Just in time for the week when the national pastime briefly but exuberantly occupies the American spotlight comes "Baseball," a collection of more than 130 color photographs by Walter Iooss Jr. that reveals the game in all its grit and glory. There may be better and/or more memorable pictures elsewhere -- in his text Roger Angell mentions my own favorite, that of Ty Cobb "sliding into third base in a swirl of dirt and vehemence" -- but the cumulative effect of this splendid volume is matched by no other collection of baseball photography.
The pictures were taken by Iooss from 1962 to 1980, when he was a staff photographer for Sports Illustrated. In those years that magazine gave baseball its full due -- it has subsequently metamorphosed into The New York Review of Football -- and Iooss was allowed to roam all over the country in search of the best baseball photos he could find. As this book generously demonstrates, he got them.
Iooss does many things brilliantly, but nothing more so than framing his pictures. He is a master of the perfectly composed but unposed photograph. He knows how to fit all of the elements of his pictures into their exact places yet without giving them a static quality; even his most perfectly balanced pictures crackle with life. Consider, for example, his picture of Brooks Robinson, framed by the legs of the runner whom he is about to throw out, studiously moving to field a grounder; the composition is exquisite, yet the picture is filled with movement.
Batting cages draw Iooss' attention for some reason -- perhaps because players gather around them in a ritual that is at once sociable and solitary -- and three of his best, most beautifully composed pictures center on them. One shows the Mets in spring training, dwarfed by a magnificent South Florida sky; another shows the Yankees at Miami Stadium (it is mistakenly identified as Ft. Lauderdale Stadium), framed against the looming twilight; yet another, the Iooss picture I like best of all, shows the Texas Rangers, collective yet apart, at the cage at 6 p.m.
But Iooss doesn't just create lovely pieces of framing. He's great at portraits (Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson) and at capturing the fierce intensity of players pushing themselves to the limit: Mickey Mantle, near the end of his great career, grimacing in pain at the end of his swing; Carl Yastrzemski, in his immortal season of 1967, concentrating with every ounce; Jim Bouton and Steve Blass, in Series competition, just about blowing themselves off the mound.
These and many other pictures are magnificent, and they are why fans will return over and again to the pleasures this book offers. But those pleasures also include the brief but characteristically evocative text by Roger Angell. In it he reflects upon the urges people occasionally have to tinker with the game and the doughtiness with which it resists them; the infinite possibilities for surprise offered by the game's seemingly simple structure; the stern demands the game places upon those who play it at the highest level. He also writes one paragraph that deserves inclusion among the best he has written elsewhere, which is saying something:
"The setting of the game matters almost as much as its arduousness and amazements, and baseball's place in the American calendar is unique. Other sports cluster their action on weekends and play sporadically during the rest of the week, as their barnstormers move from city to city around the circuit, playing but a single game at each site and then wearily decamping, almost before we have noticed their presence in town. Baseball, by contrast, is a part of summer, played almost every day from early April to late October, and its onflowing half-heard sounds and news belong as much to our hot-weather afternoons and evenings as do the whine of outboards, the hum of the air conditioner, and the September whir of locusts in heat-heavy trees. It is the sameness and dailiness of baseball -- baseball as soap opera -- and the next day's resultant boxscores, barely altered standings and statistics, and foolishly refreshed hopes and sharpened anxieties, that confirm both the rarity and sweet familiarity of our old, upspringing keepsake."
You were wondering why the six months that now lie ahead of us look so empty and pointless? Now you know.