Honoring baseball photographers—an idea goes nowhere | Bleader

Honoring baseball photographers—an idea goes nowhere

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Babe Ruth and his wife, Claire, captured by famed baseball photographer George Brace.
  • George Brace / AP Photos
  • Babe Ruth and his wife, Claire, captured by famed baseball photographer George Brace.
Rifling through old files the other day, I came across a good idea I'd reported in a column in 1996. The status of writers and broadcasters has always been ambiguous at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Neither trade belongs formally to the hall but both are celebrated there, in spaces honoring recipients of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award (chosen by the Baseball Writers Association of America), and the Ford C. Frick Award (chosen primarily by former winners). If you insist it's possible to be within the hall but not in the hall—well, you're right but you're splitting hairs.

So what about equal treatment for the photographers, whose photos of baseball's old warriors are burned into the nation's cultural memory?

One vintage photographer was George Brace, and the nominal purpose of my '96 column was to introduce The Game That Was, an anthology of Brace's photos that had recently been compiled by Rich Cahan, then picture editor of the Sun-Times, and Mark Jacob, then that paper's Sunday editor.

But what distracted me from that purpose was the message that Cahan, along with Jacob and Brace (then in his 80s), intended to deliver at a Cooperstown symposium the following week. He would make the case that it was time for the hall, which had more than 400,000 pictures in its archives, to honor the artists who took them. "My argument," Cahan told me then, "is that they do honor sportswriters and broadcasters—and we don't remember what the sportswriters wrote, and we don't remember what the broadcasters said. But the photographs live forever.

"Look at the Ken Burns stuff," Cahan went on, referring to the documentarian's 18-and-a-half-hour series Baseball. "It was the photographs, the still images, that were most important. As the episodes went on and they started showing more film and video, it got to be less interesting."

Cahan's idea wasn't a new one. Brace told me that years earlier a director of the hall had told him, "Eventually we'll put a photographers' wing in there." And another of the old lensmen, Don Wingfield, said he'd been fighting with the hall for years over a space for photographers. "When you look at the exhibits, my God, 75 percent is photographs," Wingfield said. "I think it's something that's long overdue."

But Cahan had done fresh spade work, and the ground was fertile. "Rich Cahan's idea struck a chord with me," said Cooperstown librarian James Gates, "and I asked him to submit a written proposal." Gates told me he'd forward the proposal to the hall's board of directors. As the board met only occasionally the wheels might be slow to turn, but the important thing was that they finally were in motion.

All you've just read is preamble. What comes next is a letdown. When I read over my old column, which I'd completely forgotten, I wondered, What happened? It's been 18 years—is there a wing for the photographers?

I hadn't heard of one. I went online and scoured the Cooperstown website, but it didn't give me a clue. I e-mailed Cahan. "I haven't heard a word in years," he replied, "so I guess the idea is dead." When Cahan mentioned that Gates still held down his old job, I decided to give him a call.

There are ideas that live and breathe. There are ideas that survive in amber, inert mementos of the time when they fired somebody up. When you mention it, Gates can remember Cahan championing the idea of a photographers' wing, but it had been a while since he'd thought about that himself. "It was one of those things that was on the vine that would require board action, and nothing ever came of it," he told me. There was turnover in the board, other changes of leadership, and the idea fell through the cracks.

If you wish, you can tell yourself that the failure of Cahan's proposal protects the mystique of the bygone lensmen. There are announcers, scriveners, execs, umps, and even ballplayers on Cooperstown's walls who owe their immortality more to cronyism than talent, and a lot of people know it. For being anonymous, the photographers thrive as one on that magical frontier where myth meets history.

But all we can say for sure is that back in '96 Rich Cahan had an idea that deserved better but went nowhere and now is forgotten. But not entirely. It is perpetuated forever in the Reader archives, in a column that one or two people will come across for years to come.

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