Leslie Jones: Superb Baseball Photos 1930-50

 ‘Timeless’ is never an apt description of an image; its essence is the opposite.

Major league baseball photos, more than any others, because they are almost always datable to a year, often to a season, sometimes to a day and more rarely – yet commonly – to a moment, a particular event in or around a game. The action pictures are … let’s just say remarkable.  

On April 8, the Boston Public Library (BPL) and The Boston Globe gave the Red Sox Nation a very special opening day present: a small sample of the 3000 baseball photographs of Leslie Jones.  The Globe presents a 40 image sample drawn from the 102 on the BPL’s FLICKR site. The Globe’s front pagestory on the Jones archive is well worth a read.
 These are fascinating, absorbing images containing much that is new to me.

One shows an injured Babe Ruth being carried off the field by four fellow Yankees and surrounded by somber teammates, all in dark warmup jackets looking like undertakers in white pants. A posed shot of four Yankee sluggers before a game reveals the Iron Man, Lou Gehrig, to have been slighter and shorter than Babe Ruth. My favorite of this type has an unidentified Boston Brave gazing upwards his hands posed as if for a basket catch.

 Oh, yes, and who knew the iconic Red Sox ‘B’ and jersey lettering originated with the Boston Braves?!

My favorite is of Red Sox catcher, Moe Berg, a 15-year journeyman reserve at the end of his career playing in front of nearly empty stands. He leans forward with his right hand covering the ball in his mit, as a Cleveland Indian slides at him, spikes showing, six feet away. It is an iconic moment acted by insignificant players in a meaningless game. 

I would find Jones’s images fascinating even if they were not as superb as they are. Jones had a gift for framing – as these uncropped pictures prove. He captures four Red Sox players putting on their spikes in front of primitive stalls for their clothes and gear. It brings to mind those 17th century Dutch paintings of guilds, like The Night Watch.
 The BPL has released only a small sample from 2881 baseball negatives Jones left at his death in 1967.  According to The Globe, in total Jones left more than 12 times that number of glass and film negatives.
Jones was born in 1886 in Cotuit on Cape Cod, today a lovely ocean side town dominated by summer homes and for two months each summer home to the Cotuit Kettleers of the Cape League. Then, it was a hard place. The Globe reports:
After [Jones’s] father died, he was sent to a trade school for orphans on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor. He was sponsored by the prominent Coolidge family, who bought him a camera one Christmas. It was, [Jones grandson] said, a “watershed event’’ for a young man whose first career as a metalworker ended when a machine sliced off several fingers on his left hand.

For 40 years until 1957, Jones was a staff photographer for The Boston Traveler and Herald-Traveler. Though he saved, it seems, all his negatives, he did not usually note their subjects or dates. However, he did recognize their historical value. His family honored his wish that they go to the BPL.The BPL, in turn, recognized the treasure it has. It has digitized 36,516 Jones negatives and over time will publish all on line. I’m looking forward to more surprises as they are released.


H/T: The family of Leslie Jones who saw this treasure safely into the BPL’s hands.

H/T: The Boston Globe for giving this story the coverage it deserves and to putting online a beautifully mounted and organized gallery of Jones’s pictures.

H/T: The Boston Public Library for committing itself to digitize the Jones Archive and to put it on line.

H/T: The Coolidge family of Boston whose kindness 110 years ago helped a boy to a productive life which led to enormous rewards for generations the donors couldn’t have foreseen.