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Paul Thompson’s Pioneering Portraits:
Major League Images Oozing With Aura


Baseball's best photographers ever? This nine-part series focuses on the game’s most influential lensmen. Author Larry Canale, who wrote two books with legendary photographer Ozzie Sweet, is your tour guide. Part 7 explores the work of Paul Thompson.

Part 7: Paul Thompson

By Larry Canale , November 29, 2017

This stunning 1911 view of the great Walter Johnson is a prototypical portrait by Paul Thompson.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

To those who have been following this series on baseball’s best photographers, my apologies for the rain delay. That’s what you can call the chunk of time that passed between Part 6 (“George Grantham Bain: Master of Mystique”) and this new installment. And who better to get “Legends of the Camera” back in focus than pioneering Paul Thompson?

Thompson (1878–1940) was a versatile type whose tight studies of the weathered, dusty, grime-filled faces of early baseball players help tell the story of our National Pastime’s history. His journey had clear parallels to the career of George Bain (1865–1944). Broadly speaking, both were highly regarded photographers who helped frame baseball’s early twentieth century. Both also aimed their cameras beyond athletes, covering news and politics for the media. And both showed an entrepreneurial spirit by starting up agencies to represent the work of other photographers.

Biographical details about Thompson are sketchy. Some have questioned, for example, the accuracy of the birth/death dates shown above, although they’re commonly cited in such sources as auction catalogs. While we know Thompson graduated from Yale University, his earliest years as a photographer are somewhat mysterious. His big break, however, is well known.

Thompson’s career pivoted on a photo shoot of one of America’s literary greats. In January 1909, Samuel Clemens granted Thompson a portrait session at his Connecticut home. Thompson had written to Clemens a month earlier to ask for permission to photograph the writer, whose books—penned, of course, under the pseudonym Mark Twain—had made him a celebrity.

According to notes in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3, Thompson’s photographs of Clemens served as a springboard. “The immediate sale of this set of pictures,” according to the book’s editors in an addendum, “brought in $1,000, which became the initial capital for the establishment of Mr. Thompson as an independent news photographer.”

Paul Thompson’s big break: A photo shoot he lined up at the Connecticut home of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. Sales of his photos of Twain helped fund the news service he launched.
Source: Public domain

Thompson’s Trail

In launching his news agency (which represented writers as well as photographers), Thompson steered toward one of his interests—baseball. His timing was perfect; producers of the day’s tobacco cards were getting into a groove. Early baseball cards existed mainly to promote sales of tobacco and food products. But unlike today, there was a skeletal inventory of player images to use as photographs or as the basis for illustrations. The void presented an opportunity for enterprising photographers, and Thompson was quick to act.

Based on images he was producing in 1910 and 1911, Thompson—whose offices were located at 10 Spruce Street in lower Manhattan—became a reliable source for card producers. Dozens of portraits in the classic T205 set (with its gold-bordered cards packaged in 11 different tobacco brands in 1911) stemmed from Thompson photographs. So too did cards in these sets, among others: American Tobacco Co. Silks (S74); Domino Discs (PX7); Fleischmann/Ferguson Bakery cards (D381); Hassan Triple Folders (T202); Helmar Stamps (T332); Piedmont Art Stamps (T330-2); and Sweet Caporal Pins (P2).

If you’ve had any exposure to those vintage sets, you’ve seen Thompson’s work. But until you’ve had a chance to study and soak in his actual photographs, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

This pairing illustrates the great Eddie Collins—a Hall of Famer who batted .333 during his 25-year career— in a 1910 Thompson portrait that served as the guide for a Piedmont tobacco stamp.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Another Hall of Famer, pitcher Chief Bender, shows up here in a Thompson portrait and on a T205 gold-bordered tobacco card.
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Paul Thompson Portraits: Take a Look

A top-level view of Thompson’s archive reflects a surveyor’s approach to baseball. He and his news service colleagues captured the game’s action and atmosphere, its sights and scenery. They left us with batting and throwing poses as well as candids before and after games. But Thompson’s most important work was his portraiture.

