Minor league parks, big league photography

Donor provides Hall of Fame with a unique look at the minors

June 24, 2010
This photo is among the collection donated by Gary Jarvis to the Hall of Fame. (Gary Jarvis/National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Picturesque.

It’s a word often used to describe minor league ballparks, due to their intimacy, charm, and a sense of Americana. Gary Jarvis wholeheartedly agrees, and the photographer spent more than a decade capturing those kind of images all over the country.

Jarvis recently donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame 4,122 photographs and negatives that he shot of 162 minor league ballparks between 1992 and 2005. Jarvis’ extraordinary collection will become part of the Hall’s photo archive – a significant addition to our 500,000-plus archival photographs on all aspects of baseball and its history.

Jarvis grew up in New Jersey, a Mets fan. While making a road trip to see several Midwestern big league ballparks in 1992, Jarvis decided to visit the “Field of Dreams” movie set in Dyersville, Iowa, during an off day. Moving on toward St. Louis, he decided to stop in Clinton, Iowa, for his first minor league game.

“It was just so beautiful. The park was built in 1937, I think, and it had this art deco façade, old wooden box seats that were rumored to have been sent there by a parent club – probably the Cubs,” Jarvis said. “We went up to the ticket window and asked for box seats. For $3.50 we got seats in the front row, right next to the dugout, and it sounds corny, but I instantly fell in love. I thought it was wonderful.”

Jarvis would return to Iowa several years later as a Ph. D. candidate in history at the University of Iowa – not too far from Clinton, and he is now Dr. Gary Jarvis, as of 2009. His wife, Kate, is a librarian, and both understand the value of a strong historical record in a museum and library like that of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. But before embarking on his history studies, Jarvis sought to see the country and its minor league ballparks.

Another shot from Gary Jarvis's collection that now resides at the Hall of Fame. (Gary Jarvis/National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)“I had just a few rules,” he says. “First, it was all about the baseball for me. I would never shoot a ballpark unless I was going to a game. I took no shots between innings – there always had to be action on the field. I just tried to show what it felt like for an average fan to attend a game in each of these locations, to see the game and also explore the place.. Second, I never announced myself – never told anyone I was coming or got press credentials.”

“I wanted to see the old parks first, before they were torn down or abandoned by their teams,” he adds, noting that one reason he has slowed way down at visiting minor league ballparks is that they are beginning to resemble one another a bit to closely for his taste. “The old places had more charm,” he notes.

His status as a graduate student also ate into his ballpark traveling time.

“ I set out to see baseball,” Jarvis said. “It was always about the baseball for me.”

Seeing games was the main goal, and photography went along well with that. “Plus,” he adds, “in the pre-internet era, it was hard to know what these places were like unless you went to them. You couldn’t just look them up online.”

Jarvis’ photographs are both artistic and documentary in nature. Because he was often getting his shots developed while on the road, sometimes at photo shops but often at drugstores, he was occasionally unhappy with the color values that were returned from the darkroom. This is why he has decided to donate all of the negatives as well, so that the Hall can preserve them and develop them to their true color values.

“One of the fabulous things about the collection is that Gary organized it and provided a detailed, item-level inventory,” said Jenny Ambrose, the Museum’s assistant photo archivist. “The inventory includes the geographic location, name of the stadium, home team, league, and level as well as the date the image was taken. The value of the collection for research is greatly enhanced by the excellent documentation he provided with the photographs. You can certainly tell that Gary is a historian and his wife is a librarian, by the way this collection is organized.”

Once it is cataloged, the Hall will have Jarvis’ stadium shots available for exhibit use and the use of the public in exhibitions, websites and publications. Interested researchers will also be able to see the material by making appointments at the Giamatti Research Center. “I’m just glad to give them a good home,” says Jarvis.

Tim Wiles is the director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum