Wednesday March 18th, 2015

Years ago, after a long flight, I arrived at the Munich airport with the renowned sports photographer Bob Martin, a Londoner whose unbelievable luggage—great steel steamer trunks of cameras and tripods and light-catchers—was taking forever to roll off the carousel.

“Let’s go already,” I said, while the stickered cases kept coming, as if on an endless assembly line. Bob fixed me with a sympathetic look and replied in his best English butler’s voice: “I’m sorry, Stevie. Have you already claimed your pencil?”

Bob then turned to an international assembly of strangers and said: “Stevie has his pencil, everybody!”

His point was made, and I never forgot it, and I’d secretly known it all along: In the alchemy of words and pictures that is Sports Illustrated, it’s the photographers who—​literally and metaphorically—​do the heavy lifting. All told, I’ve spent a month of my life at the world's luggage carousels with some of the best photographers who ever lived, including many of those whose work is in the following gallery of 100 classic sports photographs.

This gallery is a sports lover’s Louvre—without the crowds, but very much with its own Mona Lisa. (Or at least the sports Mona Lisa that is Leon Spinks, in a hoodie, his own enigmatic smile like a two-car garage with the doors up.)

The real Mona Lisa might be the only painting as familiar to you—or at least to me—as many of the photographs here. Neil Leifer’s shot of Ali standing over the supine Sonny Liston is one of the most famous and evocative images of the 20th century. And unlike any of Da Vinci’s masterworks, Leifer composed it in—what?—an eighth of a second?

In that regard, sports photography is like Olympic sprinting, one of the subjects that appears frequently here. In both pursuits, success and failure are separated by hundredths of a second. The photographer got one shot at Bobby Orr, prone in mid-air, looking like Superman at low altitude. The same went for Pete Rose, diving into third at Wrigley while fighting the drag of his own sideburns. The resulting image is the most eloquent imaginable summary of Charlie Hustle’s playing career. A picture is worth 4,256 hits.

It was taken by Heinz Kluetmeier. The names of these photographers inspire awe in me in a way that their subjects seldom do. And not just because the names—​Kluetmeier, Iooss, Bruty—​are often awesome in their own right. No, I’m an unabashed sports photo fanboy, the kind of weirdo who seeks out the infinitesimal picture credits. Presented with the black-and-white image of Joe DiMaggio’s beautiful swing, I look past Joltin’ Joe to the two daredevil photographers just beyond him, a scant ten yards into foul territory. The skill required of Randy Moss to make a fingertip catch of a football is different, but not greater than, the skill required of Damian Strohmeyer to catch that catch on camera.

And so I’ve spent many of those idle moments at baggage claim envying these photographers their talent. I also envy them their universal ease, which puts them equally at home around left tackles and swimsuit models; I admire their cool vests with many pockets; their universal ability to talk their way into (and out of) any spot in the world; the kind of hubris required to get underwater shots of Olympic swimmers, catwalk views of heavyweight boxing matches and—in the case of Jim Lavrakas of the Anchorage Daily News—a mind-altering portrait of a fish opening its mouth to reveal another fish inside. You’ll see. They resemble Russian nesting dolls.

Think about the contradictory combination of bottomless patience and lightning-quick reflexes required to capture that image. I could stare at it for minutes on end. I have stared at it for minutes on end. It wasn’t shot with a fish-eye lens, but it provides a rare fish-eye view of the world, ushering us in to a place we really don’t belong.

Which is what so many of these pictures do: Get us past the velvet ropes. One of the great pleasures of watching sports on TV—be it Super Bowl or World Cup final—is spotting these colleagues with cameras in ridiculously close proximity to the biggest spectacles on the planet. A photographer who shall remain nameless (and blameless) once smuggled me down to the finish line at Churchill Downs so that I could see—and hear and feel—the horses thunder by at the Kentucky Derby. I couldn’t imagine trying to take timeless photographs in that instant. I was trying not to wet my pants.

So many of these photos still raise the same goosebumps originally produced by the live moment. Kluetmeier’s famous photo of the Miracle on Ice ought to be a U.S. postage stamp by now. It’s one of those “Where’s Waldo” pictures, featuring countless faces wearing varied expressions of wonderment. They seem to change with repeated viewings, like the portraits on the wall at Hogwarts.

Look at the spectators on the periphery of these photos—mouths agape and cell-phone cameras poised, as Barry Bonds goes deep. Contemplate, for a moment, Babe Ruth in a straw boater surrounded by flat-capped children. Every one of their faces expresses different shades of the same emotions: Joy, primarily, and disbelief.

Then pause a moment over President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson, looking into the ether at a ballgame. It’s as if they’re staring into the sky in a Spielberg movie, in which the aliens aren’t seen until the final reel, and don’t need to be, because the faces of the Earthlings tell the whole story.

That’s what each of these pictures does—tells a whole story. Broadcasters calling a big game are often reminded to let the action breathe. A great moment of a televised game doesn’t need any narration, which is why the announcers—the good ones, anyway—shut up at the celebration and let the pictures do the talking. That’s what I’ll do now, with these pictures. They don’t need me, and they sure don’t need my bloody pencil.

(Click here for the full-size version of the gallery.)

GALLERY: 100 OF THE GREATEST SPORTS PHOTOS OF ALL TIME

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