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Sharp Eye in a Simpler Time
Mark Mandernach
May 13, 1996
George Brace's elegant photographs capture the golden era of baseball
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May 13, 1996

Sharp Eye In A Simpler Time

George Brace's elegant photographs capture the golden era of baseball

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George Brace seems to have lived a double life. To his neighbors in Chicago's Logan Square, he's the old man who used to work the swing shift at Durkee Famous Foods. But Brace had a second job, which began in 1929 when he was just 16. That summer he went to work for George C. Burke, who was the team photographer of the Chicago Cubs and White Sox.

From then until 1993, Brace photographed more than 10,000 major league baseball players at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, including 189 future Hall of Famers. He shot umpires, batboys, managers, coaches, owners, hot-dog vendors, members of the ground crew and everyone else who showed up to watch the national pastime, including players' wives and children, politicians and movie stars. To build his collection Brace also traded to accumulate more than 1.2 million negatives that document seven decades of baseball.

Only 376 of those images appear in The Game That Was: The George Brace Baseball Photo Collection (Contemporary Books, Inc., $35), but they speak eloquently of a simpler time in sports and in U.S. life. The compilation is the work of Richard Cahan, the picture editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, and Mark Jacob, the newspaper's Sunday editor. Cahan and Jacob culled photographs from Brace's collection during the baseball strike in the summer of 1994.

Brace photographed such heroes as Babe Ruth, Hack Wilson, Honus Wagner, Joe DiMaggio and Satchel Paige and lesser lights like Kiddo Davis, Bill Serena and Taffy Wright. "The Babe bragged a lot, but of course he could back it up," says Brace. " Lou Gehrig? He was a quiet man and so nice. He was my alltime favorite. Ted Williams, he was nice too. He loved to talk about photography. But you didn't talk to Ted while he had a bat in his hands, because that meant he was thinking about hitting."

Brace's collection is meticulously organized in several bulky filing cabinets. He has, for example, seven folders of negatives chronicling the 10-year career of outfielder Roy Cullenbine (1938-47) with the Cleveland Indians, the Detroit Tigers, the New York Yankees, the St. Louis Browns, the Washington Nationals and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and several more folders of pictures from Cullenbine's days as a minor leaguer.

"To accumulate and maintain that sort of collection over so many years is an amazing accomplishment," said Tom Heitz, who until recently was the chief librarian at the National Baseball Library & Archives in Cooperstown, N.Y. "The portraits of players like Gehrig and Ruth are wonderful. But what makes George's collection so special is the huge number of lesser-known players who had a cup of coffee [in the majors] on their way to oblivion."

In 1929 Brace was a teenage Cubs fan in a family of White Sox backers on Chicago's South Side. One day he read a newspaper article about Burke, who took photos not only for the Cubs and the White Sox but also for the NFL's Chicago Bears. Brace called Burke, who hired the young man as an assistant. Brace learned to take pictures with a Speed Graphic camera, helped set up shots for Burke, developed film and filed their photos. Players thought he was Burke's son and called him Burke Junior.

For the next 65 years Brace attended at least one game in each home series the Cubs and the Sox played, except during World War II. From 1942 to '45 Brace was in the Army and worked as a surgical technician in field hospitals in the Philippines and New Guinea. "When I got out of the service I picked up right where I left off," he says. Although Burke paid him a small salary, it wasn't enough to support his family, and he never made much money from the pictures. "I worked the swing shift at the plant so I could make the ball games. My wife, Agnes, isn't a big baseball fan, but she put up with me all these years. She makes rosaries, one a day for 37 years, all for charity."

In Brace's photos, pitchers take exaggerated windups and hitters wear expressions of fierce determination. Along with posed "action" shots of each of his subjects, Brace also took two head shots, one smiling and one serious. He photographed the players having fun, as in a dugout pose of Yankee sluggers Gehrig, Joe Gordon, Tommy Henrich, Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey taking aim down the barrels of their bats. He also shot game photos in the days when photographers were allowed in foul territory. "I was 20 feet away when Gabby Hartnett hit his homer in the gloamin' in 1938 to help the Cubs clinch the pennant," Brace says. "And in all the years, I only got hit with three foul balls."

After Burke suffered a heart attack in 1948, Brace took over the business, and when Burke died three years later, Brace inherited the collection. The two photographers sold many of their pictures to players, who used them to fill autograph requests. Gehrig ordered 100 prints at a time. Burke's and Brace's photos have been printed in a variety of baseball magazines, and they appeared on baseball cards put out by the old Ted Williams Card Co. Framed Burke and Brace prints also decorate the Chicago restaurant of Cubs announcer Harry Caray.

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