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