The 'Freaking Miracle’ of the Iconic 1971 World Series Photograph That Nearly Wasn't
Updated: Oct 14, 2021
IT UNFOLDED IN the blink of a photographer’s eye.
Catcher Manny Sanguillen running for joy, raising his glove and mask in glory. Suddenly, into the frame came pitcher Steve Blass, knees rising to his chest, arms reaching for the sky.
Watching through a 600mm lens, 400 feet away on a platform riser behind the centerfield wall at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, Rusty Kennedy was about to press the shutter button on his Nikon when he noticed a fatal flaw in the frame.
Blass was blurry.
It was Oct. 17, 1971, 50 years ago this month, 29 years before cameras were first added to cell phones and about 15 before Nikon cameras were first adapted with a technological advancement called autofocus.
Kennedy, a young Associated Press photographer, had a split-second to react.
Somehow, he was able to manually adjust the focus and fire the shutter just in time to capture poetry in motion, a masterpiece not unlike a classic Renaissance painting, as the celebrated essayist Roger Angell would eloquently write.
There were other dramatic photographs taken at the 1971 World Series, but none would carry the emotional clout of Kennedy’s euphoric shot of Blass and Sanguillen celebrating like crazed kids in the initial moments after the underdog Pittsburgh Pirates knocked off the favored Baltimore Orioles.
The picture would find its way to the walls of countless taverns, offices and dens across western Pennsylvania and beyond over the next 50 years, joining James Klingensmith’s iconic photograph of Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 home run as reminders of the greatness that once defined Pittsburgh’s baseball team.
For one of the men in the photo, it would offer a source of comfort after his on-field tribulations gave way to gut-wrenching trials that ended his career just three years later.
And for Kennedy’s photography peers, it would offer inspiration and awe.
“It’s a timeless photo, absolutely timeless,’’ said George Widman, a longtime AP photographer and Pulitzer Prize finalist. “It’s like that famous speech James Earl Jones gives about baseball in (the movie) 'Field of Dreams.' That's what that picture is.’’
Perhaps most remarkable was Kennedy's ability, in a rapidly fleeting window of opportunity, to get Blass into focus and capture the image.
“It's a picture that's very difficult to make,’’ said Brian Horton, a former AP senior photo editor who oversaw the agency’s global sports photo coverage. "From a photographer’s standout, it's just a freaking miracle is what it is.''
And it all started with Kennedy being in the right place at the right time.
Except in his case, the right place happened to be about as far from the action as a photographer could be.
Drawn to photography as a high school student, Ronald “Rusty” Kennedy joined the AP in 1968 after an internship at the Philadelphia Bulletin.
He retired 45 years later as one of the wire service’s most celebrated photographers, a humble and talented artist with an uncanny knack for anticipating and capturing emotional moments.
Kirk Gibson pumping his fist after his clutch World Series homer. Pete Rose knifing through the air toward third base. Muhammad Ali training in Pennsylvania. Led Zeppelin jamming at Live Aid. Michael Jackson performing at the Super Bowl. Bill Buckner walking off the field after the ball went through his legs.
Long before Kennedy took those celebrated photos, he was a 29-year-old photographer reporting to work at Memorial Stadium on the morning of Oct. 17, 1971.
The AP sent five shooters to the seventh game of the World Series that Sunday afternoon, assigning each at different vantage points around the ballpark. Kennedy’s spot was a platform riser behind the top of the centerfield wall.
After lugging all of his cameras, lenses and tripods up a ladder, he settled in for his one assignment: Get pictures of every batter in every inning.
“My only responsibility was to get the batter,’’ he recalled. “I was out there to do the bat on the ball.’’
For two hours and 10 minutes, he did just that, staring at 66 batters through the cannon of a telephoto lens attached to his Nikon.
It sounds like a simple assignment, but a lot can go wrong.
"You can be too early, because the ball is coming in and you can't tell if it’s coming in from the pitcher’s hand or going off the bat. And if you were late, forget it,’’ he said.
