter—whatever the matter happened to be—meant that baseball was a bit more than just a game. For LIFE’s editors, writers and photographers, it was one more window into the human spirit.
Here, LIFE.com offers the best baseball pictures made for LIFE, from the late Forties to the early Seventies. The great players one would expect are, of course, here: Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Ted Williams and other Hall of Famers make their obligatory appearances. But above and beyond the sheer, phenomenal athletic talent on display (talent gauged by records set, titles won, World Series rings worn) there is also another, less-quantifiable element of the game portrayed in most of these pictures—an element of individual and collective striving on the part of players, managers, owners and, of course, fans. For lack of a better word, that element is drama, and it’s here in abundance.
Finally, viewers will note—and many will no doubt grumble about—the preponderance of New York players and teams represented in these photos. More than half of the photographs either include players in Yankee, Dodger or Giant uniforms, or depict a scene in which New York players, even if unseen, either have or had a central role. In our defense we’ll just note that, during the years in which these photos were made, New York teams were hard to ignore. Between 1941 and 1956, the Yankees and Dodgers played each other in the World Series seven times.
So, yeah. There might be a little too much New York here for some. But if it’s any consolation, there’s nary a Met in sight.