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.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Eyewitness to History

One of the great sports photographs ever taken is this shot above. It was taken by Sports Illustrated's Neil Leifer at the second fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine in 1965. After knocking him down in the first round, the 23-year old Ali stood over his vanquished opponent yelling "get up!"

I've had a print of the famous photo hanging in my office for years, and one of the elements that has always captured my attention is the photographer standing at ringside. He appears in this shot just between Ali's legs. The faces of the other ringside photographers are hidden because their cameras are in front of their faces. But not the balding gentlemen in glasses. At one of the biggest moments in sports history, he's just watching while his colleagues are snapping away.

I don't know who this gentleman is, and I've never made any particular effort to find out, but I think about him every time I see the photo.

Yesterday (January 17) was Ali's 65th birthday, and as part of their coverage, the folks at Sports Illustrated published a gallery of photographs from his fights at their website. As I was browsing through it, I came across the mystery photographer again in this photo.

I'm pretty sure it's the same guy at ringside again. This shot is from a fight eleven years later, the third meeting between Ali and Ken Norton. And once again, while all of his colleagues are shooting away, his camera is idle as he watches.

So now I'm intrigued, and I've started looking at both still photos and DVDs of bouts from the era to find more examples of the mystery man. Like Forrest Gump, he was an idle spectator at great moments in history. Who was he? More importantly, did he ever take any pictures?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Old Cardboard

Every kid of my generation grew up collecting baseball cards. It was just the thing that we did. We'd trade them with our friends, each having different motivations for why we wanted certain cards. Some collected their favorite players. Others wanted a complete set for their favorite team. I suppose a lot of us just wanted to get the cards of the game's star players.

For me, the cards formed a handy reference collection. I loved listening to baseball games on the radio at night. As Cincinnati Reds play-by-play man Marty Brennaman called out the lineups, I'd shuffle through my box and pull out the card of the man whose action he was describing. Much of what I know about geography came from reading the players' hometowns on the back of those cards and finding the cities on my wall map. Twenty-five years later, I can still recall the small towns that some of those players came from... places like Donora, PA (Ken Griffey), Binger, OK (Johnny Bench), and Bonham, TX (Joe Morgan).

None of us collected cards because we thought they were worth money. Sure, they had some value to us in the way that any of a twelve year old kid's possessions do, but that was an intrinsic value, not a monetary value. That all changed by the mid-eighties, when collecting sports cards became a big business. While there was once just one company -- Topps -- selling cards, suddenly there were several, and as the competition grew, the market was quickly flooded. As Dave Jamieson recounts in a recent article at Slate, things went downhill from there.
Baseball cards peaked in popularity in the early 1990s. They've taken a long slide into irrelevance ever since, last year logging less than a quarter of the sales they did in 1991. Baseball card shops, once roughly 10,000 strong in the United States, have dwindled to about 1,700. A lot of dealers who didn't get out of the game took a beating. "They all put product in their basement and thought it was gonna turn into gold," Alan Rosen, the dealer with the self-bestowed moniker Mr. Mint, told me.
Rosen describes a fellow dealer struggling to unload 7,000 Mike Mussina rookie cards. Ten years ago the 1991 cards might have fetched $8 to $10 a piece, but now the dealer couldn't find a taker at $0.25. Folks who viewed baseball cards as investments have grown to be sorely disappointed, as have the folks who were going crazy for beanie babies a few years ago. For the rest of us, the cards have more value as a bit of nostalgia, a pleasant reminder of our youth. It's one of the few artifacts we're likely to have hung on to, and I wouldn't sell mine for any price.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Best Show in Football

The Cleveland Browns were founded in 1946, and over the next ten years they dominated professional football. As charter members of the All-American Football Conference, the Browns won four straight league championships with a record of 47 wins, 4, losses, and 3 ties. They joined the National Football League in 1950, continuing their dominance by advancing to the NFL Championship game in six straight seasons, winning three times.

That record by itself is enough to make a strong case for this Browns team as the greatest dynasty in football history. In a new book called The Best Show in Football, author Andy Piascik bolsters that case by examining not just their accomplishments, but the methods that made them stand head and shoulders above their competition.

Much of that success stemmed from the innovations of head coach Paul Brown. He pioneered the use of game film to study opponents. He was the first to have a full-time staff of assistant coaches. He studied play-calling tendencies and adopted the practice of scripting plays at the beginning of the game. He introduced the use of messenger guards to relay plays from the sidelines. A list of Brown’s innovations could go on and on. Most of the things that professional coaches do today derive from practices that he pioneered.

Piascik argues that all of those innovations pale in comparison to an innovation that seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time was incredibly difficult: the addition of African American players. A year before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Paul Brown signed two African Americans to his 1946 squad, fullback Marion Motley and guard Bill Willis. While Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey made great headlines in 1947 by breaking baseball's color line, Paul Brown's move came with little fanfare. Piascik writes:
Although Brown was probably as certain of his rightness in all things as Branch Rickey or anyone else who ever lived, he was also different from Rickey in important ways. He never considered himself a crusader on the race issue, nor did he do anything to call attention to his role in breaking the color barrier in sports. As Jim Brown put it, Brown "integrated football the right way -- and no one was going to stop him.

"Paul Brown integrated pro football without uttering a single word about integration," Jim Brown said. "He just went out, signed a bunch of great black athletes, and started kicking butt. That's how you do it. You don't talk about it." Paul never said one word about race."
In the two years that I've been researching my new book, I've read more than a hundred books on football history. "The Best Show in Football" may be the most important one I've come across. Piascik tells some fascinating stories about the great players in Cleveland, but more significantly, he tells the story of how collectively, they reached heights that no other team before or since has attained. They didn't just play well, they changed the way everybody else played the game.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Beckham Arrives

British soccer star David Beckham announced this week that he was coming to the United States to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy. His five-year contract is reportedly worth $250 million, though most of the money is likely tied to endorsement deals. Major League Soccer hopes that his arrival will help increase their fan base. MLS Commissioner Don Garber said: "His decision to continue his storied career in Major League Soccer is testament to the fact that America is rapidly becoming a true 'Soccer Nation' with Major League Soccer at the core."

That, my friends, is what we call wishful thinking. While soccer remains the most popular participatory sport for kids, Americans have never embraced it as a spectator sport. Michael Mandelbaum, best-selling author of The Meaning of Sport, suggests a number of reasons for this. The biggest one? Americans already have other sports that they like to watch.
Even in as large and wealthy a country as the United States, where the national appetite for playing, and even more so for watching, games is enormous, the cultural, economic and psychological space available for sport is limited and that space is already taken. Baseball, American football and basketball have long since put down deep roots, claimed particular seasons of the year as their own (although they now overlap) and gained the allegiance of the sports-following public.

The idea of bringing soccer to center stage by importing a foreign star isn't a new one. The New York Cosmos tried the same thing in 1975 when they signed Brazilian superstar Pelé. There was a brief surge in interest, but Pelé played just three seasons before retiring, and within a few years both the Cosmos and the North American Soccer League folded.

One difference between that case and this one is that Beckham speaks English. He'll be much more accessible to the press, and he has a charisma that makes him a huge celebrity outside the world of soccer. Unfortunately, unlike Pelé, Beckham is no longer a great player. A day before the move was announced, Phil McNulty of BBC Sport offered this opinion:

[Beckham] in recent times gave the impression of a once outstanding player whose days at the top were done. And he did little at last summer's World Cup to dispel that theory. Beckham appears to have made an intriguing choice about his future. It seems he has effectively admitted his serious career is finished and so has opted for a last slice of the showbiz lifestyle in the United States.