Thompson’s intimate, telling portraits ooze with aura, defining each subject’s personality in gazes and expressions, tones and shadows. His images reveal the dirt and grime ground into the lines of various players’ faces, and they capture—depending on the player—piercing gazes, far-away looks, surly attitudes, or sheer pride. Sometimes, they catch a smile in the subjects’ eyes.

Paul Thompson’s portrait archive includes baseball’s most recognizable face: the Mighty Bambino. Heritage Auctions sold this vintage Thompson print of Babe Ruth for $5,570.
Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

The National Pastime Museum archives hold more than 300 Thompson images that represent his entire range of styles. (See our slideshow by clicking on the lead image.) The Library of Congress has dozens of other Thompson images. The bulk of those at the LOC are news-related, with many having been created in France between 1914 and 1918 as World War I raged on. But the LOC also houses more than two-dozen prime Thompson baseball portraits, and they’re spectacular.

For starters, consider the portraits of the following luminaries—and take the time later to dig deeper.

• Walter Johnson (1887–1946): When “Big Train” sat for Paul Thompson in 1910, he was only three years into his career, and they were trying seasons for the young pitcher. From 1907 through 1910, Johnson posted an upside-down 32–48 record despite posting an ERA, amazingly, of 1.94. During that span, the struggling Senators had a record of 158–297, so you can forgive Johnson for the slightly beleaguered look he gave Thompson. You have to admit: He looks older than his 22 years in this image.

Things would get better for the tall sidearmer, by the way. He was the catalyst behind his team’s escape from the 1909 American League cellar to become a contender, with second-place finishes in 1912 and 1913. In 1924, Johnson experienced a World Series championship—and he almost won another in 1925, when Washington lost to Pittsburgh in seven games. By the time he hung ’em up, Johnson owned a 417–279 record with a 2.17 ERA, 531 complete games, and 110 shutouts in 21 seasons.

This stunning 1911 view of the great Walter Johnson is a prototypical portrait by Paul Thompson.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

• Ed Walsh (1881–1959): “Big Ed” was a workhorse who between 1907 and 1912 “tested the limits of a pitcher’s endurance,” as historian Stuart Schimler wrote for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). During that six-year span, he threw a total of 2,248 innings—an average of 375 per year. Known as an intense competitor, Walsh is the stingiest pitcher in history: His career ERA of 1.82 stands as a record.

Paul Thompson’s portrait of Walsh dates to May 13, 1911. A noted spitballer, Walsh looks as if he’s ready to load one up—like he might have a dollop of tobacco juice in his mouth. Adding to the aura is a lifelike quality that makes this image look almost new. Yet the details define early twentieth-century baseball, from the too-small cap tilted on Walsh’s head to that classic heavy wool sweater worn over his pitching shoulder. And then there’s that stare: the piercing eyes of a no-holds-barred warrior.

Walsh’s career nosedived after the six-season workhorse stretch mentioned above. He pitched in only 33 games over his final (injury-plagued) five seasons. Two years after he retired, following the 1919 season, baseball banned the spitball. For years, Walsh fought to have the pitch reinstated, citing the need to offset the power hitting that became vogue in the 1920s, but was unsuccessful.

Talk about character…. This Thompson photo is loaded with it. That’s spitball specialist Ed Walsh, who played when the trick pitch was legal.
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

 • John J. McGraw (1873–1934): Nicknamed “Little Napoleon” for his dictator style of managing, John McGraw began his pro career in Olean, New York, playing minor league ball while attending St. Bonaventure University in the early 1890s. He quickly found his way to the Majors with the Baltimore Orioles, where he became known as a feisty and combative player from 1891 through 1907 (his lifetime batting average: .334). He took on the dual role of player-manager for the Orioles in 1899 and for the New York Giants starting in 1902. In 1908, he retired as a player and became a full-time manager, a position he held for the Giants until 1932.

McGraw won 10 NL pennants and three World Series during his career, creating excitement wherever he went. The fiery manager was known to administer “harsh tongue-lashings to his players,” author Don Jensen wrote, “and he frequently fought with umpires—he was ejected from 118 contests during his career.” But he was a peerless baseball mind, putting a premium on “strategy and guile,” as Jensen wrote, in developing what we now call “inside baseball” intelligence.

