Photo-op: How High? A Wall Street Journal review of The Sports Show.
Honus Wagner was among the best ever to play baseball—the winner of eight batting titles, he also six times led his league in slugging percentage. Yet he lacked the colorful life of a Cobb or a Ruth and might be less well known today were his tinted photograph not on the most valuable baseball card ever made: a 1½-inch-by-2½-inch piece of paper that brought $2.8 million at auction in 2007 (a century after its production). The rise of the celebrity athlete began in the 1880s, as photography rapidly became a mass medium. While radio and television now shape our memories of team sports, photography maintains its power to capture individual achievement. Think of Leni Riefenstahl's pictures of athletes, including Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics, or the image of Roger Bannister completing his four-minute mile in 1954. Gjon Mili's 1939 shot (above) of high jumper Clarke Mallery, frozen above the bar, captures that sport's tension between physical exertion and airborne ease and lets us glory
in the athlete's graceful conquest of space. David E. Little's 'The Sports Show' (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 302 pages, $49.95), a collection of candids, portraits and action scenes, brings us face to face with anonymous amateurs and world-famous figures from across the past century. The most intimate images may be those of boxing matches, studies in poise and pain. Here are stars—Louis, Graziano, Patterson, Ali—but also many so little remembered as to be unidentifiable. In one picture from the '40s, a KO'd boxer hits the canvas while a camera's saucer-like flash-reflector looms above, a conspicuous indicator of the photographers—and fans—always watching.