It seems I’m back to the obituaries again. Around two weeks ago I read in the Washington Post and the New York Times about the passing of journalist David Lamb at age 76. A long time foreign correspondent for the Los Angles Times and author of numerous books, Lamb was the reason I was able to spend the summer of 1990 going to baseball games.
Early that year a picture editor at National Geographic had met Lamb at a cocktail party in Washington, D.C and heard that Lamb had taken a sabbatical from his newspaper job and was crossing the country in a used mobile home in order to write Stolen Season, a book about baseball’s minor leagues. Lamb would eventually travel 16,000 miles in his research for the book. The picture editor who’d attended the cocktail party suggested to the Geographic’s story committee that a magazine article could be done about the minor leagues to be written by Lamb and they agreed.
When the magazine decided to do a minor leagues story I was in some hotel room–just where I don’t now remember–and I got a call from National Geographic’s director of photography, Tom Kennedy. I wasn’t on staff at that time, I was freelancing and was one of a number of photographers contracted by Geographic for a predetermined amount of days. But I didn’t at that time have an assignment and that always made me nervous because I didn’t want just any assignment in order to earn my contract income. I had reached a point in my career where I wanted to do only what I really wanted to do. In some of my earlier years I hadn’t always been able to be so choosey but because I had to make a living I sometimes took on stories other photographers didn’t want. I can honestly say that what has kept me going; always trying to be just a little better today than yesterday, has been because at one point I realized that in order to continue to grow visually, to continue to nurture the passion for what I loved, I had to do essays only on subjects about which I could really care. I have never thought of an assignment as just a job. I needed to truly care about the subject. I believe that’s the only way one can keep the creative juices going for a long period, let alone half a century as I have. It’s actually longer than that now and my eye is still quite good but I’m not getting called on so I guess these years don’t count the same way. I am currently working on adding an image or two during short self supported trips to Paris for a 30-year Paris retrospective book to be published next spring. But I’ve not done an assignment for three years now.
So, anyway, back in early 1990 Kennedy calls me and says, “I’ve got two possible assignments you might be interested in.”
“What are they?” I ask, waiting for the curtain to open, revealing some future creative possibilities.
“One of them,” says Tom, “is Russia.”
Sweet Jesus! He simply says the word Russia and I immediately hear it as synonymous with immensity. Russia? That is a huge subject. Epic. And in my mind I am not an epic kind of photographer.
“And,” I ask, after quickly and silently acknowledging to myself about how very much I don’t know about Russia, having been there only very briefly for the State Department in the 1970s, “what is the other?”
“Minor league baseball,” he says.
Now, could there be two subjects in all the world that are more farther apart, almost a planetary separation; one subject truly massive and challenging in all aspects—vast and varied geography, severe climate, magnificent art and architecture, dense social culture, history? As compared to the other subject offered–about a fairly simple game played outdoors that only people in a few countries outside America understand or care about?
I told Tom I had to think about it for a bit but not long enough to have to call him back. My life didn’t exactly flash before my eyes but my thought process was swift, and in short order I said, “I guess I’d like to do minor league baseball.” And that was that. It was not a long phone call.
Later that night in my hotel room I found myself wondering, Allard, did you do the right thing? If I photographed Russia would that eventually be a boon to my monthly stock picture sales, which were then, as they are now, very slender at best? But, yes, I thought, I made the right choice. The magazine will always do another story about Russia. And maybe I’ll want the next one. But they will never again do a story about minor league baseball and I wanted to be the photographer to do the only one they’ll ever do. So my quest became the pursuit of a photographic essay on the minor leagues of what is still, in my opinion, America’s greatest game. Ultimately I didn’t photograph much baseball in play, not much action. As with many of my essay subjects, I was drawn to the edges of things. I made pictures that mirrored aspects within the world of minor league baseball more than about actually playing the game. The story, “A Season in the Minors,” was published in the April, 1991 issue. They gave me a nice cover, albeit one made vertical with a strong cropping of the original horizontal image. But the same image was used again in full to end the essay so it was like one of my pictures kind of wrapped the magazine.
I grew up with baseball although I didn’t play much hardball as a kid. As a pre teenager, I got hit in the head by an older boy who was practicing his pitching while I was pretending to be a batter, no bat, just in a crouched stance on the sidewalk running along the 4000 block of Aldrich Avenue in north Minneapolis. I had headaches for a few days after and that beaning turned me into a perpetual strikeout waiting to happen. I was okay with a glove but couldn’t stand in against any pitch that had some speed to it.
