By Taylor McKee
Baseball and its history, often induce fans into a dewy-eyed melodrama. Even if the idea of watching a baseball game is unfathomable, baseball photography depicts a riveting history that The Big Show displays in a soulful manner that would catch anyone’s eye.
A nbl regular baseball season lasts 162 games over roughly 183 days. The average player will see over 700 plate appearances and likely face over 3,500 pitches from hundreds of different pitchers. It is remarkable that with all of these opportunities to succeed or fail, post-season eligibility is often determined by the last games of the season. One needs only to observe this year’s final regular season game for enough plot twisting to put an episode of Days of Our Lives to shame. Watching this year’s World Series and witnessing a whole season’s labour boil down to one strike and then slip away for the Texas Rangers is proof of baseball’s uncanny ability to create modern folklore while breaking hearts. The length of a season — the very thing that makes baseball so dense and sometimes difficult to follow — is the very thing that creates such compelling storylines.
Baseball, perhaps better than any other sport, lends itself to historical examination through photography: Carlton Fisk in game six of the 1975 World Series willing his home run past the left field foul pole at Fenway; Babe Ruth’s unorthodox batting stance; Willy Mays’s over the shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series. All these moments are immortalised through photography. The Big Show, compiled by Neal and Constance McCabe, is an exceptional account of the personalities that made up America’s pastime through the photographs of Charles M. Conlon, a photographer in New York at the beginning of the 20th century, best known for an iconic photo of Ty Cobb stealing third base. The Big Show is a collection of Conlon’s portraits of players from about 1910-40 with background information on each player.
The photos themselves are stunning — each photo is historically valuable as a testament to a game that embodied the spirit of the nation through the roaring ’20s and the dirty ’30s. One of the most striking characteristics of the book is that players are all presented on an equal playing field. Joe DiMaggio, Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby and Bob Feller are right alongside Billy Sullivan Jr. from the 1938 St. Louis Browns, the handsomest player in a reader poll done after his playing career. Players are not the only subject of investigation in The Big Show. Managers, trainers, owners and even a Yankee Stadium traffic cop are featured, each with their own contribution to America’s pastime. The photos taken by Conlon are not the typical action shots one would see on a baseball card — there is a distinctly personal nature to each picture on every page.
Baseball is not a sport that lends itself to an attention-starved sports media — the highlight packages and dry statistical examination can’t communicate the events of a game or season. The stories inside the The Big Show supply the type of reflective, conversational anecdotes unique to a game like baseball. There is no prior knowledge required to appreciate the photos in this book — the faces and players are interesting enough.
The book as a whole is one part testament to the stories and faces of baseball’s golden era and one part homage to the artistic skill of Conlon. Each photograph simultaneously encapsulates a sport, a time and a place in American history. The Big Show is as much a historical reference piece as it is a sports book. Arranged without attention to chronology, the pages blend decades together, underscoring the timeless quality of the images and of baseball’s nature. The book itself is equally valuable as a study of 20th century history and photography as it is a sports text.