“I’ve always loved baseball. When I was a kid, I’d lay in bed at night listening to Milwaukee Braves (before they were the Brewers) games through the earpiece plugged into my transistor radio. It was a thrill when my dad took me to a game and I saw my favorite player, Hank Aaron, as well as Eddie Matthews, Warren Spahn and Joe Adcock.
I still love baseball. I love watching it and making pictures of the players and the game. That hasn’t changed a bit.”
For over 40 years, Ronald Modra was one of the top photographers at Sports Illustrated, garnering over 70 SI covers and becoming one of baseball’s most well-known photographers. In February, ahead of spring training, Modra releases his latest retrospective “A Baseball Life: Four Decades Inside the Game” about his storied career on the field for Sports Illustrated, and he recently sat down to speak with In Sight about his start in the dream job of a lifetime.
In Sight: How did you first come to work with Sports Illustrated?
Ronald Modra: My first big break was as Brewers team photographer. I was a huge Hank Aaron fan as a kid so when he came back to Milwaukee to finish his career and I got the chance to photograph him, I was thrilled.
It was the summer of 1975 when Herb Scharfman came to town to photograph [Hank] Aaron for Sports Illustrated. Like every sports-loving kid, I grew up reading SI and was a huge fan of Herb’s work. Because I was a team photographer, I got to show him around and we immediately became friends. Herb not only encouraged me but effectively launched my career when he convinced me to send my “portfolio” (which was a Kodak box full of loose slides and black and white prints) to Laurel Frankel, an editor at SI at the time. Every week for two or three months straight I called to follow-up. Laurel tells a story–I don’t remember it exactly this way–that during one of these calls she put me on, forgot I was there and when she picked up her phone 20 minutes later I was still there.
Finally, probably because they were sick of hearing from me, I got an assignment to shoot a black and white picture of Rick Langford of the Oakland A’s for an SI column.
I freelanced for several years, then the legendary photo editor John Dominis gave me my first contract.
In 1973, when I was hired as Brewers team photographer, I was barely scraping by but I considered it my dream job, especially a few years after when in 1975,[Hank] Aaron, who had left Milwaukee with the Braves a decade earlier, returned to town to finish his career as a Brewer.
In February of that year, I drove my old, beat-up blue and white ’69 Dodge van all the way from Wisconsin to Sun City, Arizona to meet the team for spring training. My third day in town, I was loading equipment into my van after practice when I heard someone yell, “Hey! You going back to the hotel?”
I turned and saw Hank Aaron jogging toward me. And yes, I gave him a ride, my heart pounding the whole time. I wished someone I knew would pull up beside me and recognize me.
We started chatting when, suddenly, Aaron, who was eyeballing the rusted interior of my van, the ripped curtain behind the driver’s seat and the burger wrappers on the floor, said, “Man, did you drive this all the way from Milwaukee?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Chuckling, he said, “I think you should leave it here.”
NC: What made you want to do a retrospective of your work after all these years? Why now?
RM: Putting this book together has been a longtime dream and when I realized my 40th year covering baseball, most of them for Sports Illustrated, was approaching, it seemed like the time to dig in and do it.
I started going through photographs, dozens of them, and I called Peter Klabunde, a fantastic designer and baseball fanatic, and we came up with the concept of organizing pictures by the decade. Then we got to work.
It made sense to invite some of my colleagues to participate and I was impressed, flattered and incredibly grateful that several writers who I’ve worked with over the years agreed to write “by-the-decade” essays.
These guys—Tim Kurkjian, Peter Gammons, Tom Verducci and Leigh Montville—just happen to be the very best at what they do: writing about baseball and talking about it on TV. Their contributions gave context and insight and background to the photographs.
NC: All the time spent photographing world-class athletes from a distance, do you have any anecdotes of a funny or memorable interaction with a player?
RM: While working in Chicago one day in 1991, I approached Kirk Gibson to shoot his portrait for a project I was doing for Topps Chewing Gum. Despite how gruff he could be with the media, Gibby and I were friendly, bonding over our love for hunting and fishing.
“Oh,” he groused, “you know I hate doing this b*******. Where do you want me?”
We went to the batting cage where I shot off about forty snaps…then, I froze. I tried to be nonchalant about motioning to my assistant, but Gibby was on full alert.
“Big Mr. Sports Illustrated forgot to put film in his camera!” he roared.
At least that’s something we don’t have to worry about anymore.
In the mid-‘80s, I was hired to shoot the stills for an instructional video that Mickey Mantle was filming with Tom Seaver and Gary Carter at the Braves/Expos spring training facility in in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The day of the shoot, I arrived very early and walked into the empty stadium to scout. As I walked up the steps, I noticed a lone figure sitting in one of the seats. He was an older man wearing a plain gray baseball uniform and cap and staring out at the vacant field.
It was Mickey Mantle.
“What’s going on today?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m just sitting here thinking,” he said. “God, I wish I could still play.”