September 23, 2015-By July 2011 I had been working on the Hall Ball for almost a year. I had traveled throughout eight different states and had visited the graves of sixty-four Hall of Famers. The one part of the project that I had not begun to address, however, was photographing the living players. With the upcoming induction of Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven and Pat Gillick, I decided the best place for me to begin was a visit to Cooperstown.
Induction weekend is a baseball fan’s dream, and potentially an agoraphobic’s nightmare. Depending on the year, the tiny town’s streets can be packed to capacity. I waded my way through the thick crowd and met with Sue McKay, the head of accessions at the Hall of Fame, to explain the project and see if the Hall would be able to help me with access to any of the players. Sadly, the Hall has a very strict policy regarding player contact and she stated it would be impossible. However, she said brightly, it was induction weekend, so I should just hit the streets and see who I could find.
As soon as I stepped into the bright sunshine I saw a cluster down the street in front of one of the town’s many restaurants. I wandered over and discovered what the fuss was all about. It was a Hall of Famer, all right. And not just any Hall of Famer. It was one of the most iconic, recognizable, beloved of all Hall of Famers. It was, of course, Yogi Berra.
Yogi was charging the usual autograph fees, but for dropping a small donation for local sports programs into the bucket in front of him, he was willing to pose for a picture. And that was how, with no fanfare and just minutes after learning I was on my own for the project, I took the first picture of a living member of the Hall.
He didn’t say much. I hadn’t perfected my rap yet (the brief speech I give each member when I approach them about getting the photo), so I simply asked for the picture and gave him no details. He obliged with a smile, his hat slightly askew, becoming the first of many players who were somewhat confused as to why I wanted just the picture and not their autograph to go with it.
Like every other decent American, I have always loved Yogi. He is, of course, a Yankee icon. But his final nine at bats in the majors took place in 1965 as a member of the Mets. He was the first base coach for the Amazins during their miracle season of 1969 and he took over managing duties upon the untimely death of Gil Hodges, leading the squad to the 1973 World Series. His contribution to New York baseball is unmatched.
His death yesterday marks the fourth time that a member of the Hall has died after I photographed them for the project. The others were Ralph Kiner, Tony Gwynn, and Ernie Banks. Each time this happens I say a prayer of thanks to the baseball gods for giving me the briefest of moments to observe these legends while I still had the chance. I repeated that prayer this morning.
I am often unhappy with the photos I’ve taken of living members. I am not a professional photographer and, in the staging of the photos, speed is of the essence. That means that each picture for The Hall Ball has been snapped with my iPhone, leading to mixed results in the relatively low light of a convention center. The photo of Yogi was taken outside, under the forgiving light of the sun, and is one of my favorite shots in the whole project. Crisp and clear, each line in the weathered face of a man who looks considerably like my own grandfather, helps tell his story.
A story, I may add, that will never be duplicated. Farewell, Yogi, and thanks.