As the teams took batting practice before the game, Kennedy took aim with his camera and practiced his timing, a dedicated photographer warming up for the first inning.
Finally, in the bottom of the ninth inning, Baltimore’s Merv Rettenmund, the last batter of the day, slapped a sharp grounder to end the game. Kennedy’s day was technically done.
But like all good photographers, he followed his instincts.
He kept shooting.
The forces that launched Steve Blass into the air after the final out of the 1971 World Series had been building since spring training.
After being eliminated in the 1970 playoffs, the Pirates went into the season stocked with talent, determination and lofty expectations.
They won the division again and easily handled the San Francisco Giants in the National League playoffs. Getting past their World Series opponent, the reigning champion Orioles led by a pitching staff with four 20-game winners, wouldn't be as easy.
But the Pirates won three of the first five games in the best-of-seven series and went into game six with a chance to win it all. They led 2-0 lead in the sixth inning before Baltimore rallied to win in 10 innings and force a decisive seventh game.
When Blass walked out to the mound two days later, he was a bundle of nerves. He’d barely slept the night before, tossing and turning until he got up and walked the streets of Baltimore before dawn.
He walked the first batter he faced. Two batters later, Orioles manager Earl Weaver interrupted the game to complain that Blass wasn’t pitching off the rubber, an attempt to rattle the pitcher.
Then Frank Robinson connected for a deep drive to right field. Roberto Clemente chased it down in front of the wall to end the inning.
After that, Blass settled into a groove. The Pirates, like they did in game 6, built a 2-0 lead. This time they took it into the eighth inning before Baltimore started to chip away. The Orioles scored a run and put the tying run at third before Blass worked out of the jam.
Clinging to a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning, the Pirates were three outs from their first championship in 11 years. To do that, Blass had to retire two home run sluggers, one a future Hall of Famer.
Big Boog Powell grounded out. Frank Robinson popped out. Then, Rettenmund hit a sharp grounder up the middle that bounced off the mound and careened toward center field.
Shortstop Jackie Hernandez, on the edge of the outfield grass, gloved the ball on the run and fired a strike to first base.
Blass went into liftoff.
“Everything is so contained and kept inside all during the game. It’s got to be that way. You've got to have absolute concentration,” Blass explained to me in an interview this summer.
“But when that last out is recorded, all that interior energy just explodes.”
It propelled Blass into the air.
“Hell,” he said with a laugh, “I could have qualified for the Olympics.’’
All afternoon, Kennedy had kept his lens focused on the hitters in the batter’s box.
But now, as he focused on Sanguillen running for joy, Blass appeared in the frame, about to launch into a mid-air leap, and he was blurry.
“I had to back focus pretty much to get him sharp and I had to do it pretty quick,’’ Kennedy recalled. “It wasn’t like today with digital cameras that focus automatically. There are a lot of things that can go wrong when you are manually focusing.’’
But Kennedy had quick steady hands. Nothing went wrong.
In one fluid motion, he adjusted the focus and clicked the shutter, capturing Blass at the peak of his leap. He kept shooting for nearly a minute as the joyous Pirates players mobbed each other on the field.
“After about 30 seconds it looks like a rugby match. Everybody is just flopping all over each other,’’ said Kennedy, a veteran of 33 World Series. “It looks great when it happens, but usually when you look at the film, you go, ‘ehhh…’’’
Not sure if he’d captured anything remarkable, he scrawled “end of game’’ on a caption bag and dropped the film canister inside.
He handed the bag to a messenger, “some college kid,” who took off for the AP’s dark room on the opposite end of the stadium, on the upper level behind home plate.
As the messenger climbed down the ladder, Kennedy barked one more order.
“I told him to come back and help me carry all my equipment.’’
There were probably 40 photographers at Memorial Stadium that day, maybe more, Kennedy recalled.
They shot for the two teams, for the wire services, for magazines and for newspapers like the Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh’s Press and Post-Gazette, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Many were seasoned pros, like Sports Illustrated’s Walter Iooss Jr. and Tony Triolo.
