SABR Salute: Mark Rucker

Editor’s note: The SABR Salute, first bestowed upon writer Fred Lieb in 1976, was designed as a manner of recognizing the contributions of some of the older members of the Society. Subsequent SABR Salutes appeared in the SABR Membership Directory and honored members who had made great contributions to baseball historical research. Mark Rucker received the SABR Salute in 2001; the following biographical sketch appeared in that year’s membership directory.

Baseball consciousness in Mark Rucker’s life was introduced at a very early age. If he had been born somewhere else, things would have been different. But starting out on the south side of Chicago, in the middle of the 20th century, led to one life-long burden, that of being a Sox fan. But after living under the weight of this for a number of years, he became a baseball fan as well.

On a parallel track, Mark’s interest in pictures grew from working relationships with crayons, then with pencils, then oil paints, then photography, with a period for welded steel sculpture along the way. He was finally able to marry his visual pursuits with baseball when his Masters thesis in painting presented an Americana theme with a twist, using baseball card iconography. A ten year career making paintings and drawings professionally was supplemented by a fascination for antique imagery of all kinds. When he discovered a baseball tintype from the 1870s at a flea market, new gears turned. Not long thereafter in 1982 John Thorn brought him into SABR, first to provide a few photos for the first The National Pastime, and then to work on the magazine. Following that, Thorn and Rucker inaugurated the Nineteenth Century Committee, which broke new ground in the Society.

With the flow of antique imagery getting deeper and swifter by the mid 1980s, Mark decided to record every visually or historically important picture that passed through his hands. So, in 1986 he started Transcendental Graphics (T.G.) while living in Saratoga Springs, New York. With steady retro-progress, the picture archive at T.G. began to move into the 20th century, until all eras, including the modern one, were included in the files. Most captivating were the images from the most obscure and wonderful corners where the game was played. Be it the House of David, a Mansfield Ohio, town team, Negro Leaguers playing in Latin America, or a Babe Ruth barnstorming candid; all were acquired out of delight, and the hope that they might someday be useful.

Nineteenth Century exploration has been a kick. It was a trip into uncharted territory, which has now been opened up forever. There will always more to discover, but nothing now can equal the excitement of the discoveries made in the 1980s. 1989 brought a collaboration with legend, Lawrence Ritter, and The Babe: A Life In Pictures became the first in a series of picture biographies that Rucker would work on. From 1990 to 1994 he served as a Director on the SABR Board, witnessing some of the most difficult and most productive events in the Society’s history.

In 1991 Ken Burns brought Rucker into his Baseball Film Project to serve as Visual Consultant. He provided a wide selection of photographic imagery for the early chapters of the film, and also researched the necessary and hard-to-find images demanded in all parts of the story. This exposure further expanded the business. T.G. has provided objects and pictures for Hollywood movies; imagery or ongoing ESPN productions and other documentary broadcasts, pictures for over a hundred books; and artifacts for exhibition internationally.

Chance brought an opportunity to visit Cuba with son Kriston, who was fluent in Spanish. A new world of baseball appeared before him, as well as a visual tradition and history as rich as any known before. Without any expectations or a previous working knowledge of the subject, a publishing project was welcomed by the Cubans. This was as good as the good old 19th-century days, but the learning curve was even greater. This work, with writer Peter C. Bjarkman, resulted in the first pictorial history of Cuban baseball, Smoke: The Romance And Lore Of Cuban Baseball. In addition, a Latinoamericano archive was started, including a strong Negro League representation, all objects and pictures originating in Cuba.

Mark has recently taken over the chair of the Pictorial History Committee, following founder Tom Shieber. Mark is gratified that picture research has grown in importance and breadth, but not satisfied. But he also knows that there are more adventures awaiting the picture researcher. And, there are more books to be made from those discoveries.

Mark lives with his supportive wife Alison Moore and daughter Caitlin in Boulder, Colorado.

Related link: In 2010, Mark Rucker was recipient of the Bob Davids Award, SABR’s highest honor.


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