Sports Collectors Digest: John Durant

By Marty Appel

I have a feeling we are going to see baggy baseball uniforms again in my lifetime. Or maybe in yours.

Call it the “whatever goes around” syndrome, but they can only be tight or baggy, and it just seems to me that the black culture or the Latin culture are going to bring this to baseball just as Chris Webber and his teammates at Michigan changed the look of basketball uniforms in the early ‘90s.

Baseball players have worn the form fitting uniforms since Giants teammates Tito Fuentes and Willie Mays took their pants to a San Francisco tailor in the mid ‘60s and had them recut. Then when double knit uniforms replaced flannels in 1972-73, making the players look faster and sleeker, we were on our way.

I was thinking about this the other day while looking at some great old picture books of baseball histories by John Durant.

Durant had a gift for book design, photo research and writing. There was a special appeal to his presentation, and he may have been helped by an association with legendary photo archivist Otto Bettmann, with whom he did a 1952 book called “Pictorial History of American Sports, from Colonial Times to the Present.”

Durant did a lot of pictorials, including “Pictorial History of American Presidents “(with his wife, Alice), “The Sports of Our Presidents”, “Predictions”, “The Heavyweight Champions”, “Highlights of College Football”, and “History of the Olympics from Ancient Times to the Present.”

But his foundation was baseball, and in 1947, he produced “The Story of Baseball in Words and Pictures”, a book so nicely received, he continued to update it every few years on into the ‘70s.

The early chapters include wonderful drawings and photographs – there’s Father Chadwick, inventor of the box score, and Abe Lincoln, in a drawing, engaged in a baseball game, a field diagram called “The Massachusetts Game”, and then of course, the Wright Brothers and the Red Stockings, Al Spalding, and on we go. For a young reader, the book was a delight, although its audience was easily composed of young and old, sharing the game’s lore together.

“The Ultimate Baseball Book “ and Ken Burns/Geoffrey Ward’s companion book to Burns’ PBS documentary series borrowed from this style, but I think Durant really had it down.

We learn in “Highlights of the World Series,” which was first published in 1963, that Durant was a sportsman. The author bio on the jacket says he was on the Yale track team, and went to England to compete against the Oxford-Cambridge combined team on behalf of Harvard-Yale, and that he was a champion hurdler and a member of the New York Athletic Club track team. We believe he was Yale Class of ’25.

He wrote prolifically for magazines, including Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, Outdoor Life and others, and was a Florida west coast correspondent for the New York Times for many years, writing fishing pieces and other sportsman like articles from his home in Naples.

In 1948, he published “The Dodgers,” a 150-page book, with zany photos of Dodger fans, early “Daffyness Boys,” Leo the Lip Durocher, the Dodgers Sym-Phony Band, and a great picture of the entire Dodger team gathered around Bobby Bragan at the piano, in a happy sing-along. Imagine a scene like that today?

There is a great photo of a vendor selling “I’m For Jackie” souvenir buttons outside Ebbets Field, Pistol Pete Reiser being carried off on a stretcher after crashing into the wall, Hilda Chester “a plump middle-aged woman” ringing her cowbell, and a remarkable photo of a deranged fan pulverizing umpire George Magerkurth on the field during a game. “At the station house it was discovered that the fan was a hoodlum out on parole. Next day he was back in the can again for an extended rest.”

Durant’s style was to give the photos about 70% of the page, and make the captions fun and entertaining. But his eye for memorable photography was what drove the books, and they contain pictures I have never seen reappear in team histories again.

In 1949 he published “The Yankees” in similar style, and there are wonderful photos of Highlanders players, the owners Frank Farrell and Big Bill Devery, a young Jacob Ruppert, derby-hatted fans in the Hilltop Park bleachers, and this curiosity: “Catching the ball is outfielder John Anderson who, in a game in 1904, stole second with the bases loaded. His name has since passed into the language of baseball. Today, ball players describe the kind of a play Anderson made as a “John Anderson” although they don’t know who he was or where he played.”

Memo to The Sporting News: How come the current Baseball Guide doesn’t list all the “John Andersons” of the previous season?

Where else but in Durant’s Yankees book would one find a photo of a young woman with a St. Bernard, captioned as this: “When Colonel Ruppert’s will was read in January 1939, people were surprised to learn that the Yankees were owned by three women. Two of them were Ruppert’s nieces, the third was Miss Helen Weyant (below), an actress described as “a friend.”

I love a reproduction of a New York Daily News headline from October 1, 1927, “Babe Carpenters No. 60!” It was a big moment for the Babe, but baseball was still not fully “home run crazy,” as I learned recently when skimming through a 1928 Who’s Who in Baseball. It turns out that “home runs” was not one of the stat columns shown for players. In fact “Who’s Who” didn’t add home runs until 1939. But I’m getting off track.

When Durant did “Highlights of the World Series,” his style switched to more text and smaller, and fewer pictures. Perhaps the cost of obtaining rights had forced this upon him, but the book just isn’t as much fun as the earlier ones.

We see the final updates of John’s books in the mid-‘70s, and by now, he has presumably passed on; I was unable to track down obituary information. But his books were a delight, and I suspect, would still be fun for a young reader if only for the strange and odd ones he managed to turn up.

The books are very affordable at used book sites.