During my childhood in the 1940s and early 1950s baseball was without a doubt, the national game. In my youth the big league players were heroes, athletes of mythical wonder, without apparent sin, at least in the eyes of the public. Sure, it was well known that Babe Ruth in his prime could be a glutton on hot dogs and beer. He was also a speedy and reckless driver but because of his celebrity was seldom if ever ticketed by police. Later, in my teenage years, Mickey Mantle, could, while playing with a massive hangover, still smash a baseball out of the “yard,” a term commonly used in referring to a ballpark. But his blurry condition when he did it wouldn’t be reported. Nobody in the press was casting any shadows of disrepute upon the lives and behavior of sports heroes back then, at least not that I remember. In those days teams traveled by train a lot and sports reporters and ball players often rode the rails together and formed friendships. The sports press didn’t exactly look the other way, it just didn’t report all of what it saw and knew. It was a far different era in many ways than today.
So, I took on the minor leagues assignment and never had a second of regret. It was a wonderful summer. I was on a generous National Geographic expense account. I certainly didn’t have to pilot a used mobile home around the country, camping out in
shopping mall parking lots like David Lamb had; I could stay at nice motels and hotels. And I convinced the Geographic travel department that while covering the Class A Stockton, California Ports in the California League, although I would sometimes ride the team bus, it would be best if I also had a convertible so that if desired, I could stand up in the car to make on the road pictures more easily while following the bus. That was admittedly a bit of a stretch because, of course, I was traveling alone, without an assistant, and couldn’t drive and shoot at the same time. But the first time I went on the road following the team–I was in my convertible, trailing the Ports as they made their bus trip to Reno, Nevada to play the single A team there on opening day–I remember driving with the top down and as I passed by the California orange groves how absolutely intoxicating was the fragrance.
The car was a Chrysler LeBaron. I recall it as kind of cream colored with a tan interior and a decent but not great sound system. Garth Brooks’ song, “The Dance” was a big hit in the summer of 1990 and I played that CD a lot, especially if I was giving a couple of players a ride back to the motel after a game. They liked the song although I don’t think that they related to it in the way I thought it related to them. Their days on those endless bus rides and their afternoons and evenings in those small ballparks where there were always some cute girls in the stands as well as the chance a major league scout might be too, was, in a sense, the dance those young men took part in with passion, pride and more often than not, eventual heartbreak. To me the song always seemed appropriate to that aspiration which they all had, but few would realize, although probably not many would regret that they had tried.
I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end
The way it all would go
Are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss
“The Dance”–©Tony Arata
My baseball essay coverage actually started early that year, in February at pre season spring training in Phoenix, Arizona. I went out there for a week or so to meet the managers and scouts for the Milwaukee Brewers farm teams David Lamb had concentrated on for his book. I would focus, as did Lamb, on the lower minor leagues, the Class A and Class AA Brewers’ teams in California, Texas, and Wisconsin; the rookie league team in Montana, but not much on the Class AAA team in Denver because they were so close to being at the major league level. I wanted to portray the really young dreamers who hoped and prayed to play this game at the top, amongst the best. I’d end up going to some other ballparks in different minor leagues areas also because I really wanted to see as many ballparks as I could. Walking into each different yard for the first time was kind of a visual kick, some more impactful than others. I remember standing on the roof of the John O’Donnell ballpark in Davenport, Iowa, home of the Class A Quad City Angles, for a night game in July. Looking down and out I could see the Mississippi river that coursed by the park just beyond the outfield fence was dotted with boats. The arches of the bridge crossing the river were lighted as if it were Christmas and everything was soft and blue under a rising full moon. In my picture the pitcher, batter, and umpire are in their classic positions as if in a painting by the American Ashcan School painter John Sloan.
It was at spring training where I made one of my best minor league baseball pictures. It is a simple picture looking through a fence at a scrimmage game in progress with a batter at the plate, a catcher and umpire behind him, and another player taking warm up swings to one side. One views the picture as seen through the backstop chain link fence that has a thin fabric scrim stretched behind it, the purpose of which is to keep the Arizona dust from blowing in on the home plate area. Upon that fabric the sun casts a shadow of each link in the fence and there is a wonderful feeling of push/pull perspective to the image. With a large print of this picture one feels the need to step forward and backward to experience the dimensionality falling into place. My one regret with this picture is that I didn’t make more attempts, a few more frames, because I think I could have done it even better. This was in the days of film, of course. There was no LCD monitor screen. There could be no instant assessment of success or failure. On a video produced about Jay Maisel and his work, Jay says of me and that picture, “That m……f…… Allard made the best fence picture I’ve ever seen.” Jay has such a wonderful way with words.
