You could talk about his 20-plus years setting the gold standard for baseball card photography as a lensman for Topps. Or his incredible collection of ephemera pertaining to the Oakland A’s. Or his friendship with Vida Blue and Willie McCovey. Or his amazing Zee-Nut baseball card collection of Oakland Oaks players from 1911-1939. Or the 11,000 negatives of his non-Topps work he donated to the Hall of Fame.
And you’d still come up short.
Meet Doug McWilliams, chronicler of baseball and American history. The Berkeley, CA, native has been photographing the national pastime since 1950. The trim, bearded 80-year-old (who looks as if he’s in his late 60s) recounted the day he was bitten by the bug in 1948:
“I started listening on the radio to the Oakland Oaks baseball games. They had a little feature on there about the baseball cards they are giving away at Signal Oil and if you stop by your local gas station, they’ll give you a new card. They were in full color. I finally talked my father into taking me to one of the games. He wasn’t a fan of sports at all. We stopped by at a Signal oil gas station and I got a baseball card of a Ray Hamrick, who was a shortstop for the Oaks.
We got to the ballpark. It was evening and I got up to the top of the walkway and looked down on the field. It was all lit up. It looked like it was magic and saw down by the fence, there was Ray Hamrick signing autographs. I borrowed a fountain pen from my dad and ran down there and got him to sign it. I was hooked, hooked more on baseball cards than the game.”
I met Doug at a SABR event earlier this year, where I was presenting my last film about writer Arnold Hano. We happened to be sitting next to each other and introduced ourselves. I’m a baseball card hound since 1964, and I found his story fascinating. My latest project, “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” features people from across the baseball spectrum, and Doug’s story fit the bill for an episode.
My cameraman, Otis, and I spent the better part of the day with Doug at his home, and I was awed by the baseball artifacts, relics and photography he had collected during his lifetime. I interviewed Doug extensively, covering his career shooting for Topps and love of the game.
“I got away from baseball when I was a kid because I went away to college and got married, joined the army, although I was a photographer in the army also. I just didn’t have time for it, but the A’s came to Oakland in 1968 and in 69, they had a picture day. I went down the field with my 35 millimeter Leica and flash bulbs and took pictures of the players as they came by. It reminded me of when I was a kid. I started going to the games and shooting out of the stands and got to know the players. Some of them wanted to buy pictures, too. At that point, I had already been a photographer at the University of California for 10 years almost. I knew I could do well because I’d been doing well. I just kept shooting out of the stands and pretty soon a guy came by, named Jim Mudcat Grant, who I had photographed as a kid probably 15 years before. He remembered me, which totally shocked me. He was with the A’s for a while. I did some pictures for him. He got traded to Pittsburgh and then he came back. The A’s told him to get some new PR pictures. He needed to make an appointment with their photographer.
Mudcat said, “Doug is going to do my pictures for the PR.” They said, “Who?”[laughs] I got my foot on the field for the first time through him. When he posed for me, I got the pictures up to the PR people and they approved them and use them. About that same time, Vida Blue was coming up in the September to show what he could do. He stayed with Mudcat. I did some pictures for Vida for his family. Well, the next year, which I guess was 71, I may have my dates mixed up, but he won the Cy Young and MVP both. He came to me and says, “I need postcards.” I’d been doing photographic postcards in black and white for quite a few of the A’s by that time. He says, “I want color.” I say, ”Well, what do you want a 100 or 200?” I was thinking photographically making them. I made my black and whites photographically. He says, “I get a 100 letters a day, I need lots of them.” The upshot was that I did three different printings for him, about 15,000 color postcards. All of them had my name and address down the center of the postcard back. One of them landed on the desk of Sy Berger at Topps in Brooklyn. Soon, I got a call from him, saying, “We like your work. Would you like to shoot for Topps?” I said, “Well, is the Pope Polish? I think I would.” [chuckling]
Shooting for Topps was a side job for Doug, who spent his days working for UC Berkeley as an industrial photographer. But it was baseball that owned his heart, and every spring Doug would appear in Arizona to create the images that would enrapt children, and later, adults, across America. I asked him about the scope of work for those shoots.
“Take six posed pictures, everybody in full color, shoot 16 rolls at 36 exposure action during the games. The posed pictures were shot on Ektachrome, which is very difficult to shoot. You have to be right on the button or you’re in trouble exposure wise. The action film was in color negative, which is not quite as critical. The big problem early on was that lenses weren’t fast enough. They insisted on using 100 ASA film, which they thought gave better color. Also, I was instructed to photograph the player facing the sun with a shadow of the across their face and they told me that showed ruggedness and character. I, to myself thought it showed poor lighting. I never shot my own pictures that way. Why not turn the guy around, use flash film, you got the sun, coming from behind to separate him from the background and you get beautiful portraits of people.”
Did he have an assistant to keep track off all the players he shot? No.
“I devised a system where I had a roster sheet. I printed up my own and I’d have [the team name and] little stickers with all the numbers of the players on it. I could get two players per roll of 120 film on the posed shots and I’d pull off the sticker, put it on the roll when I was through and then put a piece of tape around it. Then, I’d send the roll off. It would have like number 3 or number 10. If they keep track of it at the processing place, then they’d know who’s on that roll.”
“Some of the managers were extremely good to me. John McNamara and Dick Williams in particular … [Williams] managed about four of the teams that I shot in Arizona. He seemed to have been there my whole career. He would come up to me and say, “How’s it going?” He said, “You got everybody?” I’d say, “No I still need to get a few people.” He’d stand right beside me and call men off the field and make sure I got everybody. Occasionally, I’d have the San Diego Padres or the Seattle Mariners team shot by 11 o’clock and the game starts at 1 o’clock or so. Generally, I had to chase them down for hours and hours and come back another day. It was really nice to be helped that way by several of the people who knew me.”
