Ken Carr was an individual I knew I’d never forget. From his customary safari hat to his down-to-earth demeanor, he made an immediate impression on me when our paths first crossed at Canal Park in 2009.
I then made my first drive over to Carr’s house in 2010. At the time, I was helping the Akron Aeros finish their production of team baseball cards, and was simply told that he had been taking pictures for them for ages.
Thus, I made the first of two journeys (so far) to an amazing wonderland of Cleveland Indians artifacts. And to the home of an incredible 78-year-old freelance photographer who “just by accident” got his break.
As I learned during my return visit this Monday, Carr is a born and raised Akron native. His actual career began in 1952 as an apprentice machinist for Goodyear, straight out of East High School in Akron. He worked for the company in a number of capacities for the next 44 years.
On Sept. 12, 1953, he married his wife Shirley, who has been by his side for more than 58 years since. A few years later, he had his first of two boys, who now are 57 and 54 and have brought him six grandchildren. Carr also bought a new house in east Akron in 1957, and built all new furniture for the place where he has lived to this day.
In 1989, however, a new career began. That year, the Canton-Akron Indians arrived from Vermont, becoming the closest professional team to Carr’s house.
Late that winter, Carr bought himself a brand new camera. He had always been a sports fan, mostly of football (he loved Jim Brown), and had Browns season tickets since ‘52. But, he thought, baseball photography could be a neat new hobby since he didn’t need much more furniture. He then went to Tucson for Indians spring training just for the heck of it.
In Tucson, he happenstance stayed at the minor league players’ hotel. So when he started taking photographs of players from outside the fence at the stadiums, he was able to show them his work later at night.
One day that March, everything changed. Jose Morales, the then-Indians hitting coach, saw Carr showing some of his photographs to the minor leaguers at the hotel.
Morales took an interest in the photos and, after some careful scrutiny, said: “You could probably do better if you were inside the fence.” That’s how Ken Carr received his first-ever press pass for a baseball game.
“Jose Morales got me started, I never could have gotten this if it were not for Jose Morales,” he said followed by a sentimental pause. “You know. Destiny. Fate. But it sure opened a career for me that I’ll be eternally grateful for.”
Shortly thereafter, it became more than just any normal hobby. Rick Adair, the Indians AAA pitching coach at the time, also saw Carr’s photos and made him an offer to buy them. Adair was the first person to purchase Carr’s baseball photography.
Many coaches purchased Carr’s photographs because they thought it could help them develop players. He shot 8 1/2 frames per second, so you could see entire wind-ups in action and notice the faintest problems with a delivery. Carr credits long-time Indians minor league pitching coach Kenny Rowe with spotting this and also purchasing his shots.
The players, on the other hand, just loved seeing the photos. So Carr started giving each one a CD that contained all of the unedited photos he had of them throughout each season.
“If I can help the kids, that’s all I really want,” Carr said. “… I like kids, that’s been my life. I really love kids.”
Carr retired from Goodyear in 1996. During those seven years after the fateful spring training of ‘89, he was mostly able to just attend games in Cleveland and Canton-Akron. But if work ever brought him down to the Carolinas, he’d do his best to make his way to Kinston (High-A) or Charlotte (AAA from ’93-‘95).
As a freelance photographer, Carr took frequent photos for the recently folded Indians Ink magazine and for Cleveland’s minor league teams. The latter worked into an arrangement where he did all of the baseball card photography for every affiliate besides AAA.
During these stints, Carr immersed himself in a new community. He befriended hundreds of players, coaches and photographer colleagues, and has the stories and evidence to back everything up.
“I love them ballplayers. They made me probably as young as I am. They all talk to me. Every ballplayer talks to me.”
At Ken Carr’s house on Monday, we sat down in his living room for about an hour. There, he told stories of his 23 years of Indians photography. The stories continued for another half hour in his basement, where many of his photos hang on the wall or sit in dozens and dozens of boxes.
This is just a small sampling of the anecdotes he shared.
—- When Carr first met Jim Thome, the future Hall of Famer was just a tiny shortstop struggling to find his niche. Sure, he stood out because of his old-school personality and peculiar red shoes, but there was nothing All-Star about him. Yet.
One day, minor league Thome looked awful forlorn in spring training, as he didn’t have a tremendous number of friends. Carr saw him moping around, and invited him out to dinner with his wife. It made Thome’s day.
Word eventually passed along to Thome’s parents about the Carrs’ kind deed that day, and the five met up in Cleveland. Instantly, Chuck and Joyce Thome became best friends with the Carrs.
