Baseball is an exercise game in which curves shoot into the dirt; infiltration players crouching on tiptoe ready to take action; of rackets pulling their weight back before shooting forward, twisting their hips, and the racket cutting through the air. But while the game may be one of constant movement, many of the greatest and most beloved moments are best captured with a static photo.
We remember the smiling faces on baseball cards or the images that splashed on the front pages of sports departments long before the internet gave us access to instant highlights. The photo is the best reminder of recent events, such as José Bautista, who launched his bat into the stratosphere in 2015.
But how do you put together a collection of some of the best baseball photos? How does a person even start shortening the list? For the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s most recent book, “Picturing America’s Pastime,” an update and expansion of a previously exhibited exhibit, that role fell to senior curator Tom Shieber and a team of the museum’s best.
It was’nt easy. The Hall of Fame has around 350,000 photos in its archives, the inspirational thoughts of Hall employees walking through the air hangar at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” looking for the right picture. Fortunately, Shieber has been in the baseball and museum business for about 40 years and is passionate about baseball imagery.
“Some [the selections were] like: “I know this picture. Do we have this in our collection because I think it would be a great image to use? ‘ And that applied to both the exhibition and the book, ”Shieber said in a recent Zoom interview. “When we did the exhibition, I had been here for a few years. I was fairly familiar with the collection – I certainly didn’t see all of the 350,000 images, but I saw a good number. And then there was some sort of going through and looking for something. Maybe I had a general idea and looked at the logical places, for example, I want to get a good World Series picture, but it wasn’t about going through every single picture. “
Next, the team had to develop a system to make their decisions. The book is not intended to be, nor was it, an illustrated baseball story Just showed great photos.
“The guideline applied to both the exhibit and the book, it was consistent across both forms of storytelling,” said Shieber. “And that was the picture that has to be a beautiful photo in and of itself. That was number one and a very tight number two – and you had to have one and two – there had to be a good story to tell. “
Flip through the book and you will find that while each picture has a brief story to accompany it, the photo also contributes its part to the story.
Ultimately, the photo had to be included in the hall’s huge collection.
“We wanted to make sure people understand that we have a stunning collection of baseball images that a lot of people don’t think about as much,” said Shieber. “You should know that we have this very great treasure in this institution. And so I wanted to say specifically for the exhibition: ‘Hey, this is from our collection. These aren’t the greatest photos in baseball history. or the best players or whatever. It’s a snapshot look – sorry for the pun – but a snapshot look at the breadth and depth of our collection and how rich the stories are and how wonderful the pictures are. “
Some were from major competitions as fans did their best to get a climax of the action during the 1903 World Series:
Others simply would have simply because they’re so wonderful to look at, like this photo of the Chicago White Sox on the Royal Gorge Hanging Bridge en route to Spring Training in San Francisco in 1910. (Click here to see a larger size .)
Still others were chosen simply to highlight those mundane but strangely beautiful moments that are often overlooked, such as swapping lineup cards.
“I really liked this photo because it’s a perfectly normal moment that we can ignore,” said Shieber. “I like to think of those parts of baseball that somehow get forgotten because they happen all the time and they probably don’t get very well treated on TV for the referees.”
But Shieber is really excited when he can put on his detective hat and solve some photographic puzzles. An example is from an 1879 photo with the Boston Red Stockings and Providence Grays. Shieber began by asking himself: why the picture was even taken.
“You don’t ask yourself that now because everyone always has a camera with them,” said Shieber.
However, back then, taking a picture was a big deal. Someone who carried large and unwieldy equipment had to be sent specifically to get an idea.
“I knew Boston was the previous pennant winner, and I knew Providence was the 1879 pennant winner,” said Shieber. “And I thought, why are you taking this picture? Maybe it’s not a coincidence. So I was like, ‘Well, when did Providence put the pennant? Oh my god. It was when Boston happened to be in town.’ And then I went to the papers and started reading articles. If I couldn’t find an article that said, ‘And then they put them all together and we took some pictures.’ “
Shieber then revealed how deep down the rabbit hole you can go – and some of the unexpected things you can find – while researching a photo showing the St. Louis Giants of the Negro National League.
“All we knew was that it was the St. Louis Giants in 1920,” Shieber said. “I was able to find out the exact date by first looking at the scoreboard in the background and you can see when these teams met. And then you can find out the location because there is advertising on the outfield.” There’s an ad for a bank in Kansas City and, well, a bank in Kansas City doesn’t advertise on a wall in Indianapolis or anything. And then I found out the park they were playing in. Then I went to Google Maps and I made sure the shadows were pointing in the right direction just to double check and they did. “
Shieber continued his time travel exploration by going into Google Streetview and he was able to find that the building next to the display board still exists today. Then he made a really fun discovery: the building where photographer James E. Miller – who took this picture and was a well-known Negro Leagues photographer – worked and probably developed this image? The Negro Leagues Museum is located in this block today.
You can see Shieber explain his research on this photo in more detail below:
Flip through the book and you’ll likely find your own baseball history surprises – whether it’s a photo of the irascible Ty Cobb making snowballs or the baseball players carrying him Roller skates.
This was all on purpose, since Sheiber wanted to create a book that was out of order so the reader would be curious about what went beyond each cover.
“When you are in an exhibition, you can see several pictures at the same time,” said Shieber. “In the book – I think you can turn the pages if you want – there is certainly no order. I fought hard for that. It makes sense not to arrange it chronologically or thematically. It really should look like I have no idea what’s going to happen next. “