One of the best things about minor league baseball back in the early 1990s, even more than today was its simplicity, accessibility, and intimacy as a subject. The ballparks, where a ticket cost less than a ten spot, were on the small side, some all-wooden structures still existed; the fields were almost all of grass, be they at times a little scruffy. I think all of the old wooden bleacher ballparks have now been replaced with steel and concrete. The creaky “Dudley Dome” of the El Paso Diablos was painted in festive colors of reds and greens, yellows and oranges and blues, so fitting for a baseball diamond nestled along the Mexican border.
Minor league baseball players were accessible; one could literally reach out and touch them. None of them was yet making the kind of money big enough to possibly turn them into sullen assholes. Most of them wouldn’t ever make the “show”–as the big leagues were commonly called–even for “a cup of coffee,” which is the traditional description of a brief but unsuccessful stay in the majors. Most were due to spend their baseball careers on slow buses eating fast food. And the ratio of true minor league “prospects,” those who would make it to the majors for more than a cup of coffee? Maybe one out of every fourteen. But all of them could someday tell their grandchildren that they once played the game as a professional.
Another picture that was in the published magazine essay has an interesting history. It’s a photograph of Steve Monson who was then a 22-year-old, solidly built pitcher for the Class AA El Paso Diablos. David Lamb described Monson as “built like a concrete block on which someone had painted a blond flattop.”
Earning less than $1,000 a month, plus $11-a-day meal money, Monson liked to intimidate batters with his grim, no nonsense, I’m comin’ at you attitude on the mound. This particular night, however, didn’t go Steve’s way and he had to leave the game early because of a tendinitis flair up in his throwing arm. In my picture he is seen out of uniform, sitting in front of his dressing room locker, his arms crossed with a facial expression of disappointment tinged with a trace of disgust. A red towel is draped loosely around his waist, pretty much covering his upper thighs. I say “pretty much” because although unseen by myself when I made the picture, there was just a bit of Steve’s more private anatomy viewable beneath that towel and consequently, appearing in the original transparency. I think I only made one exposure, and it was more exposure than I needed. But, as I say, I didn’t see it at the time. I was concentrating on his facial expression. But the editors saw it. They liked the picture very much though and decided they would run it but would first remove that bit of exposed private anatomy, which is what they did. And that is what you will see or should I say, what you won’t see.
I really don’t think it was out of the documentary permissive boundaries for the Geographic to have done that alteration to my picture of Steve. After all, it wasn’t like moving the Pyramids. Of course, that’s another National Geographic story, one about what became an infamous visual alteration of a 1980s cover image of the Egyptian Pyramids. But let it now be recorded that the editors didn’t ask me if they could or should alter that Steve Monson image by an inch or two, so to speak. I had nothing to do with it. In these times, however, it seems best for one to get right out front with such disclaimers.
I greatly enjoyed my times with those baseball players in our temporary worlds that summer. Although it was 26 years ago images remain so clearly recalled, like parts of a favorite movie one has seen numerous times. There were the sounds such as the music before the games and in between innings; John Fogerty rocking out on Center Field, asking to be put into the game. And the crack of a wooden bat on a hard ball. There were the smells so similar wherever I was. The lazy Saturday and Sunday afternoons under blue skies over baseball diamonds in California, Texas, Utah, Montana, Iowa, Illinois, Nevada, Kansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia, where at each ballpark the air I breathed was sharp with the pungent smell of onions and the salivary conducing aroma of hot dogs and hamburgers and pork tenderloin sandwiches being grilled. There were always pretty girls in summer dresses and short shorts and in El Paso the Diablos’ cheerleaders danced on the roof of the team dugout between innings. There was cold beer . And there were all those early evenings when the lowering sun slowly gave way to the crepuscular blue of twilight and the lights came on.
And in California, where I ended the season with the Ports as they won the California League Championship in that final game in Stockton, there was one last night drive back to the motel with the top down on the LeBaron, a good CD in the changer and nothing but tomorrow to care about and tomorrow, of course, would take care of itself. And that’s the way I remember much of my summer of 1990.
Put me in Coach
I’m ready to play today
Put me in Coach
I’m ready to play today
Look at me
I can be
“Center Field”— J.C. Fogerty ©1984 WENAHA