And so, one time, way after Thome made it big, they motioned Ken over near the dugout where they were sitting at a Tribe game. They had a gift for him, and it was Jim’s token red shoes from his days of spring training back in the day. Ken said these shoes mean as much to him as any photo he’s ever taken.
Joyce Thome passed away in 2007, but Ken has remained in touch with Chuck. They still exchange Christmas cards to this day.
—- Manny Ramirez was a crazy guy, according to Carr. A star around the same time as Thome, he’s another possible Hall of Famer from the ‘90s Tribe teams. But their relationship couldn’t have been more opposite as Carr’s with Thome.
Carr gave CDs filled with photos to all of the Indians players, starting in rookie ball. To Manny, however, that’s not all he was really looking for.
Carr said Ramirez was “vain” back then. In particular, Carr said the outfielder enjoyed seeing pictures of himself in street clothes, next to tall trees. And, of course, there just happened to be some very tall trees across a lake near Winter Haven, Fla., the former home of Indians spring training.
So the two had a deal where Carr took a series of photographs of Manny standing next to trees while wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Supposedly, some were for Manny to keep, and others went off to his girls.
In Carr’s basement, a photo hangs on the wall of the two friends standing next to a Winter Haven tree. Another one is an autographed one of just Manny. Carr said he still has several others just sitting around in boxes.
—- While not quite an Albert Belle character, Juan Gonzalez was misunderstood by most. He kept to himself and hardly ever spoke to Carr, despite playing the entire 2001 season (and one game in 2005) with the Indians. However, the one time he did say something, he hit the photographer right in the heart.
One day, out of the blue, Gonzalez motioned over to Carr to come near him while he was doing pre-game warm-ups. He grabbed a bat, quickly signed it, and said: “This is for what you do for the Latin players.”
Because Carr gives CDs of photos to all of the players, he often becomes friendly with those who don’t have too many friends. That usually means the minor league Latin players, who often love sharing the photos with family and friends back home.
Gonzalez never spoke to Carr again, but those words stuck out to him amid all the stories. The players meant the most to Carr and this token of appreciation, something he hardly ever received, nearly brought back tears to his eyes.
—-“Saddest thing I ever saw is in spring training when they made their first cut. Dreams are shattered, some are bitter, some cry and some hold their feelings in.”
Being around baseball players for 23 years, Ken Carr has seen his fair share of heart-breaking stuff. While we were chatting, he shared three stories in particular of guys seeing their dreams come to an end or to a temporary halt.
Right when Alan Embree heard he was going to John Hart’s office, Carr was there. Embree thought it might be a trade, but he couldn’t have known. Drafted by the Indians in Carr’s first year (’89), he was shipping off to Atlanta for David Justice in March 1997. Carr has tons of pictures of Embree in his basement dating all the way back to rookie ball.
Herbert Perry, the corner infielder and outfielder for the Tribe back in the ‘90s, threw out his shoulder in spring training to mark the end of his career. Carr walked back into the locker room with Perry that day, and heard him talk about how he was done, right then and there.
Matt Miller was on a rehab assignment in Akron on his hopeful way back to Cleveland. But after it a particularly bad game, he gave it up. He cried and cried near Carr in the locker room, declaring his career over.
And these were just the major leaguers, so Carr saw plenty more where that came from. Although the players’ heartbreak was relative to real-life problems suffered by non-millionaires, Carr’s fly-on-the-wall baseball life wasn’t always filled with such joy and happiness.
—- Brandon Phillips was the one who got away, Carr said. Hanging in his basement in one frame is a compilation of two Phillips pictures, one in AAA Buffalo and one in Cleveland. In both, he’s wearing Carr’s customary safari hat. Across the top in big red writing are the words: “’Was the hat that got me there.” I asked Carr what it was all about.
He said when Phillips was still in AAA, he made a guarantee that if he put on Carr’s hat (specifically designed to protect him from the sun), he’d make it to the big leagues. Phillips complied, and when he made it to Cleveland, Carr took a second photo of him wearing the hat.
Carr said Phillips always was a star athlete, as evidenced by his current success with Cincinnati despite 135 mediocre games in Cleveland from ’02-‘05.
“I fought that [trade]”, Carr said passionately before tapping tapping his hand against a desk. “I told him [manager Eric Wedge] to his face, ‘you are making a mistake trading him.’ That was the worst mistake.”
