Go Jean Go: Shooting Baseball (Or Not) In the Time of COVID
Photographer Jean Fruth was starting on another book and another trip along America’s most famous highway when she ran into a roadblock, invisible but deadly.
“Doors were shutting as I was driving,” she said of the COVID-19 pandemic starting to grip the country. “I was in L.A. shooting for the book on March 12, and it was such a bummer. I did continue to travel and hit little pockets of Route 66 that were still open where baseball was being played but it was a shadow of itself at that point.”
Fruth (rhymes with “truth”) is one of baseball’s most prolific photographers. In 2019,she produced Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin, a collection of photos and essays chronicling the journeys of baseball legends from the sandlots to the stadiums. The book also helped introduce the game to young people in the form of clinics held at stops she made along the way. Included are recollections from such notables as Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken Jr. and the late Hank Aaron.
A follow-up, Grassroots Baseball: Route 66, by Fruth and her partner, former National Baseball Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, was inspired by their previous travels. It was to be published in February 2021, portraying the lives of baseball heroes who grew up in small towns along “The Main Street of America.” But several of the rustic locales were nearly ghost towns as the pandemic took hold and residents were told to stay inside.
“It became eerie,” Fruth said. “I was staying at hotels and they were empty. We had no services. I would just get a few extra towels when I checked in and stayed in my room at the Marriott. I was just getting food and eating it in my room.”
With traveling curtailed, “I went home and worked on the things I was able to work on, some of the writing for the book,” Fruth said. “We got a lot of the essays completed.” Still, she added, “It was pretty devastating to be shut down. We were just getting started.”
The books are keystones of Grassroots Baseball, a not-for-profit effort by Fruth and Idelson to promote and chronicle amateur baseball across the country and around the world.
Fruth began her career as a portrait photographer in Northern California after she moved from her native New York more than 20 years ago. An avid baseball fan, she coached her son’s youth league teams and took and submitted photos to the local newspaper. Soon she was shooting a variety of sports -- high school, college and professional -- for five area papers.
The big break came when she started shooting the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics for newspapers while also assisting Michael Zagaris, the team photographer of the A’s and the NFL San Francisco 49ers. He became her mentor and one of her best friends. After a tenure with the Hall of Fame, she became the traveling photographer for La Vida Baseball -- a digital media company that covers all aspects of Latino baseball and its culture in the U.S. and Latin America -- a position she holds today.
“I had to learn to become a storyteller,” Fruth said. “Learning to tie the modern game back to history made me a much better photographer. My images had to tell stories.”
Fruth is among a small group of pioneering women photographers who regularly chronicle the game.
“There were many times when I was the only female photographer in the photo wells,” she said. “In recent years there has been an influx of women shooters, including a number of incredibly talented and inspiring women not only shooting professional baseball, but all sports.”
Fruth’s baseball shooting schedule runs continuously year-round beginning with Major League Baseball spring training in mid-February and ending with winter league play in the Caribbean.
The pandemic completely upended the 2020 major league baseball season. Opening Day did not arrive until July 23 instead of late March. Teams played a 60-game schedule (some had fewer games because of COVID) as opposed to the normal 162. It was all strange and somewhat disconcerting, but at least Fruth was back on the job.
“What a bizarre season that was,” she said. “All of those empty stadiums.”
Restrictions enacted by Major League Baseball not only kept fans from the ballparks, photographers like Fruth had to stay off the field and assume new positions in the seats and concourses.
“Sure, there’s different angles and you tell yourself that’s interesting,” she said, “but the most fun part is really before the game even begin,” when she can greet the players and catch them in playful or relaxed moments.
Sticking mostly to the West Coast, Fruth continued to chronicle the strangest of baseball seasons marked not only by the pandemic but also by discord off the field.
“I wouldn’t say there was a lot of fun, between the racial unrest, the protests, the messages,” she said. “I feel like the pandemic made people pay attention in some ways, and part of my job was documenting that. The players lined up holding the black rope, guys kneeling, raising their fists in the air are some of the most memorable images from the season.”
Added to that were the wildfires that devastated much of northern California. During a game in San Francisco, “the Giants played while their surroundings burned,” Fruth recalled. “The sun didn’t come up. I got down there early, and it was the middle of the afternoon, though it looked like evening and the sky was a crazy orange, wild! And the ash that was falling while I was in the stands shooting and I kept cleaning my camera bag off and my gear and it just kept falling down like heavy pieces of ash and I’m thinking how are they playing and breathing that in?”
During the winter months, Fruth would visit Latin American countries, shooting winter league games and their surroundings. Not in 2020-21. Instead, she taught a series of sports photography workshops.
“It was good for me to do,” she said. “It was enjoyable. It would, of course, have been more fun if we could have a meal together (with the students)."
Throughout her travels, Fruth remains mindful of those who shared their skills and counsel along the way. She expresses her gratitude by likewise lending a hand to others.
“I have been fortunate to mentor young women, give advice and work side by side with them,” she said. “I find I learn as much from them as they do from me.”
One platform for imparting her knowledge is Sony’s “Creator in Residence” program. Fruth said it allows her to demonstrate that “ with a bit of support and more open doors, professional women who have dedicated their lives to a career in photography or filmmaking can achieve the highest levels of success in their professions.”