On June 13, 1948 a frail and dying Babe Ruth stood in uniform with shoulders slumped, holding a hat and bat, by himself near home plate to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium.
While most photographers lined up along the first-base line, adjacent to an All-Star cast of Yankee greats, the New York Herald Tribune’s Nat Fein rolled the dice — and won the Pulitzer Prize.
He stood right behind the Bambino at a sold-out “House that Ruth Built” and snapped an iconic photo, perhaps “the most famous non-action sports photo of all time.” The weather was crummy, the skies overcast, and Ruth would die two months later. The photo endures.
And, now, after settlement of a legal dispute between The New York Times and Fein’s estate, the paper will own rights to the photo (and 350 others by Fein) while the estate can benefit from its sale to sports fans and others via The New York Times Store.
“No one had really been focusing on the photo” since it was taken so long ago, says Richard Samson, the paper’s assistant general counsel, about the catalyst to a legal dispute and its rather expeditious resolution.
The Times assumed it owned the photo as a result of a succession of corporate acquisitions and related changes over the years. The Herald Tribune ceased publication in 1966 and essentially morphed into another corporation that became the International Herald Tribune, which was owned by The Times and The Washington Post until the Times bought out the Post (it’s now The International New York Times).
But it was brought to Samson’s attention that the estate was selling copies of the photo through its website, Vintagephotos.com. It claimed that it owned the copyright because, just before going out of business, The Herald Tribune’s photo editor gave Fein most of his negatives, including the one of the fabled shot.
The estate’s legal position was that the transfer was an assignment of copyright to Fein. Alas, there was nothing in writing, which helped to buttress The Times’ position.
“But we both realized that rather than spend a lot of time and energy litigating the issues, maybe there was a solution in both parties’ interests,” says Samson. That was especially true given the significantly higher-profile platform and more sophisticated infrastructure the newspaper possesses when it comes to marketing and selling merchandise.
Some of the details will remain confidential, but it’s implicit that the estate will financially benefit from sales of both a limited edition print signed by Fein prior to his death in 2000 and digital copies. The limited edition of about 200 copies will go for $3,500 apiece while the digital copies will probably be several hundred dollars.
“I think everybody is happy,” says Jim Mones, a merchandiser and buyer for The New York Times Store. “It’s one of the greatest photos of the 20th century,” one with copies residing at the Smithsonian and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
If only my German immigrant father were around. He came to New York City as a teenager in 1927 and one of his most important vehicles for assimilation was baseball, notably going to Yankee Stadium. When he had me much later, we spent giant amounts of time at the park and in his reminiscing about past Yankee greats, including Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Bill Dickey and Joe DiMaggio.
But nobody then or today in any sport had quite the luster of Ruth. It was an era when baseball was truly the national pastime and there weren’t 10 other sporting events online or on cable vying for one’s attention each day or night.
As Fein did, you can get a great view sometimes by just looking back.