Still My All-Time Favorite Photograph
I Snapped-It on a mid-June Morning
In Front Of Thousands Of Screaming Fans
By Jack Coll
Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of baseball articles, with no baseball due to the coronavirus I’m hoping to fill the small hole in the heart of baseball fans everywhere.
It’s no secret that my favorite photo that I ever snapped wasn’t snapped in Conshohocken, but was snapped nearly 170 miles away in Williamsport, Pennsylvania on June 16, 1994. Matt Altieri sliding into home-plate, in the bottom of the last inning, with the score tied 4-4 in the PIAA Class AAA State Championship Game being held at Bowman Field in Williamsport, Altieri was the winning run.
The result of Altieri crossing the plate with the winning run was a photographer’s delight, all I had to do was point and snap, they were all good photos after that.
Sports photography is not as easy as it appears to be. It’s all about positioning, anticipation, knowledge of the players and game situation is a huge plus. A high school basketball player is about to score their 1,000th point, where do you position yourself in an effort to snap just the right picture at just the right time. In football, its third-and-goal, seconds remaining in the game, is it a pass to the corner, quarterback sneak, an end around, to what side? How about third and long, do I stand at the line of scrimmage in an attempt to snap the quarterback with the ball just leaving his hands, or do I drift ten or twelve yards down field hoping the receiver runs down my side of the field so I can snap a great photograph of the receiver with the catch on his fingertips for the first down. In soccer, should I set up behind the home-teams net in an attempt to snap a great photo of the goalie making a fingertip save at the front of the net, or, do I set up at the opposite goal in an attempt to capture a header into the net.
All of these little decisions determine the difference between a good shoot, or a bad shoot. When I snapped the picture of Matt Altieri diving head first into home I had a very distinct advantage, I had coached Matt in Tee-Ball and watched his entire Conshohocken Little League career, Senior League career and portions of his high school career.
I knew the minute Matt was bunted over to second base by Vinnie Keaser in the bottom of the final inning exactly where I had to be. Because I coached and followed Matt during his young baseball career I had a tremendous advantage over the other photographers in attendance.
It started in Tee-Ball, Matt was a special talent. If you have a good pitcher and a first baseman that could catch the ball, your team was likely to have a good showing. I’m from the school that keeping score in Tee-Ball is not always a good idea. Matt fielded every single ball that was hit between First base and Third base and fired a strike to the first baseman. I think I coached Matt when he was seven years old but had an advantage because he would play ball with his older brother Bobby who happened to be a pretty good ball player himself.
After an inning or two with us scoring runs and Matt holding the opponents to limited base-runners I would move Matt to shortstop. The advantage to this I always thought was that with Matt at shortstop he would only cover the balls hit to the left side of the infield, any ball hit to the third baseman Matt would field, any ball hit to the pitcher, Matt would field, any ball hit to the second baseman Matt would field and fire to first base for the out. Typically by the fourth or fifth inning I’d move Matt to the outfield, playing deep left field instructing him to only field the balls hit to the outfield limiting him to only fielding balls hit to left, center and right field, thankfully not many balls made it into the outfield.
I remember one time we were winning something like 49-6 I had Matt in left field and instructed him to only chase a ball that hit the outfield fence, which was never, basically I said do not go after any balls hit anywhere, Matt agreed, the next ball was a grounder to second base and Matt came flying in from the outfield to field the ball, he didn’t get the out but he fielded the ball at second base. I called a time-out and went out on the field and explained to Matt that he’d been working hard and I wanted to give him a rest and sent him to the dugout. Within a moment Matt’s mother Dee came flying out of the stands, she understood what I was trying to do and yelled to me “And take his glove away from him too.”
Now when Matt batted in Tee-Ball, I don’t think he ever had less than a triple, he never had any intention of stopping at first or second base, it was only when he got to third base that a coach could physically grab him, and keep him on the bag for the next batter. On most of Matt’s hits the first base coach would throw his hands up saying hold-up, but Matt rarely looked at a coach with his arms up in the air. There was no stopping Matt on the base paths, that’s how he played.
I also watched all the other players on the high school team that played Conshy Little League including, (I’m working off memory here so forgive if I don’t mention every player) Eric Fisher, Vinnie Keaser, Mike Price, Jason Stackhouse, Robbie Reed, Bobby Caucci and a number of others.
