I cannot convey to you how frightening it was to be a frequent presence on a major league baseball field at the age of 17. Every player seemed to be about 30 feet tall, and every club official and stadium security officer seemed to be within 30 seconds of chucking me back into the stands, no matter how many credentials I might have had. And the team managers? Ralph Houk? Billy Martin? Earl Weaver?
To see them approach was to feel the fight-or-flight instinct surge in my veins. And not in that empowering, life-affirming “fight” way, sadly.
I was a photographer, nominally working for the hobby magazine Mike Aronstein had inexplicably put me in charge of the year before, Collectors Quarterly. Certainly we had need of our own images of big league ballplayers, but in fact I was on an illicit mission to snap them for an upcoming second set of the “SSPC Pure Card” baseball cards Mike had published earlier in that year of 1976. I had written the backs for the first set, and another fellow had taken most of the photos for them, only it turned out he didn’t really have any ballpark credentials and was only on the field because he’d been a batboy and knew all of the cops at Shea Stadium and they just let him sneak in. When the leagues and the clubs and Topps and the courts Topps sued us in found out about that, he wasn’t going to again get to be on any fields for a long, long time.
So Mike had written the obligatory letter to the Yankees supplying copies of the magazine and asking them to give me, usually no more than once or twice a homestand, pre-game access to the field to take photos of the players. My instructions were simple: get anybody you can, especially guys in new uniforms. Action shots, candid shots, whatever – but you’ll also have to get some portraits. You’ll have to ask the players to pose for you.
By the end of May I think I had screwed up the courage to ask a few guys to pose before each game. I remember Jim Colborn of the Brewers actually asking me what the magazine I claimed to represent was, and my promising him to send a copy to him, and then he kindly stood still for a few portraits. But by early June, I believe all my other conversations with the big leaguers consisted of “Pardon me, Mr. —-, may I get a couple of shots of you for Collectors Quarterly magazine?” followed by the answer “grunt” or “no” or “silence.”
Then the Oakland A’s came to town. It wasn’t official yet, but with Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman traded to Baltimore, Jim Hunter long since gone to New York, and Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, and Rollie Fingers on the block before the June 15 trade deadline, Oakland was already in its post-Championship Era. Still a forceful team that would nearly win the A.L. West that year, but truly in decline. They had their third manager in four years (and would, in fact, trade him that winter in one of owner Charles Finley’s desperate efforts to suck the value out of anybody who might want out of his rapidly collapsing club). We only had a photo of this manager in his previous uniform, and so of all the A’s, I approached him first to pose.
“Pardon me, Mr. Tanner, may I get a couple of shots of you for Collectors Quarterly magazine?”
Chuck Tanner beamed at me. “Of course you can, son.”
He stuck out his hand.
I had no idea what to do.
“I’m Chuck Tanner,” he said, both affably and sincerely. A faint bell dinged slowly in the back of my slow-moving mind. He’s shaking hands with you, dummy. I introduced myself.
“Very nice to meet you, Keith. What do you need me to do?”
I coughed out something about just standing there.
He laughed. “Can I smile?”
I laughed and snapped a few shots.
“I’m an amateur photographer,” he said, pleasantly.
I admitted I was too and suggested he could probably tell that.
He laughed again. “No, I wasn’t suggesting that. I’m just noticing you’re not using a flash but you’ve got me sort of side-saddle to the sun. If I move here it’ll probably come out better.”
This went on for several minutes. Not once did I get the impression that Chuck Tanner was trying to mock me or criticize me. He made it seem the most perfectly natural thing in the world for a major league baseball manager to take the time to give the most elemental of tips to a photographer, an hour or so before a ballgame. Then came something I couldn’t believe.
“Do you need me to get you any of my players so you can shoot them, Keith?”
You can guess how the rest of this went. Before I knew it, Dick Bosman and Paul Lindblad and Jim Todd were jogging in from shagging flies in the outfield to volunteer for my shaky camera lens. And as the old, beloved and lamented ritual of infield practice loomed and the media had to get off the field, Chuck Tanner walked back towards his dugout and stopped by and asked if I’d gotten everybody I needed. “Next time you’re back, find me first and I can get you anybody you want.”
I would meet Chuck Tanner again and again as the years went by. I was there as the reporter for UPI Radio as his Pirates won the 1979 National League Championship Series, and when I reminded him of how he had helped me at Yankee Stadium he either remembered it or did an amazing job pretending to, and then waved away security guards who tried to interrupt him while he gave a five-minute interview to the least important network radio reporter at the game.
A year later, as I took the subway out to Shea Stadium to cover a Mets-Pirates game, I saw somebody who appeared to be Pittsburgh coach Alex Monchak sitting across from me, and then realized the guy to his left was clearly Kent Tekulve, and the fellow standing up holding on to the overhead bar sure looked like Tanner in a jacket and tie. I looked at him, he looked at me, and he suppressed a smile and brought his forefinger to his lips. 45 minutes later, on the field, he walked over and thanked me for not blowing their cover. “It’s so much faster to come out on the subway than the team bus,” he said. “The station is right next to our hotel and it’s really a nice ride, at least on the way out. Wait – you’re that radio photographer guy, aren’t you?”
Chuck Tanner, as you know, died yesterday at the age of 82. When he came back to the big leagues as manager of the White Sox in 1970 he was considered the best managing prospect in the minors. The Pirates thought enough of him to trade Manny Sanguillen to Oakland for him in the winter of 1976-77 (rendering those great shots I’d gotten of him – positioned per his excellent photographic advice – useless) and when the Pirates finally let him go, the Braves quickly snapped him up. He only made the post-season once, winning the World Series in 1979, so Pittsburgh will tell you he is a Hall of Famer anyway.
And of course I would whole-heartedly agree. And I won’t even bother to address his credentials. May I have done once for somebody what he did for me, and countless others.
SPEAKING OF CARDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY:
Chuck Tanner would appreciate this, for the leavening of the sadness, and the continuity of the game, and the nostalgia – and the photography.
I have the privilege of showing you an uncut sheet of the 2011 Topps Heritage Baseball Refractors Series. The glossy metallic treatment causes the sheet to warp a little, but you should be able to live with it. Topps has done another superb job on recreat
ing the historical original, in this case the 1962 set: you’ll notice nearly all the Mets and Astros are capless (just as they were in ’62, for far different reasons) and the lettering and the posing is very precise.
Of particular note, in Row 8, fourth from the left you’ll find a rather clunky airbrush job in which a Phillies’ cap is poorly painted onto Cliff Lee’s head. This is not a mistake, but more of a deliberate reference to a 1962 card of catcher Sammy White, who joined the Phils of that year just as those cards were going to press, and who appeared in a kind of reddish-pinkish artist’s charcoal colored hat in the same kind of purgatory-like blank environment Mr. Lee seems posed in.
There is one disturbing image – Row 3, third from the right. It’s the first Topps card, I believe, showing Don Mattingly in any uniform other than the Yankees. Not to say he doesn’t deserve it, it’s just that no matter how often I look at it, it doesn’t compute: