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Baseball's Most Valuable Photographers / News Bites

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A career in journalism can take you anywhere. Next Thursday the picture editor and Sunday editor of the Sun-Times will visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame, not to gawk at the plaques and mementos but to engage in the Eighth Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. Twenty-eight scholarly papers will be presented.

Richard Cahan and Mark Jacob won't weigh in as authors of any of them, neither "Jackie Robinson and les Negres Blanc d'Amerique: The 50th Anniversary of a Golden Year in the Pursuit of Equality," nor "Cal Ripken and the Condition of Freedom," nor "Minor League Baseball Communities Through Time: An Economic and Demographic Profile." Instead of a mere paper, they produced a book. Instead of "Labor Relations in Baseball: Lessons Learned About Collective Bargaining," their subject is the game's heart and soul--its epic past. The Game That Was (Contemporary Books) resurrects dozens of fine old pictures culled from the vast collection of octogenarian baseball photographer George Brace. Now the Cooperstown symposium has offered Jacob, Cahan, and Brace a plenary session they intend to take full advantage of. It will be part slide show, part reminiscences, and part crusade.

Cahan, the picture editor, Jacob, the Sunday editor, and Brace--who from 1929 to 1993 took hundreds of thousands of pictures of 11,000 players and other ballpark subjects--intend to float a proposition. Though baseball's yesteryear would be literally unimaginable without photography, and though the Hall of Fame itself possesses some 400,000 photographs, photographers aren't formally honored in the hall. The Chicago delegation will tell the academics that this should change.

"My argument," says Cahan, "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. 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."

Says Brace, "Ernie Banks said it best. He said, 'I've had the excitement, but I don't remember what it was. When I see Brace's photographs it brings it all back to me.'"

To be precise broadcasters and sportswriters don't belong to the Hall of Fame either. The writers are honored by the Baseball Writers Association of America with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, and broadcasters are given the Ford C. Frick Award by an ad hoc committee of baseball executives and broadcasters. These chroniclers aren't inducted into the hall; it simply provides a space where they can be celebrated.

But this distinction properly gets lost. As savvy a reporter as Jerry Holtzman wrote back in 1989, on Harry Caray's big day, "He was certainly as big an attraction as players Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski and Red Schoendienst and umpire Al Barlick, the other Hall of Fame inductees." If you're in the hall, you're in the Hall. You're enshrined. You're immortal.

"Rich Cahan's idea struck a chord with me," said Cooperstown librarian James Gates, curator of those 400,000 photos, "and I asked him to submit a written proposal. What I need to do is propose it to our board of directors, which doesn't meet for a while. They meet induction weekend, the first weekend of August, and I don't know if I can get it on the agenda. You have to understand, we get half a dozen proposals a year for a new award. It's been hot-dog vendors and cartoonists and great Little League coaches. Everybody has an idea."

When Cahan recently approached Gates about admitting photographers, he wasn't breaking new ground. A familiar face at Cooperstown, Brace says that years ago he was sitting in the office of the late Ken Smith, then director of the hall, "and he said, eventually we'll put a photographers' wing in there. But he was let out. They hired somebody else."

And Don Wingfield of Alexandria, Virginia, who photographed baseball for Sporting News for about 30 years until he "got fed up with baseball the way it was going," told me, "I've been fighting with the Hall of Fame for years. When you look at the exhibits, my God, 75 percent is photographs. I think it's something that's long overdue."

So whom to choose? The Game That Was is a compelling brief for Brace as first in line. A master at shooting baseball players in repose, he can be honored for his artistry, his longevity, and his fidelity--to shoot every ballplayer in every uniform in which that player ever appeared in Wrigley Field or Comiskey Park, Brace worked the split shift at his day job (so to speak) at a salad oil plant. "Baseball collectors knew about George Brace," says Jacob. "But what they didn't know was some of these special shots--like the ivy being planted on the outfield wall at Wrigley Field, the kid shots, the shots of players goofing around in the locker room. It was an era of innocence." Says Cahan, "It would be really nice to pick George, but obviously you can't ignore Wingfield."

"Naw, hell, you know, that would be presumptuous on my part to say that," said Wingfield, who, after retiring, donated several thousand of his negatives to Cooperstown.

Wingfield mentioned instead a photographer he used to work with at the Washington Post and another, "long gone," at the New York Times. Brace said his choice would be a Tribune photographer active 70 years ago, or George Burke, whom Brace apprenticed with. Pictures Burke took at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park between 1929 and 1948 were turned over to Brace when Burke retired, and many are mixed in with Brace's in The Game That Was.

The most obvious candidate is Charles Conlon, a ballpark portraitist from 1904 to 1941 whose work was collected three years ago in Baseball's Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon, which Cahan and Jacob write "proves the idea that baseball photographs are fine art if printed with care."

The Conlon and Brace books are tardy acknowledgments that the old photographs so essential to baseball's spiritual heritage didn't just show up in a cornfield; they were taken by individual craftsmen of great skill. Nevertheless, many of those pictures from the game's earliest decades are unattributed, perhaps unattributable.

Who could pick the photographers formally honored in the hall? Cahan has an intriguing idea--the pictorial history committee that the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), recently formed to catalog the past. "Oh, I don't think the Hall of Fame would find us important enough," said Tom Shieber, a Los Angeles astronomer who chairs the committee. "The amount of knowledge one has doesn't affect who gets to vote in Hall of Fame elections, so I would not hold out much hope for us doing the selection. There is no doubt at all that the members of the pictorial committee on SABR know more about baseball pictures than anyone else."

