LEGENDS OF THE CAMERA
In a new series, TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com focuses on baseball’s most influential photographers. Author Larry Canale, who wrote two books with legendary lensman Ozzie Sweet, will be your tour guide.
Part 1: Charles M. Conlon
The first time a photograph really caught my eye—I actually remember the moment—was in spring 1969. Already a baseball-card-carrying kid, I received my April ’69 Sport magazine, with its “Farewell to Mickey Mantle” cover line, and was knocked out by the photograph staring back at me. It’s a low-angle, dramatic portrait of the Magnificent Yankee, hat in hand, glove tucked under arm, eyes looking off into the distance. . . .
This image sent me on a lifelong study of high-impact baseball photography. Some 25 years later, in a twist of fortunate events, I met the photographer who created that memorable Mantle image, Ozzie Sweet (1918–2013). We went on to collaborate on two books and, more important, became close friends for the rest of his life.
Knowing Ozzie deepened my appreciation of photography. And watching him work drove home the idea that the best photographs, baseball or otherwise, reveal something unique, something telling, about the subject. It’s easier said than done, as anyone who has handled a camera (and that includes most of us!) can attest. Knowledge of equipment and an understanding of lighting are key attributes, of course. And the best photographers have a flair for composition and an ability to win over a subject.
Sweet had all of these strengths, and going back a half-century before him, so did Charles M. Conlon (1865–1945), often called the “Mathew Brady of baseball.”
Digging into Conlon’s background reveals that he found his place in baseball history through his own twists of fate. He was a newspaperman, a proofreader, who took up landscape photography as a hobby. He used a Graflex View camera and large-format glass plates in an era when photography was a specialized pursuit, not a part of everyday life.
Conlon’s editor at the New York Evening Telegram was John B. Foster, who also produced the annual publication Spalding Base Ball Guide. “[Foster] came to know about my hobby—taking pictures,” Conlon later wrote in The Sporting News. “He said to me one day, ‘Charley, they need pictures of ball players for the Guide, and there is no reason why you can’t take pictures of the players, as well as landscapes. It will be a good pickup for you, and it will be something for a day off.’”
It turned into something much more, of course. Conlon became an incredibly productive photographer, creating tens of thousands of images ranging from informal but stunning portraits to revealing candid shots to action shots (often from the field of play, just behind first or third base) that belie their age and the era’s technology.
Conlon’s subjects? Everyone he could line up.
He gave us the heroes of the first half of the century, from Yankees Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, and Joe DiMaggio to hitting machines Honus Wagner, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Rogers Hornsby, and Hank Greenberg.
He captured the era’s finest hurlers, among them Christy Mathewson (the subject of Conlon’s first baseball photograph), Cy Young, Grover Alexander, Walter Johnson, and a young Bob Feller.
He photographed multisport baseball players like Jim Thorpe, Ernie Nevers, and Wally Gilbert, all of them NFL stars as well.
Also See: List of 10 Best Wood Bats
He framed such baseball leaders as commissioners Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and Ford Frick, managers Connie Mack and John J. McGraw, and umpires Bill Klem, Pants Rowland, and Hank O’Day.
He also immortalized baseball’s most notorious men, including tough-as-nails Ty Cobb; several members of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” (if I didn’t know better, I’d say they look somewhat suspicious in an example here at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com); and spitball pitcher Jeff Tesreau, who had a 119–72 record in six seasons and then quit suddenly in 1918 after a feud with Manager McGraw.
Conlon wasn’t discriminating, either. All kinds of unheralded players are in his archive along with the stars. Among the many, many examples of men Conlon saved from faceless anonymity: Val Picinich (a backup catcher who played for six teams in 18 years and caught three no-hitters); Jumbo Brown (a 295-pound reliever who was the biggest man in baseball during his career); and Joe Krakauskas (a lefty who had a career mark of 26–36 and was the last pitcher to give up a hit to DiMaggio before Joltin’ Joe’s 56-game hitting streak ended).
Between 1904 and 1941, Charles Conlon created at least 30,000 images. Around two-thirds of them, alas, didn’t survive. Conlon himself destroyed untold numbers, as legend has it, during a cleaning phase midway through his career.
Thankfully, 8,354 Conlon negatives did survive. There’s a common misperception that they’re all glass plates, but Constance McCabe knows otherwise.
McCabe is the photo conservator extraordinaire who collaborated with her brother, baseball researcher Neal McCabe, on two books compiling the photographer’s finest works: Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon (1993) and The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs (2011).
After the release of the latter, Constance set the record straight in a New York Times interview:
“People kept calling them the “glass plates,” and maybe upwards of half of his plates were glass,” she said. “The rest are film negatives, because he gradually switched over to film. Film was available, but [photographers using glass plates] had invested in plate-holders, and they’d have to buy film-holders. That’s expensive. It took a long time for a lot of photographers to switch over.”
If Charles Conlon were around today, he no doubt would be shocked by the fact that so many fans and experts consider him to be baseball history’s most important photographer. After all, he “labored in anonymity,” as the Albany Daily Gazette once put it: “Even upon his death in 1945, newspaper obituaries in Troy, N.Y., where he grew up and later resided in retirement, and Englewood, N.J., where he lived for 40 years, barely mentioned his work as a baseball photographer.”
Neal McCabe said the photographer didn’t realize much financial reward from his images: “He did it because he enjoyed it.”
Even Conlon’s classic action photograph of Ty Cobb sliding with fire and intensity into third base—one of the most enduring images in baseball history—didn’t exactly pad his bank account. In 1937, the photographer himself estimated that he had received, up to that point, more than 1,000 royalty payments for that single image, but they didn’t amount to much. “Each time, he’d get anywhere from a dime to 50 cents,” Neal McCabe said. “So, what did he make from that over the years, $250?”
Furthermore, the sheer value of Conlon’s baseball photography would likely astonish him. Consider these prices paid for vintage prints in recent years:
• $32,588 for an original first-generation print of Joe Jackson—a portrait pose created in 1913 or 1914 (Robert Edward Auctions, 2012)
• $21,500 for an original 1910 print of another Jackson photograph, this one a swinging pose (Heritage Auctions, 2015)
• $20,000 for a print of Babe Ruth in a c. 1927 swinging pose (Hunt Auctions, 2008)
• $10,700 for an original print of Ruth, also c. 1927 (Leland’s, 2014)
Thankfully for fans, Conlon’s images don’t have to cost five figures, particularly if you steer clear of those printed during the photographer’s active career. At various sports auction houses, including those mentioned above, later prints of classic Conlon photographs can be had for anywhere from $50 to $1,500 (depending on player, condition, and quality).
Even more budget friendly: There is a running series of “Conlon Collection” cards issued in the 1990s by The Sporting News and Megacards. Five sets produced between 1991 and 1995 presented more than 1,400 Conlon photos. Look for singles of those cards on eBay at a few bucks or less. Better yet, search for unopened boxes; they do turn up and have sold in recent months for less than $75.
The McCabes’ two books should be in every baseball fan’s library, too. They’re out of print but typically available for around $25 each—well worth it for the spectacular reproductions.
If you’re like me, the more Conlon you see, the more you’re inspired to dig. There are few better ways to soak in early baseball than to reflect on the character in those old faces Conlon photographed, and to take note of the details he captured: uniforms, logos, hats, shoes, socks, bats, those tiny gloves. . . . As they say, every picture tells a story.