BATTLEBORO — As a baseball card photographer, Bob Bartosz produced a body of work that lies protected in a thousand attics, sealed inside plastic sleeves, guarded by boys grown old.
He shot a deep portfolio from baseball’s hair decades, a time of George Foster and his lightning-bolt sideburns, Pete Rose with his bowl-cut mop, Oscar Gamble wore an afro that seemed to orbit his head.
At 77, retired in Nash County, Bartosz invited me to flip through the history he saw through the lens of a Nikon F. In boxes full of 20,000 photographs, he captured a time in baseball when players signed autographs over the wall of the dugout, making so little money that at least one player dug graves as an off-season job.
With the baseball season starting fresh, and hope springing eternal in the heart of this lapsed Baltimore Orioles fan, I dove into Bartosz’ collection with the vigor I hadn’t felt since age 11, when I would tear open a pack of cards and scrape the gum residue off Al Bumbry’s face.
“I was sort of the Matthew Brady of baseball cards,” said Bartosz, comparing himself to the Civil War photographer. “The players all called me Bob. They would send us Christmas cards.”
Bartosz and his wife, Pat, chose the tiny community of Battleboro as a retirement spot largely on the strength of low taxes and the restaurant the locals call “The Shiny Diner.”
Their rural outpost north of Rocky Mount could hardly be further from Camden, N.J., where Bartosz started out life as a both a police officer and fireman, working a side job as a general assignment photographer for the Courier-Post.
He still has police blotter clippings from those days in the early ‘60s: Patrolman Bartosz helps nab an escaped prisoner; Patrolman Bartosz saves a woman from death. Switching roles, he shot pictures of Philadephia’s first 12-alarm fire at The Fretz Building, which destroyed more than 50 homes.
“I couldn’t wait to get up and go to work,” he said, echoing a common endorsement of newspaper life. “Every day was different.”
Then in 1971, the Phillies built Veterans Stadium across the river from Camden, and Bartosz got the beat. In those days, a rookie player made roughly $16,000, and when they got their first hits, Bartosz presented them all with an 8 x 10 photo.
He did the same favor for visiting stars who got big hits, or even umpires whom nobody celebrated. Before long, he haunted the clubhouses no other shooters could enter. You can see Bartosz clowning with slugger Greg Luzinski, joking with Willie Mays, sharing a moment on the dugout steps with Lou Brock, base-stealing champion.
This closeness brought Bartosz to the attention of the Fleer trading card company in the early ‘80s, when it was an upstart rival to the reigning Topps monopoly. They’d send him to Florida for spring training, paying his expenses and money by the card. They hired Pat as a proofreader, and for almost a decade, Bartosz shot more or less every player in the National League.
He worked hard to avoid the standard head shot and give his cards some flair.
Bartosz photographed Pete Rose alongside his son, Pete Jr., then a batboy for the Phillies. The card’s caption: Pete and Re-Pete.
He shot pitchers Vida Blue and Bud Black posing next to each other, then split the picture in half to make two cards. Collect them both and you’ve got Black and Blue.
He shot spitballer Gaylord Perry leaning back in a folding chair. He shot Brad Mills, third baseman for the Expos, with a huge bubble of gum covering his face. He shot second-baseman Glenn Hubbard with a boa constrictor around his neck.
As I sat in their dining room, Bob and Pat Bartosz shared stories of former Phillies the way I talk about college roommates: Jay Johnstone and his Budweiser umbrella hat, the unpredictable pitcher Tug McGraw, and one special day in 1976.
“You want to tell him?” Bartosz asked his wife.
“You might as well,” said Pat.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford threw out the first pitch on the Fourth of July, and because Bartosz had been a cop, the Secret Service granted him special permission to take pictures from the field.
But after he’d left for the stadium, the Gannett Co. called his house ask if he’d shoot a picture of their president, who was making a special appearance with Ford.
Pat took the message. She knew all the guards at Veterans Stadium, but they wouldn’t let her on the field. She passed a note for the guard to take to Bartosz, but the Secret Service wouldn’t let the guard anywhere near him. So the guard gave the note to Ford’s security team, which promptly whisked Bartosz off the field and frisked him.
Pat had written: “Bob, if you shoot the president, shoot the man in back of him, too.”
Bartosz never got rich off baseball. In his day, kids still put them in the spokes of their bicycle wheels to make a motorcycle sound. Players didn’t get mobbed in those days, and the autographs they signed didn’t immediately show up for sale on eBay.
I was always a Topps collector myself. I had a few Donruss and a few Fleer cards, but the Dart Drug in Bryans Road, Md., only sold Topps, so that’s what I bought.
But as a kid, I got a thrill seeing the likes of Reggie Jackson from the bleachers at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. Imagine the luck of Bob Bartosz, who saw them close enough to shake hands, smiling for all the gum-chewing kids out there.