View Full Version : Charles M. Conlon

09-07-01, 11:55 PM
Perhaps one of the greatest contributors of the early years of baseball never even wore a uniform. But he did manage to capture the very essence of the game, era and players who donned their uniforms...

Charles Conlon took the greatest stills of that by gone era that literally take your breath away. You can feel the intensity, see the emotion and actually exist to some degree in his photographs...

He wasn't a professional photographer. He wasn’t even a sports photographer. Yet Charles Martin Conlon was the greatest Baseball photographer who ever lived, a newspaper proofreader who documented the Golden age of baseball in his spare time. His images have become American icons, yet their creator has vanished with barely a trace, his life’s work submerged in the vast, anonymous pictorial heritage of Baseball.

Charles Conlon was born in Albany, New York in November 1868. He was employed by a local newspaper, the Troy Press, in the 1890’s. At the turn of the century he headed for the big city, where he went to work for the New York Evening Telegram. The Editor of the Telegrams sports page was John B. Foster, who was also the Editor of the annual Spalding Base Ball Guide. The Guide and its junior counterpart, the Reach Guide, were basically compendiums, which contained the most up-to-date rules of the game, complete statistics and detailed summaries of the previous season. They also contained schedules for the upcoming season, essays, editorials, and hundreds of photographs. Henry Chadwick, (the “Father of Baseball”) a Baseball authority who had seen his first game in 1856 was 79 years old and grooming John Foster to become Editor of the Guide. “I came to know Foster very well,” said Conlon. “He came to know about my hobby – taking pictures. He said to me one day, ‘Charley, they need pictures of Ball Players for the Guide, and there is no reason why you can’t take pictures of the players, as well as landscapes. It will be a good pickup for you, and it will be something for a day off’.”

In the Spring of 1904, Conlon brought his camera to the Polo Grounds. Before the turn of the century, few photographers were interested in dragging their heavy camera equipment to anything as insignificant as a Baseball game. Their thick glass negatives were incapable of capturing the speed and excitement of the game. The photographic record of that time consequently consists almost entirely of ball players in lifeless poses.

Charles M. Conlon saw other possibilities…

At the Polo Grounds he had the field to himself. He stopped the star pitcher of the Giants and persuaded him to pose. He then assembled the rest of the Giants for a casual team portrait. He then approached the visiting team players after the game and they too, posed for the amateur photographer. He then paid a visit to the upstart New York Highlanders at their new American League Ballpark.

His first photographs were simple snapshots, often poorly framed and out of focus. But despite his shaky nearly non-existent technique, his first efforts were impressive.

By the summer of 1904 his first uncredited photos were appearing in the New York Telegram. His portrait of Christy Mathewson was published in 1905 severely cropped and credited to another photographer. By 1909 Conlon’s credited photos were dominating the Spalding Guide and by 1911 they filled the Reach Guide.

Around 1906 he began to take his camera on the field during play. “The favorite position was about 15 – 20 feet back of first or third.,” he recalled in 1913. “though occasionally the photographer would hover around home plate when the conditions of the game pointed to a possible play there.

There was a complicating factor: “the camera man was in constant danger from hard-hit drives. Aside from countless narrow escapes, I was seriously injured twice”. There were other risks as well. “Larry Doyle was the biggest problem. The second baseman of the Giants had a habit of throwing his bat. McGraw saw me get a close shave one day and ordered Larry to tie the bat to his wrist with a thong.

The action photo was also the controversial frontrunner of today’s instant replay: “One day the Giants were playing the Cubs”, Conlon recalled. “Oh those were the games and THAT was the rivalry! The Giants lost on a decision at the plate. The umpire called the man out and I thought he was safe. I snapped the play. McGraw came out raving and called the umpire plenty. Tom Lynch, President of the National League, suspended Mac for 3 days and fined him. We produced the picture in the Telegram and it showed that the player was safe by a stride. The umpire had his attention directed toward it in no kind or courteous manner the next day. Lynch was in a very tough spot, but he settled it by barring cameramen from the field . The 1910 ruling was immediately protested by The Sporting News.

When he wasn’t fending off line drives he was waiting patiently for just the right photo. “One afternoon at the Polo Grounds, inning after inning had passed without a photo. The Giants were ahead 10-2 and in the 7th inning I was standing off third, and McGraw smiled, ‘Charley, no picture today?’ I complained bitterly that I had nothing to show for a whole days work!! ‘ I’ll give you a picture’ he said. ‘Be ready’. Giants shortstop Al Bridwell doubled to start the Giants half, remember it was already 10-2, and McGraw gives Brid the steal sign. Down came the shortstop after a look of inquiry and amazement. He was out and the photo was captured. ‘It was the best slide you ever made in your life-for the picture man,’ McGraw grinned. Brid understood. The writers discussed the play at some length wondering if he went by himself and whether he and McGraw had had a brainstorm. What the writers didn’t know was the plight of the cameraman-me-without a picture. Managers have been swell to me, but McGraw was in a class all by himself.”

Although Conlon took hundreds of action photos, only a handful of these negatives survive. Haste is evident in many of his photos. Conlon never fully mastered the mysteries of focus and he often guessed at exposure times because of the tricky and undependable natural light at the ballpark. But at his best, he created photographs of such perfection that it is difficult to believe they were taken under such unlikely conditions…

By 1920 Charles Conlon had become, de facto, the official photographer of Baseball. He was the staff photographer for Baseball Magazine and had his own logo in the Spalding and Reach Base Ball Guides. Strangely, even as his photos inundated the Baseball world, his name rarely appeared with his work in print.

Conlon looked back on his decades of Baseball photography with satisfaction and gratitude: “No man ever did a bigger favor than John B. Foster did for me that morning in 1904. It wasn’t the money, that’s negligible. But the fun I have had, the day’s in the open, the associations, the confidences I have enjoyed-well, you can’t buy those things.”

When his wife Marge passed away, Conlon gave up his photography and went back to Troy, New York, where he died in 1945 at the age of 67. His original negatives had already been acquired by The Sporting News, but most of his original photographs remained in the files of his old Newspaper, which had become the New York World Telegram in 1931. When it ceased publication in 1967, Conlon’s photographs were acquired by the Baseball Hall Of Fame.

"The game which seems to breathe the restless spirit of American life, that calls for quick action and quicker thinking, that seems characteristic of a great nation itself...is Baseball." ~ Charles M. Conlon 1913

Photo of Charles and Marge - 1909

Slippery Elm
09-08-01, 05:15 AM
I have scores of baseball cards with images of the Conlon Collection. Superb portraits from seven decades ago. If there were more hours in the day I'd scan them. On my To Do list!

Some photographers were actually on the field within what seemed like fifteen feet of the batter! Not only dangerous for them, but I would think extremely distracting for the hitter.