THE GAME THAT WAS: THE GEORGE BRACE BASEBALL PHOTO COLLECTION
By Richard Cahan and Mark Jacob Contemporary Books 246 pp., $35
For pro-baseball photographer George Brace, the best moments came long before the first pitch.
With camera in hand, the teenager would clink open the outfield fence and walk into the sunshine shimmering across the green-and-golden expanse. During warm-up, the crack of the bat was most crisp; the slap of ball against glove most sharp; the players' laughter most pure. All the sounds echoed off the empty bleachers as if mocking time itself.
Beginning in 1929 at the age of 15, Mr. Brace lived out a child's fantasy by stepping onto America's baseball diamonds with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. "I was awed," he says today.
Brace and his mentor, George Burke (he passed on in 1953), chronicled baseball with hundreds of thousands of photos for more than six decades, including the game's "golden age" in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.
Brace recognized the social significance of baseball, taking pictures of fans, ushers, vendors, ground crew, stadium carpenters - the entire milieu. Whether capturing a ballplayer and his son or players rollicking in a pickup band, Brace made the camaraderie and rib-poking jollity of baseball his signature.
"Brace explores American culture by showing how baseball is intertwined with it," says Jeff Idelson at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Brace and a new book of his photos, "The Game That Was" (Contemporary Books), have appeared this spring at an especially welcoming time. Disillusionment over today's baseball is high. Stadium attendance has fallen more than 25 percent since team management and striking players threw the beanball in 1994 that decked the season's playoffs and World Series.
Today, "the public thinks players have become celebrity entertainers who make incredible amounts of money and don't care about the fans or the team," says G. Edward White, professor of law and history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and author of "Creating the National Pastime."
The alienation has turned up the volume on a saccharin tune of baseball nostalgia. For decades, sentimentality has been as much a part of the game as hickory and tight-stitched hide. Baseball seems the one pastime where the American male is excused for becoming dewy-eyed while rhapsodizing about bygone glories. Perhaps it's because the game's mild pace and link to spring give it an air of innocence and hope.
FROM front cover to back, Brace's book celebrates the romantic allure of the game and feeds baseball nostalgia like a doting team mother. Take Brace's cover photo of slugger Mel Ott, the inspiration for Leo Durocher's "nice guys finish last" quote. Ott shoulders his bat alone in the Giants' dugout, seemingly lost in quiet meditation of his grip. There is Lou Gehrig, Brace's favorite player and subject, grinning in repeated shots with peewee fans and evoking both his quiet warmth and "Iron Horse" durability.
There, also, is Babe Ruth sitting placidly on the infield wall with his wife, Claire. He holds a bat while wearing Yankee flannel; she is wrapped in a mink coat and wears a flapper hat. They are a vision of a long-gone style and discretion, a counterpoint to the gaudy professional heroes of today.
Brace deftly warmed subjects for his camera with his amiability. "When Brace asked for someone to pose for a picture, he got it because of his great personality," says Lou Boudreau, Hall of Fame shortstop with the Cleveland Indians.
"The secret of George's continuity at the ballpark was that he was too nice a person to kick out," says Richard Cahan, picture editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and co-author of the book.
Brace spurns high-fly baseball conceits, probably because his lifetime on the diamond arose from a love for the game. He grew up in Chicago just an outfielder's throw from Shrewbridge Field, a high school baseball park.
In 1929 the Chicago Cubs enlisted studio photographer George Burke, mistaking Burke for a longstanding official Cubs photographer with the same last name. Burke seized on the error and became the official photographer for the White Sox and the football Bears as well.
Brace is quick to note that many photos in "The Game That Was" were taken by Burke. Indeed, Brace's modesty seems as sizeable as his antique Speed Graflex camera, which took 5-by-7-inch negatives. "I just pointed the camera and took the photo," Brace says. "I'm no better than the camera I've got."
Brace has profited little from his photo collection, doggedly gathering it in his spare time from a job making salad oil at a Chicago factory. He and Burke sold the images to magazines and ballplayers during their partnership; today, old-time players still contact him for reprints.
At first glance, Brace's book seems to chime in with the loud, maudlin lament over the passing of baseball's sweetest era. "Some people over-romanticize baseball," Professor White says. In fact, the sterling past of baseball has its share of tarnish from "say it ain't so, Joe" corruption of the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series and player excesses, he notes. (Incidentally, Brace posed the dreamy dugout photo of Ott as part of a promotion for a bat company.)
But by sparking a spontaneous warmth in people on both sides of the outfield fence, Brace shows that baseball's romance is rooted to realism like grass to infield dirt. Through his sedulous work, he captures the body and soul of America's supreme game.