How to Do Baseball Research: Finding and Using Images for Publication Purposes

Pictures have become an integral part of most baseball books, magazine articles and research presentations. They help provide visual context for the places, people, and events described in the text. In addition, a group of well-chosen pictures can guide a story, can establish the context for a thesis, or create a story almost all by themselves. Images are most often used to elaborate or add to a text. The old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words is often true. With judicious use of the proper imagery, a story can be more visually appealing, provide the reader with a break from long sections of text and potentially benefit future researchers.

When determining the need for illustrations, authors often find themselves at odds with publishers. Many times publishers will insert an unattractive signature of photos that does very little to enhance the text. Authors should seek to provide readers with imagery that accompanies the storyline and is spaced throughout the text, even though picture quality may have to be sacrificed. In any case, most publishers of non-fiction have determined that their buyers expect pictures. In most situations, groups of images, organized in any number of ways, can bring a topic into focus. The more creative the use of imagery the greater the chance of conveying visual information effectively. A small number of pictures well placed will do more for the reader than a sheaf of overused, poorly printed or arranged photos ganged up in the middle of a book, forcing the reader to constantly flip back and forth between the text and the photographs.

The level of difficulty in the search for illustrations will be determined by several key factors: the number of images needed, the time period covered by the text, the relative rarity of the images and lastly, but certainly not least, the size of your photo budget. Let’s explore each of these limitations in more detail.

1. Number of Images Needed

Say you are putting together an article of original research for one of the annual SABR publications and you need to come up with eight to ten photos illustrating the various individuals discussed in the text. If all ten subjects enjoyed reasonably lengthy careers as players in the major leagues, you can be pretty sure your search will ultimately provide a nice selection of several dozen vintage images to choose from. However, if your text includes team executives, league officials or centers on obscure minor league players who never reached the major leagues, your search for accompanying images will prove far more elusive. Obviously the level of difficulty goes up dramatically, if say, you’re putting together a 200 page hardcover book project and your publisher has requested a total of 50 images for inclusion with the text. It is not inconceivable that you may end up searching through several hundred images in order to finally get the 50 or so photographs you need. Finally, if your objective is to produce a coffee-table style photo history which features 250 high quality images, you’re going to potentially need to troll through as many as several thousand images housed at a dozen or more different locations. And while 250 images may sound like a very reasonable number of images to secure, the number of private and public collections/archives you’ll need to troll through, either in person, on-line or by mail will surprise even the most resolute researcher.

2. Time Period Covered

No single factor, other than the limitations of an unreasonably small budget, will have more impact on your search for images than the era or time period you’re writing about. After all, the more narrow the focus of your research, the smaller the universe of potential images for you to choose from will be. If say, you’re writing about 19th-century subject matters, the lack of suitable photographic images will become readily apparent all too soon. Whether you prefer action shots or individual portraits, you may be forced to take what you can find given the severely shallow pool of available images from this time period. With the exception of so-called cabinet style posed studio photographs taken in the late 1880s and 1890s, the available universe of 19th-century baseball images is maddeningly finite. For until Charles Martin Conlon, Louis Van Oeyen, Paul Thompson and others began frequenting major league ballparks in the early days of the 20th century, no one had thought to document the colorful characters of the national pastime on a regular basis. In contrast, the golden days of the wire service photographers (from roughly the late 1920s–the late 1950s) provided researchers and baseball historians with an abundance of high quality, and often very unusual, images. So the scope and time frame of your subject matter will often determine how expansive a selection of images you will have to choose from.

3. The Rarity of the Images

As mentioned briefly earlier, certain baseball topics or subject matter were far better documented than others. For example, if your search is for the history and personalities associated with a Class D minor league operation from the 1920s in Louisiana that was only in existence for a few years, good luck running down photographic images to accompany your text. Short of the local daily newspaper in the area(assuming they have not already pitched the older portion of their photo library years ago), or perhaps the city or county historical society, your odds of unearthing more than a handful of usable images are pretty remote. The automatic call will certainly go to the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, but in cases like these, local or regional sources may prove more likely to produce pay dirt. Other broad subject matters like the Negro Leagues, barnstorming and semipro teams and the Federal League to name but a few often received little or substandard press coverage and thus, far too few usable photographic images remain on topics such as these. For high quality images involving subject matters as scarce as these, private collections are often your best bet.

