During his 38 years of snapping elegant, action-packed baseball pictures, Charles Conlon was the singular figure who captured the early years of modern baseball; from 1904 to 1942, he was the sport’s de facto official photographer. And with the recent release of The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs, some freshly discovered shots are being added to the Conlon canon. The compendium, published by Abrams Books in September, is a fitting follow up to Baseball’s Golden Age, Conlon’s 1993 book of the photographer’s images, which was also being re-released last month.
Conlon wasn’t raised with a camera in his hand. At the turn of the century, he was a newspaper proofreader, toiling for the New York Evening Telegram. That paper’s sports editor, John Foster, was also the assistant editor of the annual Spalding Baseball Guide. This book was not only a promotional publication for the sporting goods company, but, in the words of famed New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell, “indispensable to any true fan.” As Angell writes in the foreward to Baseball’s Golden Age, “these pocket-size baseball compendiums contained the most up-to-date rules of the game, complete statistics and detailed summaries of the previous season, scheduling for the upcoming season, essays, editorials, and hundreds of photographs.”
Foster knew Conlon had a hobby: photography. So he asked Conlon if he’d put it to use, in his spare time, for the Guide. Over the next four decades, Conlon took some of the most iconic shots in baseball history. An unforgettable close-up of Babe Ruth, a young DiMaggio taking a swing, and Ty Cobb sliding into third base — his teeth-clenched, dirt flying in the air — are among his greatest hits.
It’s memorable images like these that appear in The Big Show, which features a surprising shot of Ruth in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform – he was a coach for the team in 1938. Elsewhere, the 1917 Philadelphia Athletics are seen taking military instruction—the American League president wanted to show that his teams were taking part in the war effort, and portraits of Hall of Famers DiMaggio, Christy Mathewson, Connie Mack, Phil Rizzuto, Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker and Lou Gehrig are also included in this collection.
While Conlon loved the ballpark, his gig was risky. “Aside from countless narrow escapes, I was seriously injured twice,” he says in the ’93 book. “On one occasion, less than half an hour after I had assisted in caring for a brother photographer who was hit in the head by a batted ball, a vicious line drive down the first base line caught me just above the ankle, and I was unable to walk for a couple of weeks.” A second baseman for the New York Giants, Larry Doyle, had a habit of tossing his bat, which sent the shutterbugs ducking. “[Giants manager John] McGraw saw me get a close shave on day from a Doyle bat,” Conlon said, “and ordered Larry to tie the stick to his wrist with a thong.”
Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory.
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