For a kid who grew up reading Sport Magazine and Sports Illustrated, the start of a baseball season means opportunity to emulate the work of my heroes…the photographers (then and now) who gave me reason to dream.
Port Charlotte, FLA – One of the reasons I’m always optimistic about the start of another baseball season has nothing to do with wins and losses, or this team’s place in the final Big Ten standings.
It has nothing to do with pitchers and catchers…double plays and pickoffs…or leaping catches over the outfield wall, except……
To a guy like me who’s had a Nikon or Canon camera in his hand for forty years it’s about the photos – the possibility of creating art by capturing the inimitable action of baseball – just one moment, but a moment that will never be exactly duplicated. It’s what sports shooters call ‘getting the shot’, and no drug, or no beverage, or any other passion is more intoxicating…to a photographer!
And baseball…more than football, basketball, or name your sport…is king in terms of action photography. It’s king because it’s focused on individual players making the simple, rudimentary plays against clean, yet familiar backgrounds – the perfect backdrops of ivy-covered outfield walls, scoreboards, and fans in the stands. Depending on personal like, of course, baseball has produced more iconic photos in the last eighty years than almost any other sport I can list.
From Babe Ruth’s farewell in Yankee Stadium…Bill Mazeroski’s home run to end the 1960 World Series…to just those familiar photos of the sport’s giants – Mays, Koufax, Aaron, Ripken, and Bench – every one of those pictures represent a moment in time that can be imitated, but never exactly replicated. And imitation, as we all know, is the sincerest form of flattery.
When I was eight years old my parents bought for me a subscription to Sport Magazine, the old monthly that featured the work of some of the world’s best photographers – Walter Iooss, Herb Scharfman, Tony Tomsic, and a guy from Delaware, Ohio named Malcom Emmons that I later, by chance, ran into during my days at Ohio State. Malcom, besides being an unofficial, ‘official’ photographer for Ohio State, shot covers for Sport, Sporting News, Street’s and Smith, and a variety of other publications distributed world-wide.
And then Tomsic, who passed away last spring at the age of 84, turned out to be from Cleveland, Ohio, and a guy I would meet later in life…showed me proper angles from which to shoot sports, particularly baseball. At that time, the late 70s and early 80s, I was umpiring in the minor leagues and free-lancing with one camera and two lenses during the off-season…selling photos to publications like Referee Magazine, for $20. His words were a revelation, and made $20 seem Trump-like in significance.
I learned something from each of these guys, and others like Bill Frakes (Miami), John McDonough (SI, from Los Angeles), Manny Millan (SI, New York), and Neil Leifer (Time Life) without ever meeting them. After someone like Tomsic and Emmons showed me what it was supposed to look like, all I had to do was look at someone’s work to recognize their advantage, and how they created it.
But to imitate that work it takes equipment – cameras and lenses that are as long as a baseball bat and cost thousands of dollars. No punk photog just starting out, like I did, has that kind of money…so you wait, earn, scrimp, save, and dream of the day when you can buy what you need to get ‘the shot’.
In my case it’s taken 40 years…and an association with Nikon Corporation through my time in photo retail in Dayton and Troy, Ohio. And the first time I took a position behind and above the center field wall and shot photos of the ball coming off the hitter’s bat with an 800 millimeter lens, I immediately thought back to those shots in Street’s and Smith Magazine of Willie Horton, flailing at a Bob Gibson fastball in the 1968 World Series. At the time no one had ever seen such a photo.
Now I’m doing the same shot this weekend, 52 years later, only Willie Horton is now Dillon Dingler and Conner Pohl. And the equipment is generations better – sharper, faster, and smaller. That said, getting our equipment through the airports and on the plane to Port Charlotte this week was anything but easy, or pleasant. Cameras and lenses aren’t that much smaller, and they’re delicate. You treat at them as you would an infant. The Airlines treat ’em like a garden rake.
We’re here with the Buckeyes this weekend creating the kind of baseball art that makes you stare, especially if you’ve ever played. Because a baseball leaves the pitcher’s hand at about 90 miles per hour. It comes off the hitter’s bat at over a hundred. And those shots you see of infielders making a diving play? Those happen in a millisecond.
I’ve been doing this for a long time now…like Tony Tomsic once told me when I asked him to share a couple of secrets. And back then it was so competitive – because that’s how those guys made their living, at $50 at a shot – that many were very reticent to give up their trade tricks. But Tomsic shared this fact with me, and the most important of all. You have to be patient.
“You have to be in the right place, and you’ll throw away more than you keep,” he said. “You’re going to have a lot of people tell you ‘no’ when you apply for credentials. And no one wants to pay, because there’s always another shooter with almost the same picture…who might give it away.”
He was right about it all, or course, and yet…here we are in Florida this weekend – Scott Hinsch (Phoenix Bats), associate editor Julie Wright, and yours truly – breathing the rejuvenating spring air of baseball and imitating those age-old scenes, capturing the ‘art’ of baseball that used to be Sandy Koufax and Brooks Robinson. Now it’s Seth Lonsway and Zach Dezenzo.
But isn’t it strange…how they look the same?