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Babe RuthI recently picked up a book titled Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles Conlon.  It is, as it says, a book of photos of baseball players from the first part of the 20th century.  The photos are all black and white and give the players a grim, rough edge.  Not that they needed the help.

From the time I was a kid I was always interested in baseball from the turn of the century.  I read all sorts of books on my heroes and we had an old souvenir-like program from the 40’s that had many of these same photos with short stories and stats of many of these players.  I spent hours and hours looking at these faces and names until they took on a talisman-like quality in my mind.  Guys like Nap LaJoie, Rabbit Maranville, Wee Willie  Keeler, Cy Young and on and on.  In reality, many of these guys probably wouldn’t shine in today’s game but in my mind they were magic.Ty Cobb

Of course, there was a hierarchy.  Shown above, the Bambino, Babe Ruth, was the king.  An actual Sultan of Swat accompanied by his prince, the steady Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig.  Then there was the nasty tempered Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach, shown here in one of the most famous of baseball photos of its time.  Renowned for sharpening his spikes and using them on waiting fielders as he stole numerous bases, Cobb was always bitter over Ruth’s dominance of the spotlight.

These players always really stuck out in my mind because of the images and stories I encountered as a kid.  They were brawny and raw looking.  They drank hard.  They fought.  They had a hardened mythic look in their gray wool uniforms.  They didn’t look like the players of my youth.  In the 70’s baseball started to be played in awful multi-purpose stadiums with hard artificial turf surfaces, vast cold edifices that sapped all of the organic quality from the game.  The uniforms were evolving as well.  The 70’s brought these stretchy polyester space suits that only added to the artificial feel of the stadiums.  I always think of Willie Stargell, a large first baseman for the Pirates with a big personality who would’ve fit in well with my old-timers) in this god-awful form-fitting spacesuit.  He looked ridiculous.

Walter Johnson The Big TrainIt was easy at that time to drift away from the game that had provided so much magic when I was young.  I stayed away for almost twenty years, barely checking the races or stats.  I have a huge hole in my knowledge of the game from the 80’s and early 90’s.  The return of smaller stadiums built to fit baseball saw a rebirth but it was the Yankees that brought me back.  I had grown up despising the Yanks ( the voice of their announcer Phil Rizzuto was like fingernails on a chalkboard to me) but this team in the 90’s was a throwback.  They had grit.  They fought. They made plays that became mythic.  They made me feel like I was 9 years old again, reading the wonderful hyperbole of the old sportswriters as they made mighty pronouncements about the exploits of the Bambino.  Baseball was magic again.

So leafing through this book rekindled many memories.  With that I leave you with a short piece of film that simply shows the great Big Train,  Walter Johnson, throwing. I saw a part of this on Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary series on the game and was mesmerized by his extraordinarily long arms and the whipping action his arms.  There is a kind of poetic beauty in the motion.

Maybe that’s the poetry of baseball that people talk of…

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