Review of 'The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon's Golden Age Baseball Photographs'

Photographers are far more anonymous than the writers whose stories their photographs accompany.  But there's a reason the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" came to be: a good photograph can tell you more about the subject - and more quickly - than words can.  The image to the right is a perfect example.  I doubt there are many reading this site who have never seen it as it is one of the most iconic baseball photographs of all-time.  The 1910 shot of Ty Cobb sliding into third - and through Jimmy Austin of the New York Highlanders (later Yankees) - pretty much tells you everything you need to know about Cobb.  Cobb's teeth are clenched, a look of pure intensity on his face, as he completes a ferocious slide in a cloud of dust.  He's watching the ball sail into left field, the result of his spiking of Austin, and he's about to get up and take home.  That's Cobb.  And Charles M. Conlon captured it.

"The Big Show" is a sequel to a 1993 collection of Conlon's photographs, Baseball's Golden Age.  I love these books because, while including the game's greats like Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Joe DiMaggio and Christy Mathewson, the majority are photographs of players who are long-forgotten.

And these long-forgotten players often have great names like Baby Doll Jacobson, Sheriff Blake, Pid Purdy, Flea Clifton and Smead Jolley.  Conlon's photographs, which span his 1904-1942 career, are simple.  But his use of light and contrast is masterful.  And his lens captured the mood of the players.

But what makes these collections is the captions, which are meticulously researched and match the images perfectly.  An 18 year old Bob Feller is shown oozing arrogance.  And the caption explicates why with a quote from Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem: "Feller showed me stuff the like of which I've never seen in all my life."  A forlorn portrait of Charlie Hollocher is accompanied by a caption explaining how he retired from baseball at 28 due to a mysterious stomach ailment no doctor could diagnose.  And committed suicide 16 years later by shooting himself in the neck.

I could go on and on - the book is more than 200 pages (and includes plenty of White Sox players, mostly ones you've never heard of). This sort of book isn't for everyone; you'd probably need to be pretty interested in the game of baseball in the first half of the 20th century and also in minutiae.  But it makes a nice coffee table book for those who do hold those interests.  I rate it three and a half stars.

 

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