Monday, January 22, 2007

Finding Herb Scharfman

After reading my article on the mystery boxing photographer, several readers wrote in to offer leads. Rock Hoffman told me that the man was featured in a 2002 HBO documentary called "Picture Perfect: The Stories Behind the Greatest Photos in Sports." That was enough information to crack the case, and I quickly learned that the photographer who appeared ringside in those two legendary boxing photos was the late Herb Scharfman.

As Neil Leifer tells it, Sports Illustrated often sent two photographers to cover boxing matches. At the Ali - Liston rematch, the two men assigned were Leifer and Scharfman. "He was one of the greats," Leifer said in an NPR interview, "but on that night, he was in the wrong seat." In his autobiography, Leifer expanded on those thoughts.
It didn’t make a difference how good he was that night. He was obviously in the wrong seat. What the good sports photographer does is when it happens and you’re in the right place, you don’t miss. Whether that’s instinctual or whether it’s just luck, I don't know.
Scharfman -- who died in 1998 -- began his career in 1939 as a motorcycle messenger for International News Photos in New York. In need of a photographer to cover a Brooklyn Dodgers game one afternoon, the photo editor called on Scharfman because he happened to own a camera. The shots must have turned out alright, because he continued taking photographs for the next 44 years. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he became friends with many New York baseball players, including Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Sandy Koufax and Ralph Branca.

He continued to shoot for International News Photos until they went out of business, at which point he joined the staff of Sports Illustrated. Among his body of work are two iconic sports photographs. The one that is perhaps most well known is his image of Roger Maris (at right) immediately after hitting his 61st home run in 1961. Scharfman spent that season following Maris as he chased Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, producing a number of classic photographs that not only chronicled the events on the field, but the crushing burden that Maris faced off the field. Sports Illustrated re-published some of this pictures in an online gallery in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were engaged in their own quest for a new home run record.

The other unforgettable picture Scharfmann took was of a punch delivered by a young boxer named Rocky Marciano in 1952 (at left). It was snapped at the instant that Marciano's glove impacted the jaw of Jersey Joe Walcott, the world heavyweight champion. The force of Marciano's blow is captured on Walcott's face, as a wave of energy appears to visibly distort the shape of his face. For twelve rounds, the champ had his way with Marciano, but that all changed with one punch. Walcott fell slowly to the canvas, and after the referee's ten count, Marciano was crowned as the new champion. Scharfman's perfectly timed photo captured the startling punch.

Between 1963 and 1972, Scharfman's pictures appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated fourteen times. His subjects included Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, and Tom Matte.