One of the Most American Pictures Ever Taken

I’d like to posit — and by way of doing so, also remind you of the amazing and in some ways tragic story of J.R. Richard (if you could ever forget) — that the above photo epitomizes the American spirit as much as any photo.

If America is about the individual, then here is individualism: two men donning the same uniform, their bodies overlapping in the photograph’s framing, yet so very separate from and unconcerned with each other, only, seemingly, with the presentation of themselves.

If America is about confidence — false or otherwise — both of these men are supremely confident. Richard, calm and almost smiling, yet immoveable; Nolan Ryan agressive, as if ready to violently subdue the very wind that has threatened his waning coiffure. The picture gives the sense that these men are (and in fact they will be) captains of industry — or at least they will make investments, own things, and run things.

Perhaps America is about fate; or, America loves stories of the fateful arcs of striking individuals. Ryan was one of his parents’ six children, small town Texas born and raised. He would ride a hot temper and a hotter arm all the way to the Hall of Fame, then use his wealth, connections, and reputation to become owner and CEO of the Texas Rangers.

Richard, from an even smaller town in Louisiana, used his size and preternatural physical talent to dominate high school athletics, and turn pro in baseball. After breaking out at age 26 and putting together four consecutive excellent seasons, a stroke at age 30 cut a fifth excellent season short, and effectively ended his baseball career altogether, whereafter he made a series of bad investment decisions, went through a two divorces, and lived, for a time, under a highway overpass in Houston. With the help of a local church, he got back on his feet working physical labor, and has since become a minister.

Each of these men’s stories encompasses so many “American” themes: the pitfalls and powers of capitalism and personal wealth, nepotism, hidden poverty, great talent and great decline. I don’t have a handle on it all myself, but there’s the feel of all this and more in this photo…

Perhaps, in order for this photo to register as “one of the most American ever taken”, we do need to know how the stories of the men in this photo unfolded in the years after it was taken. But we might also see this picture as already pregnant with the themes expressed in the stories.

For me, as an American, it’s hard to remember what we were supposed to be celebrating yesterday. But with the vague feeling of the greatness and awfulness of America lingering over me today, I offer these thoughts, and this image. Let’s have a beer, soon.

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Great pic.

J.R. Richard is one of the most fascinating ballplayers ever in my mind. So good, so tragic, so forgotten.