Ball and chain: How an Indiana photographer created the MLB lockdown archival photos

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As usual, this baseball story begins in a Little League park.

It was at Arbuckle Acres in Brownsburg, Indiana, where a milestone in the evolution of baseball took place last December.

Because that’s where the Icon Sportswire photographer James Black first took pictures of a baseball and a bat connected by a huge chain and padlock.

And baseball stock photography would never be the same again.

“Absolute hero, this photographer,” Athleticism editor Tracy Greer wrote to me in a Slack message. “I can’t tell you how much time was spent trying to find generic photos during the 2020 (COVID-19) shutdown. Bless whoever came up with the idea for this.

The man behind the idea is said to be Tim Curlee, the co-founder and head of photo operations at Icon Sportswire, who emailed his photographers when the lockdown began on December 2.

“He kind of came up with the idea of ​​a chain and a padlock or something (that),” Black said in a recent phone conversation. “And then let us run with it.”

In an email, Curlee said his recommendation was inspired by similar footage from a previous NHL lockout.

“Part of being an editor is anticipating stories and photos that might illustrate them,” he wrote. “We jumped on the lockout quickly anticipating it might be long and knowing that editors might find them useful in illustrating the work stoppage.”

Labor stories have been a focus of baseball coverage since the Atlanta Braves beat the Houston Astros in the World Series, and like spring and early summer 2020, editors found themselves with wire service photos of orphaned gloves, helmets and bats to place at the top of their stories. A desperate baseball cap can tell a story, sure, but where’s the magic? Where’s the romance? Where is the giant chain that does absolutely nothing?

Black was in a bit of a rush that day. So he grabbed a bat from his garage, where he realized the padlock and chain he had was too dirty for pictures. So he stopped at a Meijer to pick them up, along with a clean, officially licensed baseball. And then he went to Arbuckle Acres, where he grew up playing baseball.

“I spent a few hours there, kind of moving the light around, trying to make it kind of cool and dramatic,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be flat and boring.”

It was a beautiful day in Indiana, which helped prepare for the shoot. Black admitted to receiving strange looks from people jogging and playing with their dogs. For amateur photographers, Black used a battery-powered stroboscope and his Nikon D750 with two different lenses.

Staged shots are a little strange for sports photographers whose minds and eyes are focused on quick reactions to the live action in front of them. That’s why it can be strange for spectators to watch them set up shots.


The ball has been carefully positioned in the photo to show “Major League Baseball”. (James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I love dramatic lighting,” Black said. “Especially for a situation like this with a lockout, because it’s a bit dramatic. You want to show a few details in the foreground to really draw your attention to what’s important.

Black came up with a few different looks. He had the ball between a lock and a bat, surrounded by a chain. He had the chain wrapped around the bat, he had the chain, ball and lock on home plate and he took wider shots of the ball, chain, lock and bat on the still green grass.

A legend is born. Black was the first to put the photos on the wires and his photos are on the Getty and AP Images websites. A search of their available archives shows none of these images from previous lockdowns, where photographers were content with pictures of locked doors and, in one case, Robin Yount and Rob Deer leading BP into a parking cage in jeans.


On March 6, 1990, Robin Yount and Rob Deer took a few cuts while they waited for the owners’ lockout to end. (Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)

In the months since Black’s creative breakthrough, the form has been tinkered with and possibly improved.

In early January, Icon Sportswire photographer David J. Griffin showed off a glove at the aesthetic in Atlanta, Georgia. Later that month, fellow shutter icon Rich Graessle, working in Lincroft, NJ, actually used the chain for its true purpose, wrapping one tightly around a base and locking it down.


On Jan. 28, a photographer relied on MLB’s previous art of locking while attempting to lock down a base. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But it was the photo of Black that appeared at the top of a CBS Sports article that caught the attention of Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich on Jan. 25.

“I thought it was kind of funny,” Black said. “It’s difficult in a situation like this. You have to find something to show a lockout, something that is rather difficult to show. But it’s kind of funny when people bring that out. Yeah, just lift the padlock and unlock the chain and first throw, let’s go.

These images also served to illustrate the absurdity of owners locking down their players while they craft a new CBA. A lockout does not happen by chance, of course. For the players, the photographs illustrate this unfortunate reality. Just lift the lock.

Black grew up in Brownsburg as a Cubs and Reds fan and although his sporting activity is primarily IndyCar and college basketball, he still follows baseball. And yes, he’s ready for those images to lack their usefulness, but he’s not done creating yet.

“I hope it won’t last and that at some point it will end,” he said. “But I definitely have a few ideas that I’ve been playing with for the end of the lockdown that maybe some places could use. Maybe a broken chain or an open padlock to show, hey, the lockdown is finally over, let’s play ball.

(Photo: James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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