For Conlon baseball card collectors, or for those who do not want to invest in a baseball card collection, two books about Charles M. Conlon are worth the smaller investment to own a piece of his photographic mastery.
Photography evolved radically and rapidly after Conlon’s death in 1945. Camera, film and lens technology advanced, and color pictures became ubiquitous in glossy publications such as Sports Illustrated. The glass plates of Conlon and baseball’s other pioneering lensmen (including Louis Van Oeyen, Carl Horner and George Grantham Bain) were relegated to newspaper morgues.
But Conlon’s work was rediscovered in 1990. The Sporting News, which had acquired the surviving glass negatives shot by Conlon, hired photo conservator Constance McCabe to print pictures from them. She told her brother Neal about them, and the Los Angeles-based baseball researcher found himself “blown away,” by both Conlon’s artistry and his anonymity.
In 1993, the brother-sister duo published Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon (Harry Abrams). The book was a revelation, a time machine to the era of wooden ballparks, day games and legal spitballs. Golden Age was the visual equivalent of Lawrence Ritter’s Glory of Their Times, the groundbreaking oral history of professional baseball’s early days.
Roger Angell, the New Yorker’s longtime staff writer, has called it “the best book of baseball photographs ever published.”
Nearly two decades later, Neal and Constance McCabe have teamed on a second volume. The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs (Abrams). Published to mark the 125th anniversary of the Sporting News’ first issue, it is the rare sequel that may trump the original. The stars—Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller—are well represented, but there’s plenty of space for the likes of Walt Cruise, George McQuinn and Paul Krichell. Their careers were forgettable, but their likenesses, as seen through Conlon’s lens, are not.