Please note that the article was written prior to the sale of the collection to an anonymous buyer in August 2016, for $1.79 Million.
THE ORIGIN OF THE CONLON COLLECTION
By Steve Gietschier
When I began work at The Sporting News in 1986, the negatives and photographs taken by Charles Martin Conlon — it would have been a misnomer at that point to call them a collection — were in complete disarray. The glass negatives, about five thousand, if I recall correctly, were stashed, row by row, in an old file cabinet that sat just outside a room guarded by a bank vault door. My predecessor as the keeper of TSN’s historical treasures was a Red Sox fan, and so the combination to the vault door was 4-0-6. Get it? But note that the old file cabinet was outside the bank vault door. That’s true. The room behind the door was so chock full of other stuff that the glass negatives were not given even this low level of protection. They were there for all, even visitors, to see and, in fact, to handle.
Conlon started taking photographs in 1904, and he used glass plates because there was no plastic film yet. His early images were recorded on 5×7 plates, but after a while, he switched to the 4×5 size. We can only imagine how difficult it was to transport his equipment—a large Graflex camera, a tripod, and a box full of glass plates, very heavy—from his home to the ballpark. It is no wonder that he frequented the Polo Grounds and later Yankee Stadium, but never the far away Ebbets Field.
Sometime in the 1920s he switched to plastic film, the earliest iterations of which were quite unstable. These negatives, another few thousand, were not kept with the glass plates in their special file cabinet. Instead they were interfiled with all the other TSN photographs, more than 600,000, in brown envelopes, arranged alphabetically by players’ last names and stored in file cabinets that were supposed to be fireproof. Sure.
But that’s not all. We also had hundreds of prints made by Conlon himself. They were easily identifiable because his handwriting on the back was so distinctive. And they were filed with all our other photos, too.
Truth be told, Conlon was, at the time, a hidden treasure, an undervalued resource. I had never heard of him, frankly. And the folks who ran TSN knew that his work was precious, but they did not care enough or know enough to protect their investment. Maybe that’s why they hired me.
Perhaps we should mention here that Conlon stopped taking pictures in 1942 and died in 1945 and that sometime during that interval he sold all the negatives he still had—countless others he had destroyed—to TSN. But there was no bill of sale that I could find and no paperwork documenting this transaction at all.
Somehow, TSN had convinced the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, to mount a Conlon exhibit in 1984. In addition, TSN had worked with a St. Louis financier to produce a rudimentary set of baseball cards, but that was it. But these projects used the glass negatives themselves to make prints, even though they were fragile, of course, and dirty besides. Thus, one of my first goals as TSN’s first—and last, as it turned out—professional archivist was to bring all the Conlon stuff together in one place, to make it a collection, and to inventory all that we had.
I ordered special acid-neutral envelopes and boxes and began the time-consuming process — two hours every work day — of identifying, dating, and re-housing every negative. That alone took months. I don’t remember how many. Sometime along the way I contacted Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, one of America’s foremost archival conservators, and asked for advice on how to care for this collection. She referred me to Connie McCabe, a conservator at the National Gallery of Art. Connie was co-owner of a photographic conservation business, Photo Preservation Services, Inc., and she suggested that TSN contract with it to do what had to be done. Connie’s recommendation was standard operating procedure for large photographic collections: clean the negatives, develop each one into what are called inter-positives, and from these, create a new set of reproduction duplicate negatives. This set could be used for whatever purpose TSN wanted. But more importantly, the original negs, both glass and plastic, would be safe and protected, no longer subject to the wear and tear of use or curiosity seekers.
We began this process with a perilous journey from St. Louis to the Washington suburbs, the negatives, in their boxes, resting in the tailgate of a rented Ford Taurus station wagon. How else to get them to this destination? I remember distinctly praying to avoid a rear-end collision, an event that surely would have brought my career at TSN to a premature end. We made the trip safely, PPS did its work over quite some time, and we brought everything back to St. Louis safely again.
Truth be told, we had to convince Connie McCabe, not a baseball fan, that these negatives were worth her firm’s time. Only when she saw them did she agree that Conlon was not only a great baseball photographer but a great photographer, period. She, then, in communication with her brother Neal, said much the same thing, “You’ve got to see these photos.” He, a true fan, similarly demurred until he visited her in Washington and saw them for himself. Thus was born the sister-and-brother partnership that became the author team for Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994).
But how does an idea of a book become a book? It’s not easy. TSN had a book division at the time, run by a woman named Sandy Dupont. She listened to our idea for a book of Conlon’s photographs and nearly dismissed it totally. But she did suggest that we talk with folks at Harry N. Abrams, a publisher of art books and another Times Mirror company, as was TSN. The Abrams people were enthusiastic enough to agree to do the book, but they assigned an editor who also knew nothing about baseball. And when the book was finally published and Abrams had a launch party in New York, they decided not to invite the authors. Instead, I was invited to speak for the book, and I did so, even appearing on the sports segment of a local television news program.
My memory tells me that Baseball’s Golden Age got a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review. Was Jonathan Yardley the reviewer? Maybe. At any rate, the book did well. It went into several printings and is, I believe, generally regarded as the best book of baseball photographs ever printed. I commend it to anyone and note, especially, Neal McCabe’s wonderful introduction, “The Base Ball Photographer.”
Somewhere along the way, maybe even before the book was published, two entrepreneurs in a baseball card business called Megacards contacted TSN. They had never produced complete sets of cards from scratch, but the Conlons had attracted them. They proposed — and TSN agreed — to issue one series of 330 cards a year for five years. These became the famous Conlon Collection sets. The first two sets sold well, but the third set ran up against the great strike of 1994-1995, and was cut from 330 cards to 110. And that was the end of that.
In the years after Megacards, various other business proposals came our way, but none of them did very well. We even arranged an exhibit of Conlon prints at a fancy downtown art gallery in Manhattan, but it generated few sales. Conlon remains, I think, an undervalued resource. A second book, The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2011), did considerably less well.
How to bring this story to a close? Times Mirror sold TSN to Paul Allen (yes, the co-founder of Microsoft), and Allen later sold the company to American City Business Journals, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina. The ACBJ hierarchy told us that TSN’s editorial offices would remain in St. Louis, but in 2008, they changed their mind. The company would move to North Carolina, and I was not invited to go along. We packed up everything, and off it went.
Subsequent to the move, TSN sold its entire photographic archives to a fellow named John Rogers in Arkansas. You may have heard of him. He is in significant legal trouble on numerous fronts. Where are the Conlons now? I’m not sure. Perhaps in Arkansas. Perhaps under the custody of federal court officials. What will become of them? Who knows?