by Jack Wellington


Through the lens of the golden age of baseball’s legendary sports photographer, Neil Leifer, we are reminded of the “good ole days”, before texting and personal game players, but also before steroids, designated hitters, one-inning-only relief pitchers, domed stadiums, seven dollar hot dogs, .260 hitters signing $50 million dollar contracts, and way before skyrocketing prices of $30 to $200 a ticket, to see the game that you used to be able to take your whole family to for about twenty bucks.

Baseball – Ballet in the Dirt

Neil Leifer

Gabriel Schechter, Ron Shelton, Eric Kroll
Hardcover, 12.2” x 10.1 in”, 296 pages

It was golden - baseball in the ‘60s and ‘70s

Excerpt from “Baseball - Ballet in the Dirt” introduction by Ron Shelton (minor league baseball player in the Baltimore Orioles’ organization from 1967 to 1971, and best-known as film director and screenwriter for films such as Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump):

Like most golden ages, I suppose, we didn’t know we were in one ‘til it was over.  

The church of baseball had no assassinations, no Vietnam, and no protest marches.  There was only the game.  Through Neil Leifer’s eyes we see the beauty of baseball in the 1960s and ‘70s—the best the game has ever been.  The gods are everywhere in Leifer’s photographs:  Mantle, Mays, Clemente, Koufax...  And they look like us, only better.  These aren’t men with artificially built bodies.  These often aren’t even very big men—Henry Aaron was slight, Willie Mays was short, and Denny McLain?  He’s the chunky guy playing a Hammond B3 organ in the Holiday Inn lounge.  He’s also the last pitcher to win 30 games.  The game was different then.  It was better.  That’s not nostalgia, that’s a fact.

Leifer snapped the images that stand for a career. 

You see Mays laugh, Aaron smile, and Gil Hodges flash his signature broad grin.  And even a not-so-crazy Jimmy Piersall, flashing teeth from ear to ear, as he smashes the ball in batting practice.  At once you’re reminded that these are men playing a boy’s game.  For a moment, the tough Hank Bauer sticks out his tongue, Billy Martin looks like a choirboy, Reggie flips Billy over his back, goofing like eight year-olds, and we recall why we like baseball.

Leifer gave us all sides and complexions of baseball.  

The action and the suspended quiet moments all without auto-focus.  All without digital.  When the center fielder crashed into the fence, he caught it with his 600 mm lens, manually focused as the action unfolded.  There’re no second takes.  There’s just the work of a great sports photographer, hanging out in America’s national pastime...when it still was America’s national pastime.  These Neil Leifer portraits of baseball connect us not just to the game but to our fathers, to our childhood, to memories so private that they aren’t otherwise articulated.  Your first mitt, the baseball you tied inside your mitt to give it shape, your first organized game, and the time a fellow nine year-old threw a 30-mile-an-hour fastball by you and the humiliation you felt dragging the bat back to the bench, assuaged only by your first hit—a 20-hop ground ball that got past diving infielders.  And suddenly you recall the moment you first laid eyes on your baseball hero.  And years later you are older and you realize your gods are human, and there is mortality... but not in baseball.  Leifer’s photographs allow for a suspension of disbelief.  He sees the game we feel and gives us images that soothe us and stir us.  Through these pictures “you can go home again.”  Do I exaggerate?  Not a bit.  That’s where these photos take me, and I suspect, many others.  And that is their gift, a gift that even my friend Neil may not fully appreciate. ~

Professional baseball of the 1960s and 1970s belongs to Neil Leifer, the premier sports photographer of his generation.  In 1960, at age 17, Neil had the human drive to match his new Nikon motor drive and he was on his way.  With gumption and an eye for the decisive moment, the baby-faced kid from Manhattan’s lower east side was soon selling his photos to Sports Illustrated.  His book is an amazing collection of images that reflects the total access Neil had to the players on the ball field, in the dugout, and in the locker room.  Every possible emotion on the faces of the players is captured in the moment, from elation to disappointment and celebration, from the 1960 World Series between the Yankees and the Pirates – decided in the 9th inning of the 7th game by a Bill Mazeroski home run – to the 1977 Series between the Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Neil Leifer never stopped shooting.  He was up in the nosebleed section of the grandstands in Yankee Stadium, in the rafters of the Astrodome in Houston, or in a helicopter high above.  Who won the games wasn’t important – only how the game was played;  the blood, sweat, and grace.  It’s all about the game, and Leifer’s photographs depict the very heart and soul of baseball.

Featuring over 300 photos, the book is divided into four chapters: The Game;  the Heroes – like Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle, and pitcher Sandy Koufax;  the Rivalry (infamously, between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox and the Giants and Dodgers);  and the World Series championship.

The original Collector’s Edition of “Baseball – Ballet in the Dirt” immediately sold-out at the asking price of $1,000 each.  Thankfully, for the rest of us baseball fans, the popular edition is unlimited and is available at bookstores and online for $39.99.

With all changes, come the good and the bad in every generation.  But this baseball fan will always remember baseball in its heyday – the “good ole days”, where the sport was true blue, All-American, and affordable – a wholesome event where you could go and enjoy the game for the afternoon over hot dogs and peanuts with the whole family.   

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