The most important baseball photography archive that existsThe Charles M. Conlon Photographic Archive (7,462 Original Negatives).
"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
Even if you do not know his name, you know the work of Charles Conlon. Between 1904 and 1942, there was no more skilled or dedicated biographer of our national pastime than Conlon, whose work serves as the primary visual record of Major League Baseball in the early half of the twentieth century. From imagery populating early Reach and Spalding guides to syndicated newspaper photography to iconic trading cards spanning the days of tobacco to bubble gum, the work of Conlon permeates the historical paper trail of the most glorious decades of baseball, almost always uncredited, the life's work of a man both anonymous and intimately familiar.
It would be difficult to argue that there is any man absent from the salaried ledger of Major League Baseball whose service to the sport was more vital, or that any created a body of work that more effectively bottles the genie that is our fascination with the early game. But make no mistake-Conlon's photography is not simple, bloodless documentation. We risk no hyperbole by filing his work under the heading of Fine Art, his deft eye and technological skill conspiring to create imagery that would strike no discordant note on a gallery wall beside Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Remarkably, Conlon came to his life's calling rather by chance. Born in Albany, New York in November 1868, just as baseball professionalism was sprouting its first delicate tendrils, Conlon maintained only a casual interest in our burgeoning national pastime throughout his youth. He entered the newspaper business in the early 1890's in upstate New York, but by the turn of the century he had set off for the Big Apple and a job at the New York Evening Telegram, where his photographic hobby would be turned in a more lucrative direction. His camera caught the attention of editor John B. Foster, who was being groomed to take over production of the famous "Spalding Guide."
"Charley," Foster said, "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 pick-up for you, and it will be something of a day off."
And so Conlon set off for the Polo Grounds on a summer day in 1904, returning to the Evening Telegram offices with an array of portrait photos of the New York Giants, including one of the most famous images of Christy Mathewson that exists, wearing a jersey that is likewise presented within this Platinum Night auction. It would prove to be the first of hundreds of afternoons at the city's three Big League stadiums, where Conlon and his bulky equipment became as familiar a sight on the fringes of the playing field as the black-uniformed umpires.
With access to players of both the entrenched National and nascent American Leagues, Conlon was able to capture on film just about every leading figure of the game during his thirty-eight year career, from Cobb to Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio. But we also see, in Conlon's imagery, such delightful period details as the chicken wire behind home plate protecting fans from foul balls, the neat stenciling of the Polo Grounds bat rack, the bold graphics of outfield wall advertisements. An afternoon with the archive is a true immersion, a veritable time machine.
As the sport transitioned from Dead Ball to Live, the technological curve of photography followed a similar trajectory, and we see this in the thrilling archive of original negatives that is presented on these pages. The early glass plate portraiture gradually comes to include action shots, including the "cloud of dust" Cobb image that ranks as one of the most famous baseball images of all time. Later, glass negatives transition to acetate. But, in every case, it is important to remember one fact-these are the one-of-a-kind originals, direct from inside Conlon's camera, each of the 7,000+ negatives having shared physical space with the men pictured. Ruth stood feet from the Ruth negatives. In a sense, each and every negative is effectively "game used."
The Conlon Archive became the property of The Sporting News not long after his passing in 1945, and was purchased by leading collector John Rogers from that source with the intent of monetizing the rights to the imagery through licensing of the images. The contracts specifying the terms regarding licensing are available for viewing by request.
We expect two distinct interests to compete for ownership-baseball historians aware of the singular importance of this collection, and investors intent upon picking up where Rogers left off. Certainly membership in the former demographic does not restrict participation in the latter.
The archive appears in three distinct formats, those divisions relating to the advancements of photographic technology. From 1904 to 1915, the negatives appear in 5x7" glass plate standard. For most of the next two decades, the glass plates shrink to 4x5" in size. And finally, for the last years of Conlon's career and life, the negatives transition to 4x5" acetates.
Most of Conlon's most iconic images date to the glass plate era, where we find the Cobb slide, the ultra-close-up facial portrait of Babe Ruth in 1927, the images used for the Ruth and Gehrig entries in the 1933 Goudey set, and several images of the soon-to-be-banished legend "Shoeless Joe" Jackson. Flip through the 1993 volume, "Baseball's Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles Conlon," and you will find yourself overtaken by a sustained sensation of déjà vu.
With audio and video recordings of the pre-war game extremely limited in population, The Charles Conlon Photographic Archive is, quite simply, the most important and comprehensive record of early twentieth century baseball that exists, the DNA that gave birth to our collective vision of that time.
The collection is housed in eighty-five boxes, none larger than a standard shoebox, and collectively filling about one hundred cubic feet of space. To provide some sense of scale, we report that the average cargo van can carry two hundred to three hundred cubic feet of load.
Our only condition caveat relates to the famous Cobb sliding photograph, which is cracked but still capable of producing perfect images. It is believed that the slide was cracked by Conlon himself, a theory bolstered by the fact that none of the other glass slides have been damaged over the course of decades of storage and occasional transport. Maintenance of this enormously important collection should be considered a sacred responsibility to the preservation of baseball history, and we are confident that this Platinum Night auction will locate just such a person who understands his or her vital duty in curatorship.
As noted, the size of this lot is considerable, and Heritage will assist to coordinate the required third-party shipping.
Intellectual property rights are not being conveyed with ownership of the physical collection. Due to the age of the collection, copyrights for most of the images have expired. Heritage makes no representation or warranty concerning the copyright status of any image within the collection or whether any permission may be required from persons depicted or other third parties in connection with any use of the images. Buyer shall be solely responsible for obtaining or clearing any third party authorizations or rights that may be necessary to monetize or use the collection.
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