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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Conlon Collection: A TCIC Feature Post

Most likely the first great baseball action photograph ever.
Charles Conlon was a proofreader in New York, but its his photography that made him famous. Over the course of several decades, he photographed the game from the field, something that isn't allowed today.
A photographer is seen on the other side of Babe Ruth, just a few feet away. (Not a Conlon photo.)
While several of the photographs you see see of his are of stars, he also shot portraits of many of the lesser-known players. In all, around 8400 glass plate images survive today, despite Conlon's own efforts at reducing the clutter of his collection by destroying several hundred.
His photography has been published for over a century now, but the first set devoted solely to his work wasn't released until 1981. The Sporting News released a 100 card set that year, and several other sets over the next decade followed. In 1991, the series was rebooted with a new 330 card set featuring his photography. Most of the cards feature portrait photography on the front, as you see above, while the backs generally contain career statistics and a short biography. Several of the cards in the first issue were attached to subsets, such as MVPs, Hall of Famers, trivia, and 1927 Yankees.
The set was a big hit, and would see four more series released, totaling 1430 cards over five years. Some of the cards would be issued in 8x10 versions or as parallels with coloring or other enhancements. The 1994 release had a full parallel set with burgandy borders. 1995 had an insert set linking Ken Griffey Jr. to stars of the past. More subsets would be included, highlighting players' first cards, no-hitters, nicknames, triple crown winners, spitballers, 1919 White Sox, brothers, action photos, and overcoming difficulties.
The original 1991 set is very easy to find, issued in wax packs and complete sets. The 1992-1994 series are also fairly easy to find, though the 1994 series was printed in far less quantity. The real challenge comes in obtaining the 1995 set. I've managed to find a few of the Griffey Jr. inserts but I have not yet come across a base set at an affordable price. It stands out from the rest of the series with gold foil stamping and dark green borders instead of black.

This set is cool because it provides cards for several players who either never received a card or whose cards at the time were unattainable. It also showcases an outstanding collection from one photographer who was a pioneer in his field. I built several of the series by hand, but a set-lot purchase last year provided me with several extras that were extremely useful in building my awards collection, because the set is a great collection of stars from the early stages of major league baseball. Several of the cards, especially the subsets, provide a wealth of history for collectors to learn, and almost every image shows early uniforms, equipment, and ballfields.

The design was just right for its time - a simple black and white design for the black and white photos, with plenty of information in the statistics and write-ups on the back.

It's been over 15 years since the last Conlon release. Should an affordable new release be announced, I would be one of the first to chase a set. It's just that cool.


  1. Cool pics and great information!

  2. I have about two-thirds of the cards and love them. I've used a bunch of them in my birthday posts.