All were stationed at different vantage points around the ballpark, capturing game seven with hundreds if not thousands of images from just about every angle. Kennedy said there were at least two other photographers with him on the platform behind the center field wall.
The chances of one photographer getting that unique shot that no one else got were not impossible. But they might’ve been as slim as the underdog Pirates’ chances going into the series of beating the Orioles.
When Kennedy finally poked his head into the AP’s dark room 45 minutes after the game ended, no one said anything to him.
No one had time.
“They were just so busy,’’ he said. “It’s not like they were looking at just my film. They’re also looking at what the field-level photographers and what the overhead photographers got. They're looking at eight or 10 rolls of film, 36 exposures. That’s a lot to look at.’’
It took at least an hour for Kennedy’s end-of-game photos to be processed, edited and transmitted to AP clients around the United States, an eternity compared to today.
“If I cover a game today and a guy flies into second base in the first inning, that picture can be out on the wire in minutes. In 1971, for that picture to get out on the wire you’re talking about an hour from the time the kid walks the film in,’’ he said.
“He’s got to wait for the elevator, go up. They process the film, dry it, then the first editor starts going through it and hands it to another darkroom guy who makes a print and hands it to the second editor. He has to make sure he knows what the play was and type a caption. Then it takes 10 minutes to transmit the picture. It was a laborious process.’’
When he finally left the ballpark, he said he didn't think much about whether any of his photographs might wind up in the next day’s newspapers.
He just wanted to go home and relax.
The next day, more than a dozen different AP game photos would appear in newspapers around the country. Many were memorable images: Blass with his tongue out after throwing a fastball. Clemente rounding third after his fourth-inning home run.
There was a popular photo shot from behind home plate of Blass mid-air with his back to the camera and first baseman Bob Robertson raising his arms in triumph after the last out.
But when the “play reports” came in from the wire service’s bureaus around the country, detailing which AP photos newspapers published Oct. 18, 1971, Kennedy’s photo stood out above the rest.
“It got enormous play. I was the only one, fortunately, that had that picture,’’ Kennedy said.
"If you said to me at the end of the game, before I saw anybody’s take, as we used to call it, ‘your take,’ I would have said somebody had it better from the inside,’’ he said.
“It was more like the week afterward that I realized, ‘Hey, that photo was pretty special.’’’
Several factors made the photo special.
For one, it captured an emotional image of the game’s hero, Blass, who’d pitched a complete game to clinch the championship. (A starting pitcher has gone the distance in a World Series Game Seven just twice since 1971 — Bret Saberhagen in 1985 and Jack Morris in 1991).
“If that happened today, they would have brought in some reliever to get the final three outs and he would have been in all the photos,’’ Kennedy said.
Also, the photo is intimate. In the frame, Sanguillen is right next to Blass, their upraised arms forming two side-by-side Ys.
“But they're not really that close. They are probably 30 or 40 feet apart,’’ Kennedy said.
Because Kennedy was so far away and using a 600mm lens, the two players neatly fill the frame.
“A long lens foreshortens it, compresses it. When they lined up that way, it had that kind of look to it,’’ he said.
“If you made that (photo) from third base, there'd be 30 feet of dead space between Sanguillen and Blass. That's not good. You don't want space. You want them as tight as possible.''
Perhaps most remarkable, Kennedy was able to overcome the moment’s technical obstacles, ending with the final critical task of replacing a blurry Blass with a sharp-focused Blass.
Today, “it would be up to the photographer to get the focus dot on what he wanted to be sharp and the camera would do the rest of the work,'' Horton said.
But in 1971, Kennedy didn't have the luxury of autofocus.
"If you can imagine, he's looking through his telephoto lens, which is foreshortening the scene, anyway, and it’s a moving target,’’ Horton said.
“Rusty saw something coming in from the edge and his brain reprioritized. He had to, in that split second, decipher what was happening.
"To have your brain and your eye and your finger all work in concert in that situation is pretty incredible.’’
Kennedy wasn't credited by name in any of the newspapers that ran his photo. “Associated Press Wirephoto” was the only attribution, in small print, the common practice in those days.
The photograph shows a perfectly arrested moment of joy. On one side — the left, as you look at the picture — the catcher is running toward the camera at full speed, with his upraised arms spread wide. His body is tilting toward the center of the picture, his mask is held in his right hand, his big glove is still on his left hand, and his mouth is open in a gigantic shout of pleasure. Over on the right, another player, the pitcher, is just past the apex of an astonishing leap that has brought his knees up to his chest and his feet well up off the ground. Both of his arms are flung wide, and he, too, is shouting. His hunched, airborne posture makes him look like a man who has just made a running jump over a sizable object — a kitchen table, say. By luck, two of the outreaching hands have overlapped exactly in the middle of the photograph, so that the pitcher’s bare right palm and fingers are silhouetted against the catcher’s glove, and as a result the two men are linked and seem to be executing a figure in a manic and difficult dance. There is a further marvel — a touch of pure fortune — in the background, where a spectator in dark glasses, wearing a dark suit, has risen from his seat in the grandstand and is lifting his arms in triumph. This, the third and central Y in the picture, is immobile. It is directly behind the overlapping hand and glove of the dancers, and it binds and recapitulates the lines of force and the movements and the theme of the work, creating a composition as serene and well ordered as a Giotto. The subject of the picture, of course, is classical — the celebration of the last out of the seventh game of the World Series.
The second paragraph of the story, which would later appear in Angell’s baseball anthology ''Five Seasons,'' identified Kennedy as the photographer.
Headlined “Down the Drain,” the 10,000-plus word article offered a compassionate look at how Blass was coping with the meteoric fall of his career, the sudden loss of control that forced him into retirement just three years after his World Series glory.
In an interview this summer, Blass told me the ‘71 championship, culminating with that joyous jump captured in Kennedy’s photograph, would help him cope with the trials that would follow his tribulations.
“It actually laid down a foundation of confidence for what else you’re going to face in life. About three years later that confidence was needed because it all went down the drain,’’ he said.
“I’ve even talked to people who have gone through it, like Rick Ankiel. I said, ‘I got a little bit of an edge because I accomplished all my dreams and then it all went to hell and it has to be tougher for you, Rick, because you thought you could do it and you were doing it but you didn't get a chance to go all the way up to the top of the mountain.’’’
When Blass reached the mountaintop that autumn day in 1971, he leaped toward the sky, a moment captured in a photograph displayed in Blass' home for the past 50 years.
“I was acting like a child even though I was 29,’’ he said. “Sometimes it seems like it happened an hour ago.’’
The celebration photo become a source of comfort for Blass, so much so that the retired pitcher sought out the name of the photographer who took it.
Finding it was not easy, but Blass eventually learned the name Rusty Kennedy.
One day in the early 1990s, after Blass joined the Pirates broadcast team, the former World Series hero was riding the press elevator with a handful of others at old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
“I saw this one guy looking at my credentials and he started to smile,’’ Kennedy recalled.
“The doors opened. I got off the elevator ahead of them. The one guy called out, ‘Rusty! Rusty!’ I turned around and saw this guy I didn't recognize. He said, ‘I want to introduce myself. I’m Steve Blass. I've been waiting 20 years to meet you.’’’
"Rusty! Rusty! I want to introduce myself. I'm Steve Blass. I've been waiting 20 years to meet you.''
A casual friendship formed. The photographer and the retired pitcher would chat over the years when they ran into each other at the ballpark.
“Steve said to me, ‘I am on the road a lot broadcasting, but there's not a day when I’m home that I don’t look at that picture.’’’
Years later, Kennedy said he received an unsolicited gift from Blass and Sanguillen.
“One of the team photographers from Pittsburgh gave me a copy of the photo,’’ he said. “It was signed by Manny and Blass.’’
When Blass published his 2012 autobiography, “Steve Blass, A Pirate For Life,’’ he included the photo with a cutline that purposefully identified the photographer:
“This iconic photo by Rusty Kennedy highlights two 12 year old kids in adult bodies.”
As special as Kennedy’s photograph is for many Pittsburghers, it’s not the most iconic image of Pirates glory.
That honor probably goes to the late James Klingensmith, a Post-Gazette photographer who captured those memorable images of Bill Mazeroski rounding the bases after his home run won the 1960 World Series.
Like Kennedy, Klingensmith followed his instincts.
With his teenage son tagging along with him on Oct. 13, 1960, he talked a maintenance man at Forbes Field into loaning him a ladder, which he climbed to an exclusive perch on the roof behind home plate.
Then he pulled the ladder up, so his competitors couldn’t join him.
“We were the only ones up there,’’ his son James recalled in an interview with the Post-Gazette in 2011 when his father passed away at age 100.
"When Maz hit the home run, my dad started jumping up and down, and I said, 'Pap, you better get to work.’ He said, 'Holy hell, you're right!' And he grabbed his camera and caught Maz coming around second base."
Klingensmith's image of Mazeroski waving his batting helmet over his head after he rounds second base served as the model for a statue of Mazeroski outside PNC Park.
Kennedy’s photo was used two years ago as an emblem for the commemoration of Blass’ 60th season with the Pirates.
“Those are iconic images,’’ said Craig Britcher, assistant curator at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum in Pittsburgh.
As it did in so many other newspapers across the country the day after the 1971 World Series, the photo wound up on the front page of the Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh's morning newspaper.
Britcher, who grew up in Upper St. Clair, the same suburban Pittsburgh township where Blass once lived, was among the many Pirates fans who saved the newspaper as a souvenir, a precursor to saving an image on Facebook or Instagram.
“We had the Post-Gazette front pages framed from 1960, 1971 and 1979 in our guest bedroom,’’ he said, referring to the Pirates' most recent championship.
“That’s what’s so important about Mazeroski waving his hands and Blass jumping in the air. That’s really how people remembered because they didn't have it on DVD or on their iPhone. That was what you held onto.
"That was the definition of what made a photo important back then. It captured the moment for you to remember always.’’
For Rusty Kennedy in 1971, the Blass-Sanguillen photo gave him a confidence boost and set the tone for the kinds of photographs he would make over the next 40 years.
“Harry Cabluck was the AP photographer in Pittsburgh and he said after the series there wasn’t a tavern in Pittsburgh that didn't have that picture hanging over the bar,’’ he said.
(Cabluck, by the way, captured an iconic photo that would hang over bars and taverns across New England — Carlton Fisk waving his hands as he watched his World Series home run bounce off the foul pole in 1975. Three years earlier, Cabluck captured Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception.")
For Widman and Horton, the photo is a precious artifact from an era long before auto-focus and Instagram.
“Nowadays you take a picture and if it's out of focus, you hit the delete button. Back then there was no delete button. You either had it or you didn't have it. You manually focused and you nailed it or you didn't. You had the right timing or you didn't have the right timing,’’ Widman said.
Kennedy, he said, "knew what to expect. He got the human side, the emotion of the moment, and that beats the hell out of any bat on the ball. For that reason, I am able to say that Rusty, hands down, day in, day out, was the best sports photographer I've ever seen, period. It's not even an option to discuss.’’
"He got the human side, the emotion of the moment, and that beats the hell out of any bat on the ball."
Dozens of photographers captured hundreds upon hundreds of images at Memorial Stadium that autumn Sunday afternoon in 1971.
But 50 years later, “you only see that one,’’ Horton said. “That's not a slam on the other photographers on the platform. That's a compliment to Rusty.’’
When I first reached out to Horton, I left a vague message asking him to comment on a story I was writing about a famous photograph taken at the 1971 World Series. My message didn’t provide any details about which specific image. But when Horton called me, he said he knew exactly which photograph.
“It's one of those pictures any photographer who would look at it would be in awe of it and any fan that would look at it would be in awe of it and any player who looked at it would know that feeling at that moment,’’ he said.
“It's rare that those three groups would admire the same picture, but Rusty’s picture happens to be one of those pictures.’’
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