Neil Leifer – Ballet In the Dirt: The Golden Age of Baseball

            Taschen (2007)

            Spring training is in full swing…the new season beckons…

            Like most baseball fans I picked up the obsession early, courtesy of my Dad.  His fellowship with the New York Yankees was formed during their glory years and he saw the great ones play at the top of their abilities – DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Ford and so many others.  My timing wasn’t so good.  The Yanks spent the entirety of my elementary and high school career mired in a terrible slump that still hurts to think about today.

            But I never lost devotion to my team.  As a kid, trips to Yankee Stadium were frequent and exciting.  The players who I saw as so much bigger than life were dwarfed by the scale of the ballpark, especially as the light and shadows shifted during the course of the game.  The intensity of the colors – so different from black and white TV – touched me deeply and though I couldn’t articulate it, I’m sure they planted the seeds of my future occupation.  I’ll never forget how the right field grass slowly revealed itself for the first time as I walked up one of the ramps with my parents to our seats.  Since I was six years old it has remained the most lush, beautifully saturated shade of green I have ever seen.

            I also played the game pretty intensely too, right up through college.  So when I look at Neil Leifer’s photo book, Ballet In the Dirt: The Golden Age of Baseball, memories are evoked, emotions stirred.  The pictures were taken around the big leagues during my formative years in the 1960’s; that they can so easily summon the smell of fresh cut grass, hot dogs and cigar smoke is testament to their power.  All the stars are there in action and repose…my Yankee favorites and many of their competitors whom I also admired: Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, Brooks Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski.  The loose cut and soft hue of their uniforms…the rich palette of the old parks they played in…  Today’s antiseptic, corporatized approach to the game bears no comparison to the inviting elements so present in the days of old.

            And that’s the thing about Leifer’s images.  They have a texture that’s all their own.  As one of the most successful and innovative sports photographers in history, you’re certainly familiar with his work; among many others, he has 170 Sports Illustrated covers to his credit.  Though Ballet In the Dirt is a collection, many examples can stand alone as pieces of art.  It’s not just the subjects Leifer chose or the light or the angle he shot from.  He created something palpable.  Seeing these images on the newsstand as a boy would sometimes put butterflies in my stomach.  On picking up this book I’m not surprised that they still do.

            Sports fan or not, you’ll find something of interest here.  The accompanying text is fascinating and Taschen’s usual attention to detail is on fine display.  When the right feature or television project comes along, I’m going to create a look that captures the emotion of these photographs as closely as possible.  And then I’ll have one more reason to thank Neil Leifer for what he has done.


2 thoughts on “READ THIS BOOK #4”

  1. Richard,
    Thanks for this well written piece! I just now read it in 2022 at the
    start of this season. You brought back memories for myself when I saw my
    first big league game in the 1960’s. My friend’s dad took us to a
    Chicago White Sox game at Old Comiskey Park, built in 1910.
    I was around eight years old. My friend and I had more fun tossing
    paper at the fans below from an upper deck walkway as we walked
    around the stadium. An usher saw us and escorted us back to our
    seats where my friend’s dad was waiting for us. I think we got a little scolding. When I got into my teens,
    I would leave the group I was with and would watch the game from
    from an opening in the left field wall. There was a concession area below the left field stands at Comiskey Park. You could grab a hotdog,
    sit on a picnic bench right next to the field, and watch the game at field level.
    Some wire fencing was the only separation from the field. Left fielders
    would come right next to you as they retrieved deep fly balls. Sometimes
    you were face to face with them. Another time (1970s) I caught a foul ball
    down the right field line. Some old guy with a cigar tried to knock it out
    of my hands. In later games I attended, I would take the ball with me
    and get it autographed as players came out of the locker room. There
    were very few autograph seekers back then. In those days players seemed
    rather small and out of shape. Wilbur Wood a pitcher came out once smoking
    a cigarette and holding a beer. My brother held his beer as he signed
    my ball. I still have that baseball. Baseball seemed so much bigger than life back then. The fields
    were like sanctuarys as you viewed them coming through the tunnels.
    As I watch tonight the opening game of the season between the Diamondbacks and Padres, I grow tired of watching and flip the channel
    to TCM and watch Niagara. The game is way too corporate today.
    Not like the Golden Era.
    Thanks again for recalling past memories of a great game!
    It sounds like you went pretty far with it, playing in college!
    I will seek out the book!

  2. Ken – It’s funny how deeply held those early memories of the big ballparks are…

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