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A golden era, caught for all

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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Days before the first pitch of the 1939 baseball season, a sharp-eyed Boston news photographer pointed a camera at a 20-year-old rookie with big ears and freckles. The kid’s new Red Sox uniform hung off his scrawny frame, making him look like a boy wearing a man’s suit.

That moment was preserved by the shutter. The photographer, Leslie Jones, scribbled “Red Sox player’’ as a caption and squirreled the negative away in his Dorchester basement, where he kept tens of thousands of images from his life as a newspaper cameraman.

The kid, researchers have discovered, was Ted Williams. His Hall of Fame career stretched 19 seasons, but the image taken five days before his major league debut remained trapped on a negative — until now.

Today, the Boston Public Library will publish on the Internet the first 100 of a trove of nearly 3,000 rarely seen baseball photographs taken by Jones, who worked for the Boston Herald and the Boston Traveler from 1917 to 1956.

“It’s just breathtaking to see Ted Williams literally just days before he’ll play his first major league game,’’ said Mark Stang, a baseball historian from Tampa who has written seven books tracing the game’s pictorial past and helped the library on the Jones project. “But here he is, this skinny, kind of angle-y, gawky kid with a uniform that doesn’t fit him properly.’’

Digitized after decades in storage, the library collection offers an intimate window into what many call the golden age of baseball. One image captures Babe Ruth landing on his backside in 1934, the New York slugger brushed off the plate by an inside pitch. Another shows Ed “Bull’’ Durham in the clubhouse with his Red Sox teammates in 1932.

The lineup included Bobby Doerr, Lou Gehrig, Dizzy Dean, and Goose Goslin. Reds All-Star pitcher Bucky Walters made a cameo in a Red Sox uniform when he was a struggling outfielder, long before he took to the mound. In 1955, Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall posed with Willie Mays the day the New York Giants came to Boston for a midseason exhibition game.

The first batch of snapshots was released to coincide with today’s Opening Day at Fenway Park. Library staff plan to upload several dozen more images each week until all 2,881 photos are online.

The project is part of a broader initiative by the library to give the public unfettered access to Jones’s entire archive of tens of thousands of images. He photographed car wrecks and ice-crusted fishing trawlers; shot luminaries like Albert Einstein and Amelia Earhart; and covered an epic 1927 flood in Vermont, where Jones managed to get himself deputized by local authorities.

The baseball images stand apart. Jones went beyond balls and strikes, capturing personalities and following players off the field. He accompanied Ruth to the train station, for instance, and Lefty Grove to his hotel room.

“In a way, they are almost like family photos,’’ said Aaron Schmidt, who worked with the collection at the library for 17 years. “He was intimate with these guys — he knew them.’’

For Jones’s descendants on the South Shore, the images are family photos. Chuck Cullum, the oldest of Jones’s grandchildren, often tagged along with “Pop Pop’’ on assignments, especially to Fenway Park. His first ballpark memories date to 1947, when his grandfather took a photograph of the 3-year-old Cullum being held aloft by Williams and Joe Cronin. Jones persuaded editors to print the image in the paper with the caption: “Sox check out new prospect.’’

Pop Pop sneaked Cullum out of school for big games, and the boy got to know luminaries from across the league, sharing a sandwich, for example, with Casey Stengel. In 1957, as Williams flirted again with a .400 batting average, the gruff superstar ignored the pleas of a horde of cameramen begging him to hold still for a picture, until Jones approached and asked if he would pose with his grandson.

“Ted looked over and said, ‘Come on, Chucky,’ ’’ recalled Cullum, now 66 and living in Scituate. “That was the biggest moment of my life. Ted Williams knew my name.

“I felt like I was in kid heaven.’’

Jones was born in 1886 in Cotuit on Cape Cod. After his father died, he was sent to a trade school for orphans on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor. He was sponsored by the prominent Coolidge family, who bought him a camera one Christmas. It was, Cullum said, a “watershed event’’ for a young man whose first career as a metalworker ended when a machine sliced off several fingers on his left hand.

The camera offered a career path for Jones, who became a fixture at news events. He wore a scally cap and a trench coat his wife rigged with 10 pockets for film and lugged suitcase-size cameras under each arm. At first, Jones worked with negatives made of glass about half the thickness of a window pane. By the mid 1930s, however, he switched to film.

“He kept every negative of every picture he took,’’ Cullum said, describing his grandfather’s basement workshop, where boxes crammed with glass and film filled closets and cabinets. “He didn’t have any kind of filing system, but if he wanted a picture of something he could find it.’’

After Jones died in 1967, his family honored his final wish and donated a truckload of his negatives to the Boston Public Library so people would have access to his life’s work. Some images had been published in The Herald and The Traveler, both predecessors of the Boston Herald, but many were outtakes seen only by Jones. The collection was kept in a library storeroom the length of a football field, and there were weeks when only one or two people came to dig through the boxes.

“We used to actually allow people to come in and go through the negatives — the glass negatives — wearing gloves,’’ Schmidt said. “We had no way of giving people access to the collection.’’

In 2008, Jones’s family embraced an effort to digitize the collection to give more people access to their grandfather’s work, despite risks of copyright infringement. The library began the tedious task of transforming all 36,516 negatives into digital images. It took 20 months, said Tom Blake, manager of the library’s digital collection.

“What is happening now is what my grandfather would have wanted to happen,’’ Cullum said. “To keep his work accessible to whoever wanted to see it.’’

But thousands of digital photographs could be overwhelming without dates and descriptions. Jones kept some notes, but often his scribbles were as simple as “baseball’’ or “Red Sox.’’ That was before the Society for American Baseball Research stepped in.

Stang, the baseball author and a longtime member of the group, discovered Jones’s work while researching an upcoming book about Fenway. He enlisted a dozen fellow researchers in Seattle, Chicago, and other locales, and they began scrutinizing the old photographs on a password-protected website.

The group identified obscure players and pinpointed dates by studying, for example, subtle changes in uniforms. They swapped details on a Web-based spreadsheet that allowed for spirited arguments about the significance of a style of socks or a particular shoulder patch. The end result was a searchable database that will allow people to instantly find that 1937 image of Moe Berg reaching for a runner diving into home.

“I like to refer to myself as a baseball archeologist,’’ Stang said. “It’s my job to go in and find records of the game’s past and bring them back to light for people who appreciate the history and the beauty of a simple black-and-white photograph.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.

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