DOUG McWILLIAMS: Baseball Card Photographer, Chronicler of Baseball History

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:

doug-m-pcl-cards“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.

ray-hamrick-card259loWe 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]

dm-topps-pass339loShooting 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 doug-shoots-mccovey264loof 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.”

reggie-on-deck2-dm114loOver 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 mccovey-sf-giants-dm164lous 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?

1981cvox“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

doug-m-hofHis 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.

Confessions of a Baseball Card Thief

I have a confession to make. My first addiction was to baseball cards. Like all good miscreants, I’ve found someone else to blame: my brothers, Tim and Steve.

The year was 1964, and I was an impressionable lad of six. My brothers brought home colorful wax packages containing treasure: cardboard gods swinging their weapons of destruction bathed in Technicolor glory. Each pack came with a special collector’s coin of a player. The whiff of gum ran up my tiny nostrils, grabbed hold of my brain, and I was officially hooked.

armour-part05-1964-floodcurtOnce the hook had been inserted, I became a demon obsessed. I wanted to collect every damn card, but there was a problem. Topps released the cards in series from March through September, and many retailers would see baseball cards moving sluggishly through the end of summer and start of school, so they wouldn’t place further orders. Which left crazed fools like me in the lurch, with incomplete sets.

Crazed doesn’t begin to describe my mania. Raised as a good Roman Catholic boy, all the religious teaching went out the window when my allowance money dried up and a new series of cards had hit the stores. Theft was the answer. While my mother was out of the house, I’d rifle through her purse collection, scooping up what change had been left behind. Whilst visiting my pal Kevin Farley’s house, I stole a pile of cards while he went to get me a popsicle. I was a terrible person, but this is why God created confession, right?

My Dad was (and still is) a great guy. He kept a Mercury head silver dollar from the year he was born, 1924, on his dresser. One day I was on the prowl for card money, and I’d sucked up all the loose change I could filch around the house. A new series was out, and I was behind the other neighborhood kids in collecting. The 1924 coin slid into my pants pocket and a bee-line was made for Ray’s Toy Village in nearby West Portal.

I stormed into the toy store, grabbed a fistful of cards and slammed them onto the counter with the coin from 1924. The nice lady behind the register pawed the relic and examined it closely. “Oh, my! Are you sure you want to use this wonderful old coin to make this purchase?” Now I was getting irritated. She was standing between an addict and his drug. I nodded quickly and she shook her head in bewilderment as I snatched the bag like Smeagol clutching the almighty ring to his breast. All that was missing was a sinister cackle.

There was a kid on the block who was wise to other kids stealing cards from him, so he took a pen and colored the left corner of the card. He’d found a place to purchase cards from the 1969 sets 6th and 7th series, of which I had precious few. A mission was launched to his house under the pretense of a playdate, and the cards were stolen. I cut the left hand corner of the cards to issue my own statement of ownership, wiping out his previous brand. He accused me of theft and I was no longer welcome in his house, but that was secondary. I had the cards!

As I grew into adulthood, I realized some of the cards in my vast collection were obtained by ill-gotten means. It was time to right some wrongs. I ran into my pal Kevin Farley at our 20th grammar school reunion, admitted I’d stolen the cards 25 years previous, and made arrangements to return them to him. This was in 1992, and the cards were vintage baseball and football cards from the mid 1950s and early 60s. He was shocked and thrilled at getting the cards back after all this time, which represented probably $100-$200 dollars in value.

My children had an interest in coin collecting, and we began putting numismatic books together. We turned a page, and there it was: a Mercury head dollar. Guilt poured into my head and I seized a teachable moment. It was nearly Thanksgiving, and we were going to visit my Dad for the holidays. I took my kids to a coin shop, told them the story of how I stole that dollar from my Dad, and purchased a 1924 Mercury head coin for him. I presented it to my father on Thanksgiving, told him the terrible story and how sorry I was for being a rotten kid. He smiled and laughed, “I always wondered what happened to that coin!”.

Flash forward to today, and I’ve purged most of the cards in our collection, save for the Mantle, Mays, Aaron and other star cards. The bulk of the collection went to a good home: the Baseball Reliquary, and are used in a variety of exhibit displays. None of my three children took much interest in baseball cards, but my mania remains, abetted by technology. I found a sub-culture of baseball card geeks on YouTube and began trading for cards from the 50s and 60s with other guys. Once you get established in the group, people send you “just because” packages of cards they think you’ll appreciate. The levels of generosity are astonishing.

s-l225I have to thank my mother, for she never threw out the cards of my youth. She knew how incredibly important they were to my brothers and I. Oldest brother Steve gets an assist, because while I was away at college, he took possession of the cards and moved them to his home, possibly sparing them from a terrible death.

So here I sit, a reformed baseball card thief. My latest mania is to collect all 165 coins from that 1964 set, allowing me to recapture that moment when I first I held a red all-star coin featuring Ken Boyer of the St. Louis Cardinals, swinging a bat. Thanks to eBay, I rounded up all but 20 of them, but ran out of money. Now, where is my wife’s purse?