4. Size of Budget

As you begin assembling your trove of usable images, you will quickly discover that the only thing that varies more than the quality of the photographic images themselves are the fees charged for the publication rights to use those images. The large photo houses such as Getty Images, Corbis/Bettmann or AP/Wide World, all of whom control the rights to millions of historic baseball (as well as other non-sports subjects) photographic images charge fees for publication usage based on, among other things, how the image will be used (print and electronic are often charged vastly different rates), the size of the image once published on the page and even how many images you’ll be using from them. For a project that needs more than a handful of images, the cost can escalate rapidly, often quickly eroding even the most generous budget. It is not unusual for the big photo houses’ pricing to begin at a minimum of $100 per image and go up from there. There have been research articles done by SABR members where the total cost of the photos used was next to nothing and there have been large photo-intensive books done by others where the rights fees ran into five figures. It all depends on the total number of images used and, almost as importantly, the source for those images.

Acquiring desirable images

Some photo sources offer only photographs that have been published many times before, producing a predictable look. Getting a fresh image, one which is either unpublished or unusual for any number of reasons, is far more preferable when making your choices. Nothing is more disappointing to hard-core baseball fans than opening a new book off the bookstore shelf only to discover that the images are the same old tired head shots they’ve seen elsewhere for decades. Inventive approaches can lead to useful discoveries, or to dead ends. For example, if the ten photos for your book are to be of Detroit Tigers’ players, you might want to contact the Detroit Public Library, which holds two or three baseball photo collections.

In many cases, you may not want to limit yourself to just photographs. Be sure to ask about any broadsides, advertisements, popular art, cartoons, pins, buttons, tickets, trading cards, scorecards, sheet music, ribbons, pennants, and banners can all be useful in making a visual statement. Sometimes these items turn up in collections other than baseball ones within repositories. It’s always worth a question, because maybe a group of sports scrapbooks was put together between 1903 and 1928 and is housed in sociological collections. Or you may find that an entire shelf of materials does indeed reside in a certain state's Historical Society, but in a branch located in a different city than the one in which you happen to be.

Another worthwhile inquiry has to do with whether the collection contains original bound volumes of newspapers. In some cases, these can be successfully photographed, if not too far decayed. Almost without exception, the printouts from microfilm printers are too poor to use. Since you are assembling as large a pool of potential images to choose from as possible, you must try to obtain not only a large quantity of images, but ones of high quality as well. Out-of-focus, overly dark or overly light pictures should be used only when desperately needed. Getting the critical mass of images together is the biggest job. So ask — and sometimes you will receive.

Reaching the collecting community

For a many projects of book length, no less than an all-out nationwide search will do. It will be necessary to make requests to every possible source, including all those mentioned above. In addition, private collections should also be accessed wherever possible. But beware of the territory you are entering and be prepared to be turned away. Collectors can have absolutely fantastic material, key items that can often help set your work apart from others on the same topic. But the attitudes and requirements of some collectors can create challenging situations. Many private collectors willingly share their materials, believing that sharing history is beneficial for all. But others fear the viewing of their holdings. They’re rightfully protective and don’t want the nature or contents of their collections to become public. There are even some who believe that original photos and original memorabilia will be devalued if reproduced in any publication. Reaching a mutually beneficial agreement with a collector who owns important pictures should be a top priority.

Let’s say your book is to be a pictorial history of the Chicago White Sox. This project would require approaching the Chicago Public Library, the Chicago Historical Society, the Chicago White Sox Baseball Club, the various agencies listed in the Chicago yellow pages under “Photographs — Stock,” the owners of the largest card and memorabilia stores to inquire about local collectors who might be helpful, and any sports clubs or organizations, particularly on the South Side.

The Illinois State Archives and State Library in Springfield might not only produce visual pieces but also open up some new leads in the southern part of the state. If you find other locations that may house such items as original old newspapers, a photo morgue from a Chicago paper, or files of importance from the team, make every effort to go visit.