This brings me back to Bowman Field, the score tied at 4-4 with the Colonials batting in the bottom of the seventh inning. (Games only went seven innings) The Colonials had the top of their order to start the inning meaning Alteri was the leadoff hitter and Coach DeMito told Matt his job was to get on base anyway he could, Matt worked a four pitch walk. Vinnie Keaser followed Alteri with instructions from DeMito to wait for a strike and bunt Alteri over to second base. Keaser did just that. Now with Alteri on second base with Mike Price, Eric Fisher and Jason Stackhouse to follow in the batting order the odds were that something good was going to happen. Price never had the chance to hit as he was intentionally walked giving the Colonials first and second with one out. Putting the North Allegheny Tigers in a perfect position to turn a double play and send the game into extra innings. Keep in mind that this was the Tigers third trip to the State Championships in four years. The Tigers pitcher had pitched the previous three state playoff games and allowed no hits and no runs, so they were feeling pretty good about a possible double play.
This brought Eric Fisher to the plate and all hopes of a double play by the Tigers were foiled when Fisher took a one ball and two strike pitch and stroked it into right field and the play at the plate was on.
All the little league background brings me back to Keaser bunting Altieri to second base. There were more than 2,000 fans packing the stands that day, once Keaser’s bat dropped down for a bunt, there was four people in that stadium that knew where Matt was headed when Fisher stepped into the batter’s box, me, Matt, Coach DeMito and his mother Dee.
With Matt on Second base I knew exactly where I had to be for the winning shot. I moved from my position between home plate and first base, to moving beyond first base slightly down the right field line. I set up my camera and focused the lens on home plate in anticipation of a play at the plate. The pitcher throwing the ball had no interest to me, Matt leading off at second base had no interest to me and certainly third base coach Hank DeMito, (Also Head Coach) had no interest to me with hands-up singling stop sign, or his arm looking like a windmill sending Matt home.
I didn’t need any signs or signals, I knew the moment the ball came off Fishers bat where Matt was headed, no stop signs were gonna keep him from rounding third and heading for home. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was a soft grounder to first base or the short line drive to right field, I knew I was in for a shot of a lifetime with Matt heading towards the plate.
I clearly noted through my zoom lens that the North Alleghany catcher was out in front of the plate. On a hard slide Matt would have trouble getting to the plate, the catcher positioned himself to take a throw from right field, and the catcher adjusted his glove across his chest to take the throw. Matt was steps away from glory. Through my lens I knew it would take a perfect throw to nail Matt. I started snapping photos as Matt came into frame, damn a perfect strike hit the catcher’s glove with Matt four feet from the plate. As the catcher took the throw Matt was in mid-flight, stretched out with a head first dive, eyes down on the plate. Because the throw came from right field Matt had a little bit of an advantage, the catcher had to take the throw on his right side and swipe across his body giving Matt a chance to hit the outside corner of the plate with his left hand, it was just enough on the bang-bang play.
Back then we were still shooting film, there was no way for me to check to see if any of my shots were clear, and filled with action. After seeing the final product later that day all I could think of was “Thank you umpire for not clogging up my viewfinder by jumping into my shots to call the play.
The sports editor from the Norristown Times Herald called me to ask if I got any good shots of the winning run being scored by Matt, Boy did I! My photo ran on the front page of the sports section the next morning. Generally it was no big deal for me as I had been a free-lance photographer for years with my pictures plastered everywhere. But I had to ask, the Herald had a photographer at the game, a good friend of mine Paul Hawthorn, (RIP Paul) why his photos weren’t available. This is where my early experiences with Matt paid off.
Paul was caught up in the bleachers when Fisher hit the ball to right field, Paul believed he had a batter, maybe two before he had to set up for a play at the plate, and felt he had more time to get down and take the proper position for the winning shot. When the ball met Fisher’s bat Paul hustled down out of the stands and attempted to jump the fence to get the shot but fell flat on his ass and viewed the play at the plate lying on his back seeing it upside down. I never let him forget it either.
I’ve written about this photograph a number of times in the past, and perhaps I’ll never get tired of telling the story. During these times of the coronavirus keeping us locked up I figured a few of you out there might not mind reading it again. During my photography career I’ve had more than 12,000 photographs published in more than a dozen different publications, it should also be noted that I’ve photographed Presidents, Vice Presidents, First Ladies, Congressman, Senators, Mayors and Governors.
I spent a decade shooting the Philadelphia Phillies, Eagles and Sixers, an endless amount of movie stars and hundreds of rock and roll stars and entertainers. I’ve taken well over a million photographs during my 40 years with a camera around my neck. Make no mistake about it, my favorite photograph of all time is that of Matt Altieri sliding head first into home plate with a State Championship on the line.
Thanks for the memories, and thanks for the greatest photograph I ever snapped. See ya next time on Talkin’ Baseball