10 September 2011

Book Review

Book Review: The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon's Golden Age Baseball Photographs. Published 2011 by Abrams.

It's a picture book: well, more accurately, it's a photography book. Conlon was a newspaper proofreader who dabbled in photography as a hobby, when one day the editor of the New York Telegram asked him to take some shots of baseball games and players, to be published in the newspaper and in the annual Spalding's Guides. What followed was a career that lasted from 1904 to 1942 and produced the most memorable collection of photographs in baseball history.

Many of Conlon's photos were printed in the 1993 book Baseball's Golden Age, but this is a different selection, though by the same authors. Constance McCabe has prepared the photos for publication, and brother Neal McCabe provides the captions. Roger Kahn writes the foreword, as Roger Angell did for the first book.

The photographs are often stark and frequently stunning. Each takes up the better part of a page, with the captioning to the side. The black-and-whites are stunningly reproduced. Most are posed shots, but there are some action pics, and I find those the most compelling. A good photograph reveals much about the subject. That often seems the case here.

In these pages you will find pictures of the well-knowns, like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Rogers Hornsby, and those you have likely never heard of before, like Buddy Gremp, Al Spohrer, and Jackie Hayes. Most are players, but there are also umpires, managers, and a traffic control officer at a Yankees game. You will find Kid Nichols at the end of his career, Amos Rusie in a picture from after his career had ended, and DiMaggio as a rookie.

One of my favorite parts of the book is how the subjects on facing pages often complement each other. Several times we get a set like on pages 66 and 67, one of a young Hank Gowdy in 1911, the other of a veteran Gowdy in 1936 as a coach. We also get sets of Vince DiMaggio and brother Joe on facing pages, both from 1937. There's Herb Pennock in 1916 facing a Pennock from 1934. And, another favorite, the Bob Feller of 1937 across from the Walter Johnson of 1916. Sheer joy.

The captions convey myth more than information. The story of the invention of catcher shin guards by Roger Bresnahan is repeated with his photograph, even though it is provably false. Still, the book is more about myth than truth, and imagery over cold hard fact. It is a spectacular collection of photographs from a century past. I think you will enjoy it.

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book, and thus did not pay for it. The list price is $35, but it is available from various retailers such as amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, walmart.com, and others for about $10 less.

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