Ronald Modra spent over 40 years photographing all of the biggest names in American athletics for Sports Illustrated. He broke into the baseball world as the Brewers' team photographer, where he met and befriended a number of players, including Hank Aaron. After a number of years of persistence and freelancing, Modra earned a permanent place at Sports Illustrated. He doesn't work there anymore—Getty manages all of his sports photography and, in his spare time, Modra is working on a book featuring photos of blues musicians—but after four decades of capturing both iconic scenes on the diamond and small moments in the dugout, Modra decided to compile some of his most striking shots into a retrospective. A Baseball Life: Four Decades Inside the Game features essays from sports writers like Peter Gammons and Tom Verducci, an intro from former Commissioner Bud Selig, and a forward by Bob Costas. And, of course, lots of really beautiful photos.
Hank Aaron waves to the crowd during the 1975 All Star Game
Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle at the 1975 All Star Game
Rick "Goose" Gossage on his farm
"We spent a lot of time with Rick Gossage at his ranch out in Canyon City, Colorado," Modra tells mental_floss. "I was able to do a portrait of Rick out on the ranch where he’s not a baseball player but 'Goose Gossage: Rancher.'"
Mariano Rivera in his home country of Panama
"These are some of the ones that really stand out because they really illustrated to the fans another side of these guys, not just the baseball side but the personal side, their interests," he says. "Those are some of my favorites."
Wade Boggs, the "Chicken Man"
James Augustus "Catfish" Hunter
On what's changed in the business over the years: "When I first started in the business, and now it’s been almost 45 years that I’ve been a photographer, the thing that has really changed is the technology. The technology has allowed a lot more people to come into the business because of the cameras, the auto-focus, that sort of thing. There’s an awful lot more photographers out there than there were back in the ‘70s when I started out."
Dave Winfield of the Toronto Blue Jays batting at Toronto’s SkyDome
On how many games he's been to: "Definitely hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of games. I started in ’72 and I averaged at least 70 or 80 games a year through my entire career."
The Brewers’ Paul Molitor reading a magazine in the team’s locker room
On the game he was most excited to get to attend: "I think it would have to have been the ’82 World Series when the Brewers got into the Series and I knew most of the guys on the team. I had already left my team job and was working for Sports Illustrated but I was still extremely friendly with all these guys. I was just thrilled when they got into it and we were able to shoot the World Series in Milwaukee."
Jeff Blauser evades Darren Daulton's tag at the plate
Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford
"Another one that’s one of my favorites is Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford together, which really kind of showed their friendship," he says. "You could tell that these guys had really been long-time friends."
Cardinal’s Ozzie Smith with his signature celebratory backflip
On getting iconic shots of a big a win: "When those walk-offs come, it’s usually pretty chaotic and luck plays a lot into it."
Yankees' Graig Nettles diving for a catch
"You just have to anticipate, understand the players," he says. "Like I remember back when Nettles was playing for the Yankees, he was just an incredible third baseman and he would try to dive for anything that was remotely close to him and that’s where that photograph came."
Pete Rose sliding to safety
"I think sometimes you’re not aware of your style. I’m kind of a shoot-from-the-hip photographer," he says. "I see something and then I can formulate a photograph in my mind’s eye. I’m very conscious of lighting, background. I look for a nice clean image, both in action and my portrait work. I’m kind of a minimalist."
A retired Ted Williams holding court
All photos courtesy of Ron Modra.