Given McGraw’s push-the-envelope persona, the Paul Thompson photograph shown here makes sense. Thompson took the picture at a ball field, with McGraw in uniform (complete with one of those great old short-billed caps) while giving a hard glare into the camera. And really, there is no other word to use than “glare.” Those steely eyes combine with McGraw’s rock jaw and wide nose to portray a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails character, framed perfectly by Thompson.

Here’s Thompson’s view of John J. McGraw, a hard-nosed competitor, lifetime .334 hitter, and one of the best managers of all time.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Eddie Grant, 3B (1883–1918): This lefty hitter was known as “Harvard Eddie” for the law degree he earned at Harvard University. While there, he was a star in basketball and baseball; after graduation and some minor league seasoning, he hooked on with the Philadelphia Phillies. Grant was no slugger, but he was a solid contributor who won a full-time job with the Phils, leading the league in at-bats in both ’08 and ’09. In 1910, he hit .268 with 67 RBIs but found himself traded to Cincinnati the following spring. Thompson photographed him in early 1911.

Within a year of Thompson’s photograph and only nine months after he married, Grant’s new wife died suddenly of a heart attack. Understandably, the third baseman slumped with the Reds in 1912, hitting .223, and was peddled to the Giants in mid-1913. He was relegated to a utility role for the next two seasons, retiring before the 1916 season began. He had a .249 career average, with 153 steals in 10 seasons.

A year later, in 1917, Grant became the first Major Leaguer to enlist in the U.S. military and was deployed to France. Named a captain of his division, he died a hero in a famous battle in October 1918. As the New York Times wrote, “‘Eddie’ Grant Killed in France; Ex-Third Baseman of the Giants Slain in Attempt to Rescue ‘Lost Battalion.’” Only 35 at his death, Grant was one of just a few Major Leaguers to lose his life in World War I.   

Thompson’s haunting 1911 photograph of Grant features a distinctive depth of field that gives it all kinds of dimension while putting the subject’s eyes in sharp focus. And it immortalizes the endearing look of a freckle-faced young man of 27. It would turn out to be a high point in an all-too-short life. 

Thompson took this endearing photograph of the ill-fated “Harvard Eddie” Grant in 1911.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Tinker to Evers to Chance

Three of the most notable Paul Thompson subjects were Cubs teammates Joe Tinkers, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance. According to baseball lore, the trio didn’t get along off the field, but they nevertheless provided stellar infield play. As the game’s best double-play combination, they inspired a poem that hinged on the rhythm of their names together: Tinkers to Evers to Chance. For our purposes, each one submitted to a portrait session with Paul Thompson, and the results are stunners.

• Frank Chance (1876–1924): Chance, 34 when Thompson photographed him in 1910, had been serving as player-manager since 1905. If he looks a bit world-weary, it may have had something to do with his hardnosed style of play. As Gregory Ryhal wrote for SABR, “Chance bowled over his opponents, and displayed an infamous lack of good sportsmanship that would make the notorious Ty Cobb blush. Chance once incited a riot at the Polo Grounds after physically assaulting opposing pitcher Joe McGinnity, and on more than one occasion tossed beer bottles at fans in Brooklyn when he felt they were being too unruly, or perhaps not unruly enough.”

Chance also was known for crowding the plate, and he paid the price with frequent beanballs. Sadly, he developed blood clots in his brain and lost hearing in one ear and partial hearing in the other because of the beanings.

Take a look into Chance’s eyes, as emblazoned in Thompson’s photograph, and you can sense the character who, as manager, forbade his players from shaking hands with any opponent who beat the Cubs. Despite his tactics, he made the Hall of Fame in 1946 on the merits of both his play (he batted .296 and set a Cubs record for stolen bases with 402) and his managing (his .593 winning percentage has been surpassed in team history only by current manager Joe Maddon).