Clearly, this is a bright guy with a strong work ethic. But what was it that made his photography so good?
“Well, I went to professional photo school. I went to a place called Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. I was a commercial illustration major, but we had portraiture also and we got the classical portraiture posing and that’s what I used. You just don’t have a guy stand up and look at you. I mean you give them some angle and angle his head and make it look correct, so he doesn’t have a broken neck. You shoot women one way and men another way just to feature them. I always shot a gray scale and a color chart every time I started because the lab could use that. I never saw other photographers doing that and that’s something I used to do at the University of California when I was shooting there. Quality: that’s the whole name of the game. I insist on having the best quality possible.”
Over the years, Doug formed friendships with some of the players, like Ted Kubiak, Willie McCovey, Vida Blue and Reggie Jackson. If he has a favorite, it might be Vida.
“I met him when he was a young 18-year-old kid and he was very friendly. I enjoyed that. He came to me to have some work done and he got me going as far as a second job. In an area that I just pinched myself that I actually had 24 years in the big leagues, 23 years actually shooting for Topps, but I made a lot of friends and I still have many friends that were baseball players. I keep in touch. I enjoy that.
Doug ended up shooting Vida’s wedding at Candlestick Park, where Willie McCovey was the best man.
“Willie McCovey was a special one. When he retired, he had a thing and had a special all-star game. He had a big get-together at Palace Hotel. He let me bring my son along and so that was fun. I had some pictures of us together, the three of us and I just covered the whole event for him and made a great big picture book for him. That was special. I did a lot of postcards for Willie also, maybe three different times. I loved his Southern drawl and the way he spoke. He would call the house and Mary, my wife just loved talking to him. He always said [lowers voice], “Doug this is McCovey.” You know who he was way before he even said his name.” [chuckles]
I asked Doug if he ever got any oddball requests from ball players.
“I had one fellow who was a pitcher with the A’s and also the Cubs and I think maybe Seattle too, named Jim Todd. He liked photography and he liked my photography and so he would challenge me to do something different each year and pay for it. He had me take a picture of him going through his entire pitching windup, where he changed colored [jerseys] all the way through. Then, I picked out the best ones and had him change from the start to the end of his delivery as his jersey color changed and that was kind of fun. Then, I mounted it in front of a portrait of him that I did and then mounted it on a wood plaque.”
Like all card collectors, I’m interested in error cards. Was Doug ever involved in an error card?
“I had a habit of photographing all the Oakland A’s players when they were in the minors if I could. I happen to have photographed Jeff Cox with Modesto and Vancouver and San Jose, just about everywhere he played. I knew him and he finally got up to the big club, spring training and he was so excited to find out that he might be on a Topps card. That happened several times with the young players and it’s kind of fun. The card came out (1981 Topps #133) and I was so happy to hear about that. I looked at the back and all the statistics were correct and it said Oakland A’s on the front. I looked at the picture and it was Steve McCatty. I don’t think the hobbyists discovered that yet. I had never seen it mentioned, but it was McCatty. It wasn’t Jeff. I felt so bad for him that I made him a custom card — this was before computers — and gave them to him to give to his family and friends.”
I asked if there was a particular set of cards he shot that was meaningful to him.
“I thought when [Topps] came out with the “Stadium Clubs”, those were really well done, attractive. They had full bleed edges and they were on thicker stock and they were glossy, looked good.”
Doug proceeded to take me through his favorite Topps cards from 1983-1993 and some of the stories behind them. [Check out Doug’s episode on “The Sweet Spot” to catch them here for $2.99: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thesweetspot]
I wondered how Doug was perceived by other baseball card photographers, as well as the industry.
“Two years ago, I and two other Topps photographers were inducted into the Cactus League Hall of Fame as photographers for Topps. It was really pretty nice and one of the other photographers was the person who was just starting when I was finishing up [in 1993]. We were in Tucson, shooting the Cleveland Indians and before the game, the posed stuff and action during the game, and it was very hot. This fellow, he kept looking over at me. In his speech at the Hall of Fame induction, he said that he kept looking over at Doug to see if he was ready to go because he was thinking about going back to the hotel and jumping in the swimming pool.” He kept looking over at me and I was still there. Then, the game got over and he says, “Wow, now I can finally head off to the hotel and go swimming.” He looked around and there I was, out on the mound, grabbing players and taking pictures of them. He said, “Now, there’s a baseball card photographer.”
I recently happened on some of Doug’s work as part of the Hall of Fame’s traveling photo exhibit at Dodger Stadium’s current “pop-up museum” [open weekends now through March 5- http://dodgerblue.com/dodgers-pop-up-museum-dodger-stadium-dec-2-vin-scully-items/2016/12/01/%5D
His photo of Bert Blyleven, along with the supporting curatorial text, tells us he was not only a world-class photographer, but a baseball historian of note. His contributions to the game, and baseball history, are immeasurable.
But, there’s a couple of problems for Doug:
“Baseball has become a problem to me because I’m so immersed in it. Photography has become a problem with me because I’m continuously looking at everything and making a picture out of it.”
What’s next for Doug?
I still have 15,000 [negatives] to send [to the Hall of Fame], 35 millimeter and digital and keeps me busy, keeps me alive, keeps me going. I’ve got plenty to do!
[note: I will be presenting Doug’s episode and my project “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” at the Lefty O’Doul Chapter’s SABR Day meeting in San Leandro on January 26, with Doug in attendance).
Doug was not unlike that kid in the neighborhood who had the coolest toys and baseball card collection and who enjoyed sharing them.