"I think we could do it," said Mark Rucker, a pictorial committee founder who owns Transcendental Graphics in Boulder, Colorado. "If it's left to others they'll get some right, there's no question about that. But just like with a lot of things at the Hall of Fame, it'll be hit and miss."

News Bites

Then: "It's a call that only comes once. Rolling Stone is the top of the game."

Now: "My understanding is I was writing for Rolling Stone to make the magazine's music coverage as vital in 1996 as it was in 1969. And unfortunately that's impossible when only one person's opinion matters and he really doesn't want anything to change."

Jim DeRogatis, previously of the Sun-Times, lasted eight months as senior editor at Jann Wenner's once-upon-a-time cutting-edge gazette. DeRogatis's dissatisfaction might have been inferred from recent appearances in the Reader as a stand-in Hitsville columnist for the departed Bill Wyman, his friend and former Q101 cohort. Noting these pieces, the New York Observer's Carl Swanson called DeRogatis and asked if he was quitting to join the Reader. DeRogatis said no. Swanson also asked DeRogatis about his negative review of the new Hootie and the Blowfish album, which Wenner had spiked.

When Swanson's story appeared last Wednesday the following Q&A was set off in headline-size type: "Is Jann Wenner a Hootie fan? 'No, I think he's just a fan of bands which sell eight and half million copies.'"

Wenner called DeRogatis in the next day and fired him.

I tried to call Wenner to hear his side. I got no closer than his secretary, who heard where I worked and wanted to know, "Is that a publication?"

It wasn't in 1969.

The New York Times carried a long report on an ugly incident last month at the Keller Regional Gifted Center in Mount Greenwood. Though the far-south-side neighborhood is mostly white, most of the magnet school's students are black, and most are bused in. When teachers arrived May 24 they discovered a 50-by-20-foot swastika made of wood chips had been arranged overnight on the playground. The students were kept indoors that day, while police investigated outside and principal Cynthia Dougal (accompanied by a Times reporter) went from classroom to classroom answering questions.

The Times's Don Terry was on hand because he'd been alerted by a friend who's a Keller parent and because he recognized the elements of a story he could sell to his national editor. But where were the Sun-Times and Tribune? It was a pretty good local story too. The papers missed it then and ten days later still hadn't reported it. The story broke Memorial Day weekend. Are holiday staffs so skeletal that no one's checking the police log?

Last week I discussed a major Tribune story that explained how tollway users throughout the metropolitan area will for years to come be paying for the proposed extension of the North-South Tollway in Will County. The story was front-page news in Will County, but in areas served by some other zoned editions of the Tribune it didn't run at all--even though those editions' readers are the ones who will be gouged.

Lightning strikes twice. On Thursday, May 30, page one of the MetroDuPage section carried William Presecky's long account of a public hearing in New Lenox on the North-South extension. One opponent who spoke up there was Chicago's Jacky Grimshaw, a director of the Chicagoland Transportation and Air Quality Commission. "I come from Cook County, which would lose if this road is built," Grimshaw said. "It's outrageous that I have to travel 50 miles to make this point, but the [authority] won't hold a hearing closer to my home in Chicago."

Grimshaw's a familiar political figure in Chicago, and it's also outrageous that her travels and her point weren't even reported in the city. The Tribune cut Presecky's article in half and buried it on page eight of the MetroChicago section. Grimshaw didn't make the cut.

When I looked in on the Northwestern Chronicle a month ago it was affronting decent people big-time. In fact, the Associated Student Government had just laid down the law: to continue door-to-door delivery in dorms the Chronicle must pass over all students who said in writing they didn't want the paper, and it must pick up all papers still lying in the corridors within 24 hours of dropping them off. This was the second time in 16 months that the ASG had tried to limit circulation, an ongoing campaign Chronicle editors attributed to their paper's conservative politics. They chose to ignore the decree. A showdown loomed.

The showdown's come and gone. First the ASG executive committee issued sanctions that limited the Chronicle's use of the student union. Next the Chronicle appealed. And last week the University Hearing and Appeals Board once again ruled for the paper. The cleanup rule was perceived as spurious and unanimously overturned, and the board voted seven to two against the rule sparing students their weekly Chronicle if they declare that they don't want it. Law professor Daniel Polsby, who testified for the Chronicle in 1995 and '96 and supposes he will again in '97, told me afterward that he expressed concern about "giving publicity to who were ideological adherents and who were not of an unpopular point of view."

"I don't know if I'm too much of an idealist when it comes to common sense and common courtesy, but that's the way it played out," said Greg Cordaro, the ASG senator who led the charge against the Chronicle. Next year the Chronicle's opponents will have to find another leader; Cordaro will be studying abroad.

Chicago Tribune, May 19, from an article by Los Angeles-based reporter Karen Brandon: "The Valley, a creation of barren desert turned citrus groves turned subdivision, may seek to reinvent itself again, this time as a city....The splintering off from Los Angeles (population 3.5 million) would return Chicago (population 2.8 million) to the Second City status it previously held behind New York City."

Inc., same paper, May 31: "Anyone else figured this out: If the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles successfully secedes from L.A.--and there's a bill in the California legislature to do just that--Chicago would regain its old status as the nation's second largest city."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell / photos/George Brace Collection.

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