Another hard-nosed early-20th century player who stared into Thompson’s lens: Frank Chance, the receiving end of the Cubs’ famous double-play combination of Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Johnny Evers (1881–1947): Evers joined the Cubs as a 20-year-old in 1902 and remained with them through the 1913 season, serving as player-manager in that final year. He went on to play all or part of six more seasons with three other teams, but his glory days were with the Cubs, for whom he hit .276 with 291 steals in 309 attempts.

Evers was one of the smallest players ever to put on a Major League uniform: He carried only 125 pounds on his 5-foot, 9-inch frame, but made up for his size with a big attitude. He was known for having a chip on his shoulder, in fact, as you might gather from Thompson’s revealing 1911 portrait of the second baseman. Evers frequently yakked away at opponents, umpires, and even teammates—except Tinker. The two of them didn’t speak for years.

Johnny Evers weighed a scant 125 pounds, but he could play, as his .276, 1,659 hits, 919 runs, and 291 steals illustrated. He couldn’t, however, get along with his infield-mates.
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Joe Tinker (1880–1948): The Cubs’ regular shortstop from 1902 through 1912, Tinker hit .258 during that stretch and swiped 304 bases. More important, he was the anchor of the Cubs’ infield. In early 1911, when Thompson photographed Tinker, he was coming off one of his best offensive seasons, batting .288 with 20 steals and 69 RBIs. In 1911, he would match that RBI total while hitting .278 with 30 steals. Fittingly, the honest look he gave Thompson seems to reflect a quiet confidence. 

Tinker’s ongoing feud with Evers came to a head, sort of, in 1912. When Chance departed as manager, the Cubs tapped Evers to take over. Tinker responded by asking for—and receiving—a trade to the Reds.

Thompson took this sharp portrait of Joe Tinker in 1911, about two seasons before he asked for and received a trade to the Reds. Leaving the Cubs was more appealing than playing for new manager Evers.
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Pitching Rivals

We would be remiss to ignore two other notables photographed by Paul Thompson: star hurlers and arch-nemeses Christy Mathewson (1880–1925) and Mordecai Brown (1876–1948).

Brown was known better by his nickname: “Three-Finger.” As a kid in Indiana, he lost more than half of his index finger on his throwing hand, thanks to a farming accident. It didn’t stop him from playing ball. If anything, it gave him an advantage: a grip that sent his pitches in places that confounded batters. In his 14-year career, Three-Finger Brown had a 239–130 record and a sterling 2.06 ERA, pitching mainly for the Chicago Cubs.

Mathewson was Brown’s counterpart as ace of the archrival New York Giants. During his 17-year career, Mathewson put up a 373–188 record and a 2.13 ERA. He was known for spot-on control, an easy throwing motion, and an arsenal that kept NL batters off balance. Among his accomplishments were the most wins in a season (37) and the most consecutive 20-win seasons (12).

Thompson’s revealing portraits of arch-rivals Christy Mathewson and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown are among his best.  
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Think of their rivalry as a Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson sort of thing. Between 1903 and 1916, the pitchers’ teams were the two best in the NL, with the Giants having won five pennants to the Cubs’ four in that span. The Giants had five second-place finishes vs. three for the Cubs. Brown and Mathewson faced each other 25 times, and their games were typically close, with Mathewson coming out on top 13 times and Brown 11 times.

Thompson’s portraits of both men are worthy examples of his style. The outgoing Mathewson offered an easygoing smile in a photograph that would become widely used on tobacco cards. Thompson’s view of Brown reveals the pitcher’s grounded, salt-of-the-earth, reserved personality.

Thompson also asked—and received cooperation—to photograph the pitching hands of both men. Vintage copies of the pair of photos appeared in a major auction in 2006, with Three-Finger Brown’s photo fetching $5,940 and Mathewson’s drawing $640. Clearly the curiosity factor made a difference. But the keepers are the close-ups of their faces; they summarize the portrait-perfect work of Paul Thompson.

Thompson’s work extended well beyond baseball players. He and his news service distributed photographs related to national and international news. Above is Theodore Roosevelt greeting Col. Alexander O. Brodie of the Rough Riders in June 1910. Below: One of hundreds of examples of Thompson photographs taken during World War I. This image captures a wounded French officer being loaded into a Red Cross wagon for treatment in 1917.
Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog




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