Waxahachie resident and Ellis County Court at Law Number One Judge Jim Chapman has hit a homerun with a book on the photography of baseball’s earliest years.
The hardbound, 391-page book titled Baseball Photography of the Deadball Era documents the rise of both baseball and sports photography during the early 20th Century. Through the images that captured and popularized baseball’s original legendary players, Chapman profiles the baseball press photographers behind the lens and explores the subtle individuality of their style and the innovations they brought to their art.
Sports Collectors daily sums up the book as a well-researched work with nuggets of revealing information for avid collectors and as “a heck of a fun read, even if you’re just a fan of baseball history.”
With limited, signed copies selling out within weeks of publication, the book has now been picked up for sale at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, serving as a ringing endorsement of Chapman’s thorough research and careful image curation.
Appealing to both collectors and sports fans alike, the book showcases photos of some of the most recognizable names in the world of baseball, such as Ty Cobb, Chief Bender and Babe Ruth, photographed by men who created the art of sports photography and whose names would have faded from memory over the century that’s passed if not for collectors and chroniclers such as Chapman.
The book features hundreds of photos from Chapman’s own Deadball photo collection as well as other private collections. Many of the photos have rarely been seen by the general public.
Chapman says the the Deadball era is the period when the sport first began to emerge as what we now consider modern baseball, having evolved out of two English games, Rounders and Cricket, brought to America by colonists throughout the 18th Century. By the 20th Century, uniforms, equipment, game rules and the playing field itself had solidified into a form that has changed little over the decades that followed.
“Deadball is basically the era from 1900 to 1920, when really the modern game began, circa 1900. And if you look at the photos and such, the players look recognizable, whereas in the 1890s, they look more Victorian — something way bygone,” Chapman says. “The Live Ball era, which we still play in, started about 1920, and it coincided with two things: when they started winding the ball a little bit differently to make it a little more lively; and it also coincided with the rise of Babe Ruth.”
Chapman says the game was mostly an East Coast phenomenon at the time. Before the invention of the broadcast radio, news of the sport reached the rest of the country mostly by newspaper. Thus, the photographers of the Deadball era may be credited not only with making baseball accessible to the masses but also with transforming the game into an American pastime, and its players into national celebrities.
The book also shows how Waxahachie factored into the early days of baseball, as teams would train out of state so that players could avoid the distractions of home. Promoted in one newspaper clipping from the period as on par with Paris because of it ornate courthouse and public library, Waxahachie served as the training destination for the Detroit Tigers from 1916 – 1918. The team practiced at Jungle Park, now Richards Park, near downtown, which city leaders had funded and built for the purpose of attracting the teams during the off season.
“Basically from about 1916 to 1921, that five six-year gap is when baseball came to Waxahachie,” Chapman says. “Several factors were in that: the rail lines ran from the north down here and through Waxahachie. There were a few other teams around down here. And Texas was dry, and ballpark ballplayers of that era — the teams were worried about them trying to get into shape, not having access to alcohol. And at that time, if you think about it, the Rogers Hotel was built in 1912. The luxurious hotel was only four years old when the Tigers came. They built a locker room in a pool in the basement based on the hot springs by the Rogers Hotel to help draw the Tigers, and they built Richards Park, which they called Jungle Park because where did the tigers live? They lived in the jungle. So they built it to lure the Tigers down here. And the players would just walk up and down the tracks, from the Rogers Hotel to the ballpark to train.”
Later, other teams followed the Tigers lead in enjoying the various amenities that Waxahachie had to offer.
“The Tigers trained here from ’16 to ’18. The Cincinnati Reds were here in 1919 when they won the World Series, then the White Sox just two years after their Black Sox Scandal were here in 1921. There are a few minor teams that came after that, but the stadium kind of fell into dilapidated state,” Chapman says.
Chapman says the book required extensive research and investigation as many photos from the period were difficult to identify. Collectors and sports historians, he says, are still uncovering details about the photos, the players and the photographers. Despite continual efforts to identify all the photographers of the images traded among collectors, many are still anonymous.
“It’s kind of a treasure hunt. And then on the back sometimes photographers would stamp their name on it. And sometimes you can trace the evolution of the stamp,” he says. “They try to date it, as well as the uniforms there. Some of the photographers have been shrouded in mystery. Actually in the book, one of the revelations is that one of the major photographers was not actually a photographer; he was basically the business owner, the syndicator for photos. People have always assumed he was the one that shot the images. Part of the book is like uncovering who the actual artists were who took some of the photographs, but also acknowledging that for a vast majority of images out there, we simply don’t know.”
Altogether, Chapman says the book offers sports fans and baseball memorabilia collectors a better understanding of baseball, its origin and its promoters, as well as a guide on how to view and interpret collector sports photos. Presenting hundreds of images of the front of the sports photos and the back where the photographer’s stamp and other information usually appear, Baseball Photography of the Deadball Era may serve as a primer for anyone interested in delving into sports photography collection.
“It’s kind of like archaeology,” Chapman says. “[It’s like an] archaeologist digging out the bones, constructing the story — reconstructing the animal out of the bones in a field — looking at the stamp — looking at the stories and saying, Here’s what this is. And here’s what this significance is.“
Chapman became involved in sports photo collection about ten years before writing his book. A baseball fan since childhood, he later looked back at a small collection of baseball cards that he had held onto over the years and grew interested in collector photos and postcards that he had learned about. About 30 years ago, he says, many news archives began to be liquidated as images were digitized and the real photos were disposed of. Since then, auction websites and other channels have made the photos more accessible to collectors around the world.
“I quickly realized that photos were much more interesting to me than cards. I actually don’t collect cards. Really, what I collect are photographs and real photo postcards, which is basically a photograph printed on the postcard and then mailed out,” he says.
Describing his book on his Deadball collection website, Chapman summarizes what he sees as the appeal of baseball photos from the early 20th Century: “These images are visual time machines that transport us back to those halcyon days when we romanticize that baseball was pure.”