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Little Man with Big Camera
Jeff Pearlman
October 06, 1997
Izzy Kaplan took pictures in an era when buffoonery was practiced as an art
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October 06, 1997

Little Man With Big Camera

Izzy Kaplan took pictures in an era when buffoonery was practiced as an art

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"Are you sure there's nothing else?" asked the Imperial Wizard.

"Oh, yas!" said Kaplan, taking the hotel notes from his pocket. "I'm having a leedle trouble wit your boys. Could I have, mabbe, a pass wheech they shouldn't bother me?"

Evans didn't hesitate, pulling out a piece of paper and a pen. "To all Klansmen," he wrote. "Do not bother Israel Solomon Kaplan."

Some 75 years later a tiny green suitcase reminds us that the notes, all four of them, were written by a group of mischievous journalists in town—that the Tribune editors had no idea that their photographer was mingling with the Klan. The episode, retold countless times by the giddy pranksters, became part of Izzy's legend. We are reminded of the time Izzy Kaplan posed in New York Yankees catcher's garb. Of the time he asked the New York Giants manager why his team's stadium was called "da Polish Grounds." Of the time he asked Queen Marie of Romania—calling her "Queenie"—to lift her skirt. We are reminded of one of the most engaging U.S. sports photographers of all time, and how he has been almost forgotten.

"There are a lot of stories about Israel," says Annette Wolfe, 72, Kaplan's niece and one of his few remaining relatives who knew him. "He was very well known, you know." This past tense brings us to the suitcase. For nearly 50 years, since Kaplan died at 63 on April 4, 1949, Wolfe, a resident of Queens, N.Y., has kept her uncle's legacy locked up under her bed like a schoolgirl's diary. The dust-covered green box is his last real link to fame.

In it are hundreds of Kaplan's photos, negatives and glass slides depicting the sports stars of his time, from Sugar Ray Robinson to Joe DiMaggio to Yogi Berra to Sid Luckman. When Babe Ruth made his fabled farewell appearance at Yankee Stadium, in 1948, Kaplan's picture of it was on the back page of the Mirror, which was a tabloid paper. There is Joe Louis defending his world heavyweight title at Madison Square Garden in '39, and there are NFL championship games. Some of the shots are serious: team photos, right jabs to the head, a check into the boards. Others are not: Kaplan drenched in fake blood; the Yankees wearing mismatched equipment, the pitcher with a catcher's mitt and a chest protector. Although Kaplan took the occasional picture of a Queen Marie, most of the photos in the suitcase are of his main love: sports. "He was always involved," remembers Wolfe. "I believe going to games and being with players were his favorite things in the world."

Newspaper clippings also take up space in the suitcase, mostly columns by Dan Parker, the Mirror writer who regularly used the colorful Kaplan as a character in his column about the New York sports scene. The clippings are yellowed, but most are still legible. They tell some amazing long-lost tales about the era.

Wolfe, who was a girl during her Uncle Izzy's prime, pleads negligence to the charge of hiding his work under her bed. "I always knew it was there," she says. "But since my last name isn't the same as his, no one ever asked about Izzy. There was never a reason to take the pictures out." So they sat. And sat. Recently Annette's sons, Ira and Allan Wolfe, dug through the suitcase, finding both a key to their past and, as Ira puts it, "some really, really cool stuff. He was an interesting guy. It's sad that people don't know about him anymore. He wasn't your ordinary photographer."

Not even close. Born in Lithuania in 1895, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1912, making the journey by himself and settling in New York City. Later his parents and three sisters joined him. He eventually got into the newspaper trade because, as he often said, it seemed like an easy way to make a living. He served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army in World War I, then was hired by The New York Tribune, one of a dozen major dailies in the city, before joining the Daily Minor in 1925. He was never a great photographer. "He was slow," says Bob Wendlinger, 75, who was a freelancer for the Minor in the '40s, "but he would usually get the good picture anyway." In fact Kaplan was as much an unintentional comedian as a newspaperman. "He was a complete slob," Wendlinger says, laughing. "He would have a jacket from one outfit, a vest from another and pants from another."

"He was always chomping on a big cigar," adds Leon Hoffman, 82, another Minor photographer.

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