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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

The Day I Shot Aaron and DiMaggio

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I grew up in New York, in the Bronx, literally blocks from Yankee Stadium. I'm lucky to have been a kid when the World Series meant that, in most cases, the New York Yankees were going to play (and beat) the Brooklyn Dodgers. That is, until 1955 when, after a phenomenal five-year run of Yankee championships (1949-53), the Brooklyn Bums beat the Bronx Bombers in seven games for the Dodgers' first-ever title.

[For the trivia minded, the 1954 World Series was between the NY Giants and Cleveland Indians. The Giants swept. You could look it up. I did.]

So you can understand why I've spent so much time this month in front of the television.

And you can understand, too, why I never will forget the day I photographed baseball legends Hank Aaron and Joe DiMaggio--in uniform on a baseball diamond.

The job came about because of a wedding--one that was fairly typical of the ones Judy and I shoot in and around Washington. The bride worked on the hill, for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. Her fiance was (guess what?) a lawyer.

Only Bob wasn't your everyday kind of lawyer. He was a sports lawyer and he was a big baseball fan.

How much of a fan?

As a surprise his wife topped their wedding cake with a baseball autographed by the Yankees. [To this day, Bob doesn't know how close he came to having his wedding surprise swiped.]

We had a great time photographing "Baseball Bob" and his wife. And a few years later, Bob hired us to photograph an Old-Timer's Day at Washington's RFK Stadium.

Happily, the job did not entail serious sports photography, i.e., we did not have to shoot the action, even the slowed-down action of the old-timers. The sponsors for the event were Bike Athletic Products (who probably do not like to be called the jockstrap people) and Worth, the baseball bat makers whose products were trying to dent the virtual monopoly of the Louisville Slugger. All Judy and I had to do was photograph the players during the pre-game interviews posing with the products. [And no, wiseguy, that did not mean shooting catcher Joe Garagiola or pitcher Ralph Branca in their jocks; Bike made the uniforms as well.]

I was to learn the hard way about covering sports a few years later on the 50-yard line during a football season opener at RFK between the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants. Luckily, I was there on my own, on an extra press pass tossed my way by a former colleague on the New York Daily News, who was there to actually shoot the game for the paper.

Oh, I looked the part: photo vest, two cameras, each with a long lens, tons of film, etc. etc. Only it was worth my life to get even a passable image, so bad was I, not just at capturing the right moment, but in anticipating it.

My friend Harry, however, prowled the sidelines like a cat and seemed to know exactly where to be – and how to avoid being run over by the mobile TV camera platform that also tracked the ground-level action. In that pre-digital time, Harry and I raced to the Associated Press bureau in downtown D.C. after the game to have the AP soup his film. He edited the negatives on the fly, notching keepers on the edge of the frame with a hole punch, and then had the wire service transmit a handful of great shots in plenty of time for the final edition.

If the Daily News had had to rely on my output that evening, I'm sure I'd have been out of a job by morning.

But job pressure was the last thing on my mind on a balmy spring evening some 15 years ago, as the crowd started arriving at RFK for the old-timer's game.

Joe Garagiola, the journeyman catcher-turned broadcaster, was in great form, delighted, I'm sure, to be back in uniform, even if only for an evening. Ex-Dodger Ralph Branca, who gave up the famous home run "shot heard 'round the world" to the Giants' Bobby Thomson in 1951 and thus gave the Giants the pennant, seemed to have put that bit of ancient history far behind him. He and ex-Cardinal Garagiola had a great time shooting the breeze by home plate – and the pictures reflected it.

But clearly the two stars of the evening were DiMaggio, the great Yankee hitter and center fielder, and Aaron, baseball's all-time home run champ. DiMaggio, as always a somewhat aloof presence, did not mix it up with the pressies on the infield grass. His appearance was comparatively brief – tipping his hat to the public as he emerged from the dugout, waving to fans as he walked the area behind home plate, then signing a handful of autographs for the lucky few kids who happened to be near the AL dugout. Of course, he was long past his playing days, but he was in uniform [though I recall his "spikes" looking more like black leather oxfords]. I did manage to make several good shots of the aging hero as he came out onto the field. I used a big 300mm f/2.8 Nikkor mounted on a monopod.

Aaron, however, was a whole 'nother story. He easily put up with the crowd of press people that clung to him, and gamely answered their questions and posed for their pictures. I'm sure the Worth people loved one picture I made showing Aaron from behind leaning on a Worth bat (label showing), with the letters AARON emblazoned across his back.

Finally, all the announcements and promos had been made and it was time to play ball.

I felt like a kid being told it was OK to play hooky. Judy and I stowed our gear near our front row seats behind home plate. I ordered a beer and a hot dog and then let the baseball greats of years gone by relive their triumphs before my eager eyes under a forgiving spring sky.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Big Changes Likely for Leica
When Newer is Better
Street-Smart Guide To Avoiding Camera Thievery
Revisiting a Classic: The Legendary Leica M6
Surge Protection-or Practicing Safe Pix
The Plastic Nikon
The Incredible Shrinking Overhead
Simplified Location Portraiture
Simple (but Dramatic) Portraits
Photography's Maine Connection
Hell in a Viewfinder: Kosovo
In Praise of Available Light
Slow Shutter for Better Pix
Mixing Light Sources for Dramatic Shots
Picturing New York One Face at a Time
The Ultimate Point n' Shoot
When Technology Weakens Technique

 Van Riper on Van Riper

NBCC Photo Show:

Work on an autumn theme by members of the North Bethesda Camera Club is on exhibit through Nov. 10 at Brookside Gardens Visitors Center in Wheaton. The Gardens, part of Wheaton Regional Park worthy of a visit, are located east of the intersection of Randolph Road and Georgia Avenue Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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