This week, as baseball season opens, we mark the end of the dark abyss of sports apathy (and winter) that we’ve endured since the end of the morally-complicated college football season. This week, we finally embrace our locally venerable “boys of summer” and all that is great about sun, heat, humidity and outdoor stadiums (where baseball is meant to be played).
For many of us, the familiar middling mediocrity of our local baseball executives and our team’s insipid performance is less about the angst of another post-All-Star-break front-office-capitulation, but more of a comforting reminder that, as the world changes, baseball always returns and our team never improves. The team may be miserable, but it is our misery, dammit, and as one of life’s few constants, that is comforting.
Not so much here in the nation’s capital, though! Go Nats!
To celebrate both the start of the baseball season and the final weeks before I start worrying about things like impending free agency and team salary levels, let’s look at some of the of most famous baseball images from the sport’s long history. Below, we’ll look at some shots you’ve probably seen before, but maybe didn’t know the story behind. Where available, I’ve included nerdy-photographer facts, but mostly my aim was to tell the story behind each of these.
This was one of the most fun posts I’ve put together for the site, and I plan on several more in the future.
On June 13, 1948, when Babe Ruth emerged from the clubhouse to say his goodbyes to a game and team that he had lead to prominence, he was already 13 years retired. The day was a celebration on the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium, and the team was officially taking his number out of service.
Stooped and sickly and barely able to stand on his own, the image captures the presence he brought to the field. Even facing away from the camera and two months away from death, he appears to own the stadium.
The only sports-related photo to have won a Pulitzer, it was taken by Ned Fein at f5.6 and 1/25. There are various stories about how Fein ended up behind Ruth, but all (most?) agree he purposefully avoided using a flash.
The only way to overcome baseball lore is to overshadow it with baseball legend. Hence, the destruction of the Curse of the Bambino with one of the toughest performances by an athlete in history.
The Yankees and Red Sox met, as they had many times before, in 2004, facing off for a spot in the World Series. History did not favor the Red Sox, having supposedly punished the team for 85 years since trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees before the 1920 season. The Sox’s reversal of fortunes after that trade was immediate and extreme, and the team went into a decades-long title drought.
In 2004, Curt Schilling had had one of the best seasons of his career, but his first game of the penultimate post-season series was lousy. He had torn ligaments in his ankle, and had no stability or power when pushing off the mound at the end of his delivery. Four games later, Schilling was due to pitch again in a win-or-go-home game, and had his tendons temporarily stapled to the bone. (Obligatory “gah-ah-ah” here.) Allowing one run over seven innings with five strikeouts and no walks (if you don’t watch baseball, that’s an exceptional game stat for a pitcher), the cameras repeatedly flashed to his sock, where blood from his sutures contrasted brightly with the white fabric.
The powerful performance and tough guy execution was pivotal in the Sox’s effort to come back and beat the Yankees in the series from three games behind, throwing the Curse of the Bambino off the collective backs of Red Sox nation. The team swept the St. Louis Cardinals for the 2004 World Series title, and entered a new era of baseball success.
Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra and The Slide
There’s a lot that makes this image exceptional, but we’ll start with the fact that two of the game’s most storied player, Jackie Robinson and Yogi Berra, are meeting at home. Robinson was fast…very fast…and he had a penchant for stealing home. Berra is considered by many to be the greatest catcher of all time, and his personality absolutely added to the story behind this picture.
Robinson steals home in game one of the 1955 World Series, traling 4-6, and umpire Mark Summers calls him safe. You can see in the video below, Berra has an absolute meltdown about it, and he never relented. Anytime Berra was asked to sign a photo featuring that play, he would add a postscript, “He was out!”
For the photography nerd, this is one of the first telephoto pictures taken with a long lens from field level. Part of the reason the picture is special is because of its unique angle for the time; most shots with telephoto lenses required different cameras that forced photographers away from field level.
Willie Mays’ The Catch
If every defensive play in baseball got its own Wikipedia page, we’d soon run out of electrons in the world. In fact, in researching this, I’ve found this to be the only iconic play with a Wikipedia page.
It could have something to do with the fact that, as we continue to develop new tools and methods for evaluating baseball players (and new tools for developing them, as well), Willie Mays’ career grows more exceptional. Game one of the 1954 World Series saw the Cleveland Indians’ Vic Weltz smack one out to deep center field. It’s important to note here that the Indians and the New York Mets were playing at the Polo Ground in New York, a larger stadium than most, and the hit would have been a home run in many parks.
In any case, Mays made the physics-defying, over-the-shoulder catch in a play that took so long to develop that many of the spectators went through multiple rounds of “He’s got it/He’ll never get to it.”
My favorite quote in researching this photo is from Arnold Hano’s book, in which the sportswriter tells the story of watching Mays’ catch from the bleachers of the Polo Grounds, and says “For the second time, I knew Mays would make the catch.”
Lou Gehrig’s Farewell
If the photo of Babe Ruth visiting Yankee Stadium for the last time is tragic in its contrasts, the photo of Lou Gehrig struggling through his famous speech at Yankee Stadium is tragic in its mundanity.
Surrounded by teammates and fans, Gehrig appears not much different than the man who earned the title “Baseball’s Iron Horse” and set the streak for consecutive games that Cal Ripken would later break.
But the trophies are on the ground because he no longer has the ability to hold them, and his defeated stance at the microphone reveals more about his illness than his words. During his speech, he insists that he has much to live for, yet he’ll pass away less than two years later.
Gehrig’s speech only perpetuated the mundane, taking the focus off his story (he says, of his disease, that he’s caught “a bad break”) and focusing on the people that have helped get him there and the people that surround him each day. Amazingly, in about 300 words, he acknowledges everyone from the Yankees’ owner to the grounds crew to the stadium ushers.
There are some interesting facts worth noting about the speech, as well. First, we don’t know the actual complete text, as the only recording of it has lost about the middle third of the audio. Second, Gehrig makes his famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” reference in the first few words–not at the end, as in the Gary Cooper movie.