—- Over the years, Carr has been hit all over his body by foul balls. He’s been hit in the chest, arms, legs, knees and everywhere in between. But the costliest hit he ever endured didn’t even touch his body at all.
Vividly, he recalls it was Ronnie Belliard’s last season in Cleveland, although it took a while to come up with the year (2006). That year, during one game, Carr was standing in his usual camera base spot at Progressive Field. Belliard was at the plate, and all of a sudden, a screamer was heading straight toward Carr’s eyes.
He hardly had time to react, although he saw it coming the entire time. He was able to snap a picture right before contact. The ensuing damage is the picture above, as photographed by Chuck Crow of the Plain Dealer.
The ball hit Carr’s lens right in the middle. The estimated cost of damage, as eventually picked up by his insurance company, was $4,000. The lens itself originally cost $8,000. Carr said he was fortunate that day for two reasons: one, for not being hurt seriously, and two, for Crow’s incredibly timely photo that captured the moment beautifully.
—- “I love people, I’m very much a people person,” he says. Carr maintains it was a complete accident how he got involved in Indians photography, mostly through the help of Morales and Adair all those years ago. But to Carr, what is his favorite team to cover and who are his favorite players to talk to?
I asked him those two questions on Monday. With confidence, Carr said Lake County, the Indians A affiliate since 2003.
“Because in Lake County, all the ballplayers feel like they have a chance to play big-league ball,” he said.
In several related examples, he talked about players losing their youthful innocence as they get stuck in AA or AAA for several years. He shared examples of recent guys like Steven Wright, Trevor Crowe and Nick Weglarz, who all were in Akron when I worked there, and all have battled injuries and other problems over the years.
Those are the guys Ken Carr talked about the most. He feels for them, and truly understands their passion since he knew many of them when they started in rookie ball.
But it’s the rookie and Lake County guys that always keep him young and filled with hope, something that’s been tough to come by lately.
“The last 2 1/2 years haven’t been kind to me.”
That’s what Carr said several times during my visit on Monday. And when he says something like that, he means it.
From prostate cancer to skin cancer, from his recent knee replacement to the insertion of a pacemaker, he’s slowed down quite a bit from his earlier days. He said a stroke also temporarily caused problems with his right side, but now the effects of that incident are only felt in an occasional pause in his speech.
With all of these issues in mind, the Cleveland Indians had to make a decision before the start of the 2012 season. Since 1989, Carr had free reign of the camera base, dugout, playing field and more, just like any other photographer. But because of a fear for his decreased reaction time, they said he would not be allowed in these areas anymore.
Clearly, this change in freedom took an emotional toll on Carr. Sure, he occasionally still takes pictures from the stands at Progressive Field, but it’s not the same as it used to be because he can’t mingle with the players.
Two months in, he’s found some comfort with the Indians’ decision.
“I don’t blame Cleveland for taking me out of the camera base,” Carr said. They’re just worried for my health. This is my first year [away].”
Carr will turn 79 on Sept. 5, the day after I turn 22. He’s clearly slower than he used to be, as he limped around his house on Monday. I hadn’t remembered a limp before, when he previously traveled up and down Canal Park with ease as if it were his second home.
While walking around his house, he showed me his artifact-filled basement and his photography equipment sprawled out in the foyer. He estimated his lenses and camera bodies are worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“I wonder what I’ll do with all that stuff,” he said about the photo equipment. “I’m kind of afraid to give it up because it keeps me around people like you.”
For now, Carr still is doing baseball cards for Akron (AA), Lake County (A) and Mahoning Valley (Short-Season A). He’s gone to a few Cleveland games just for fun this year. And just recently, he decided to not make the trip to the Carolina League (High-A) anymore.
Coming up soon though, he has a big decision still to make about attending spring training out in Arizona in March. It’s getting more and more expensive to travel each year, and he’s not able to be as active as he used to be.
“But as long as I can, I’ll shoot pictures,” he said. “As long as I’m able. Yeah. I love it.”
For me, I’ll be returning to Ken Carr’s house sometime next week. Mahoning Valley’s first home game is Wednesday the 20th, and I plan on going with him to see one of their first few games as Carr does his usual baseball card shooting.
Maybe the people there will share more about Carr’s character and legacy over the past 23 years. Maybe we’ll have other outings together during the next few seasons. But for now, this revitalized friendship at least lays a path for these unbelievable memories to be shared with the world.
“I wouldn’t trade my memories for anything,” he said with a smile. “Precious memories how they linger.”