Culling the herd

Next, you must make a series of cuts whereby the total number you have is whittled down to a publishable number. The pictures must be judged according to …

  • direct importance to your text
  • general historical importance
  • image quality (which includes tones, density, and clarity)
  • impact on your total budget

In going through the group, there will always be images that you particularly like. Trust your judgment, because if you find them attractive, others will also. Since these pictures will be scattered through the text, they must be able to stand alone, requiring no other visual reference to be understood. They must read very clearly and be placed and sized for maximum impact. A portrait, for example, is easy to work with, because the information it contains is simple. It can be easily read as a human form and can be included at almost any size, although huge is not usually a good idea. Conversely, a portrait can also be the dullest of all imagery, being static and predictable. When choosing an image with lots of information, you must plan to size it large enough to understand the detail. Where a head shot can be run very small, a shot of a sliding play at third base with a stadium crowd in the background cannot. This can lead to some frustration. Sometimes very fine pictures that work in every other way cannot be included because they do not read within the confines of a book page. Be willing to make some tough calls.

Remember, you will probably have to request far more photocopies, prints, transparencies and digital scans than you will end up using in your book. This is just a cost of doing business in a project like this. The more suppliers you deal with, the wider the variety of images you have to choose from and the result will be the improvement of the end product.

Choices, rights, and costs

Once your gigantic stack of photocopies is spread out around your workplace, you will first want to determine that you have proper representation for the time frame of your piece, with plenty of shots of all the key individuals involved in your story line. On larger projects, you will want to pay particular attention to colorful small items that can be used to jazz up a spread or to add information to an adjacent photo. This means pins and buttons, ribbons and lapel ornaments, matchbook covers and ticket stubs, decals and ice cream lids, box tops and Sunday comics, postage stamps and cigar bands — all of which can be easily woven into the pattern of a visual story. These should accompany the display and magazine advertisements, program covers, score sheets, plastic cups, ballpark souvenirs, bubble gum cards, stereo views, magic lantern slides, toy pennants, panoramic team shots, vignettes from club collages, board game boxes, and newspaper banner headlines.

After your initial cuts are made, you must order actual reproductions. Then, with copies of all images in hand, you will want to see how they look together. Did some of them actually look better as photocopies? The selection process can be complex and sometimes frustrating, but it can also be the most purely pleasing part of the process. Sometimes the ultimate choice between two photos comes down to something as simple as cost. But the legal quagmire you wade into each time you publish even a fifty-year-old image can quickly make even the most seasoned author justifiably nervous.

When you deal with Getty Images, AP/Wide World or Corbis/Bettman, you are paying the rights holder directly. But when you deal with libraries and collections holding images from all kinds of sources, it becomes your responsibility to determine the copyright status of the image and, if necessary, to make proper payment. You may receive disclaimers, in legalese, from some sources. These documents should give you pause. The possibility of copyright infringement in a project this complicated is fairly high, unless you take proper precautions and know the law. Agencies and other sources can give you guidance about a picture with an unknown copyright status, but the ultimate responsibility is yours. Before paying rights-to-reproduce fees to anyone in a major project like this, I would strongly advise a visit to a copyright lawyer in order to understand exactly what is necessary to insure proper crediting and payment for all images. Take care of this early in the process, certainly before you finalize your photo choices.

Once you have selected the photos, checked into reproduction rights, calculated the costs, and hopefully not exceeded your original budget, the ultimate decisions concerning the book’s layout will most likely be handed over to the publisher. Very few large book publishers allow their authors to control the layout and design process. The bigger publishing houses all have in-house design personnel to put together their releases. They’ve most likely contracted with you to deliver the finished manuscript, provide a certain number of images and organize the book in a general way. But the final say in execution normally belongs to them. None of this final discussion on layout/design, of course, applies to smaller research papers and self-published books.

In conclusion

The tasks described in these scenarios range from the relatively simple to the exceedingly difficult. Yet in each instance, appropriate imagery properly placed will enhance the text, progress the narrative and sometimes even help formulate a story line. Now that many authors are commonly called upon to acquire illustrations, you need at least a working knowledge of the complexities of the task. More pictures in a book will call for more thought, more research, more expenses, more creativity and potentially a longer time-line. As the number of images increases so, too, do the headaches involved in working through the process. By contrast, when you go to the trouble of finding the right pictures and give them their proper due in the layout, you will not only have a superior publication, you will have fun in the process, too.



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