Hall of Famer
Forrest Yantis’ photographs step into the light
By Marc Katz
I don’t know how Troy’s Forrest Yantis made it onto the field, and neither do many of the people who work at baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where a trove of his exquisite back-and-white baseball portraits from the 1920s-’30s now reside.
Let’s just say regulations at baseball games in those days for print and photojournalists were more lax, and the work, while seemingly glamorous, probably wasn’t.
Yantis’s grandson, Kent Whitaker, offers a credible scenario of how his grandfather did it.
“He was a salesman,” says Kent, who now lives in the New York City area. “He was really good with people. He became good friends with people on the field.”
Forrest S. Yantis was an insurance salesman. As a hobby, he owned one of those old box cameras with a black-cloth drape. A person had to have a strong back and steady hands to hold and focus one of those.
One of the earliest and best known of those photographers was Charles M. Conlon, a New York Telegram proofreader, who also had a photo hobby. Not only did Conlon have the luxury of three nearby major league teams—the Giants, Dodgers, and Yankees—his career spanned from 1904 to 1942, considerably longer than that of Yantis, whose photos are only from about 1928 to 1938.
Yantis, born in 1902, died at 84 in 1986, and was a Defiance college graduate who loved the Cleveland Indians. As far as she knows, his daughter, Julia Whitaker—who with her late husband reared four children in Kettering—thinks the rest of his photo collection is all family-related.
Conlon (1868-1945), ironically, is a son of Troy as well, having grown up in upstate Troy, New York. I bring up all this now because Conlon’s pictures and negatives, widely used in the first half of the 20th century, have mostly been in the hands of private collectors and 7,500 remaining glass negatives were recently sold for $1.79 million.
By comparison, the Yantis collection includes 338 negatives, 3 ¼ by 4 ½ inches, and 95 large-format gelatin prints, most of them 16 by 20 inches. Even though a much smaller collection, the Yantis photos compare favorably to Conlon’s focus and clarity, and the subjects’ willingness to be photographed in relaxed poses.
“They’re fantastic images,” says Erik Strohl, the Hall’s director of acquisitions. “They capture a moment in time.”
The Hall obtained the photos and negatives from the Whitaker family in 2009 and put some of them on a nearly yearlong display in 2012. Today they are archived and copies can be purchased in a variety of sizes from the Hall’s website.
Strohl had seen donations from long-gone newspapers and other collections, but the Yantis collection took him by surprise.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “When you think of photographers of bygone eras, most of them worked for institutions, New York City newspapers; their morgues sent us those. To find something like he did, it only exists and we would only receive it if families saved it like the Whitakers did. Something that drops in your lap is something that never happens.”
A few years ago, Julia Whitaker noticed a dusty box underneath a bed after her mother died. She immediately recognized what was inside—a stack of 16-by-20-inch baseball portraits. Whitaker, a widow by then, wanted to know what to do with them, realizing their value but noting she and her children were more interested in establishing a legacy for her father rather than just pocketing some cash.
She made all this clear when I saw her dining room table spread with beautiful images of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Ty Cobb, Bob Feller and Earl Averill. There were even some National League photos of Rogers Hornsby and Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry and so many more, so Yantis must have also visited Cincinnati in an era of no inter-league play.
Julia wished she knew more about the photographs, but she was a young girl when they were taken and she often rode along with her father and mother to Cleveland in the days before interstates. Julia and her mother would be dropped off at a relative’s home in Shaker Heights, and her father would go to League Park, later Municipal Stadium, where he took pictures prior to day games.
Forrest would travel back to Troy, develop his pictures and make one for the feature ballplayer while keeping a copy for himself, many of which he had autographed, then displayed on his office wall.
“We all wanted to give them to the Hall of Fame,” Kent Whitaker says. “If they wanted them, they could have them.” Want them? The Hall was contacted and invited the Whitakers to Cooperstown. “We were there four hours,” Kent says of that initial meeting. The Hall raised funds to properly display some of the prints in 2012.
“It was a temporary exhibit,” Kent says. “It was a great day. A sunny day. It was a thrill for us. There was a reception at the hotel… And they made us lifetime members of the Hall of Fame. We weren’t expecting that.”
The Hall wasn’t expecting the Yantis Collection, either.
The views and opinions expressed in On Your Marc are the views and/or opinions of the author and do not reflect the views and/or opinions of the Dayton City Paper or Dayton City Media and are published strictly for entertainment purposes.