It’s my pleasure to share the latest project from my fellow Sony Artisan Jean Fruth co-founder of Grassroots Baseball, a non-profit that promotes and celebrates the amateur game around the globe, with a singular aim: to grow interest and participation in the sport at the youngest levels. Her hectic year-round shooting schedule aligns with her commitment as a traveling photographer for La Vida Baseball and La Vida Sports, digital media companies that share stories of Latino sports across the United States and Latin America through original video, writing, and social content.
Jean’s latest book Grassroots Baseball: Route 66 examines America’s pastime in the small towns and large cities along America’s original cross-country highway. Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, George Brett and Jim Thome — all got their starts along Route 66 — highlight a list of current and retired baseball legends who contributed first-person essays to the book.
It follows up on her previous book Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin, released in 2019 which document the game from sandlots to big time ballparks, and at every level of organized baseball through the United States and the Caribbean, giving readers a window into how these legends’ careers began. It features an introduction by Cal Ripken, Jr., a foreword by Steve Wulf, and an afterword by Johnny Bench.
Q: Before we get into what you’re doing today, tell us a bit about your origin story. How did you get into photography?
I began my photography career in portraiture, not because that was my passion or my chosen path, but it was where the opportunity was. I worked for two women who had a thriving portrait business in Northern California. Their work was beautiful: black and white, very artistic portraits, all on location and all film. They had a darkroom and were printing their work on beautiful stock paper and framing. They were kind enough to take me under their wing. I knew a bit about darkroom work from a class I had taken, and I was very interested in printing. I started printing their work, assisting them with shoots and working with clients. I eventually started shooting with them and assisted in opening a studio to augment their on-location work. Our studio was in a gorgeous barn with an outdoor space, giving us great options for lighting along with the option of natural light. It was there I got my first experience in lighting. I was taking lighting, printing and general photography classes during that time to continue my education. As I grew, I wanted to explore different types of photography to figure out my path. I worked with wedding photographers, landscape photographers and fine art photographers. When sports presented itself as an option, I immediately loved it and never looked back. I knew I wanted to figure out a way to make this my path. The feeling I got when I first started shooting sports, I still get today, when anticipating what is going to happen, I feel an adrenaline rush and incredible energy.
Q: What led you to specialize as a sports photographer?
I was hired by local newspapers in Northern California to shoot youth, high school and college sports. It was very clear from the moment I started that this is what I wanted to do. Then, I had the opportunity to move up to the big leagues and shoot professional sports — the Oakland A’s, San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. The A’s and 49ers photographer took me under his wing and gave me a tremendous opportunity to learn at a very high level and influenced how I documented sports.
Both experiences greatly influenced the way I shot and still shoot today. My early portrait days have served me well at every stage of my career. Making a great portrait takes time to learn and is extremely difficult to master. You need to connect with your subject, interacting with him or her to develop trust and build a relationship. Having that early experience with the women with whom I worked and then honing those skills was invaluable as I transitioned to sports with Michael Zagaris. Also known as “Z-Man”, he became my mentor. He is the ultimate behind-the-scenes shooter. In Z’s world, everything happens before the start of a baseball game. The work he produced from shoots in the locker room is some of his best stuff and unique — no one else has anything like it. The Oakland Coliseum was the first major league ballpark in which I shot, and Z was my teacher. Working with him, especially in front of the visiting dugout before a game is one of the best experiences I can think of. He interacts naturally with players, telling stories and making them laugh — making us ALL laugh. His incredible knowledge of the game and its history is phenomenal. Oakland is the only major league ballpark that does not have a rail in front of the dugouts. This makes the interaction and photos so much more accessible. The candid, fun images we captured using wide angle lens, and the wonderful portraits we took, are unique to Oakland. I would be a completely different photographer had it not been for Z.
Q: Covering the San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s and San Francisco 49ers must keep you very busy, what’s your favorite thing about being a professional sports photographer?
Though action is exhilarating (and I love shooting it), storytelling is where my heart is and makes me a different kind of sports shooter. The stories surrounding the sport, the athlete, and the culture, is my thing.
Q: Is there one sporting event that stands out above the rest? Super Bowl, World Series or something else?
The 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Guardians (formerly, the Indians). The Cubs championship is the greatest story in baseball history, falling behind three games to one, only to come back and win to end a 108-year drought. Each game was exhilarating. Chicago’s comeback and elation combined with Cleveland’s fallback and deflation, given its own 68-year drought, made the Cubs’ win the greatest story in baseball history.
Q: You must not like taking time off, because in addition to shooting the Giants, A’s and 49ers, you’re also a contributing photographer to the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, has that allowed you to get to know baseball legends you had only photographed from across the field?
After shooting professional sports in the Bay Area, my career progressed as I became the traveling photographer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Museum wanted to add a contemporary voice to their marketing to attract a younger audience through social media platforms, something that was just becoming an important outlet for baseball.
The goal was to tie the current game to history. My role and projects ended up being far more reaching. It was a tremendous challenge and incredibly rewarding. I became a visual storyteller.
Q: I’m sure many readers would love to have that sort of access to major league and NFL athletes, yet your latest project is something anyone could cover. What led you to covering Grassroots baseball?
I have a year-round baseball shooting schedule. It starts in the United States with Major League Baseball during its season and then moves internationally for the rest of year, covering professional Winter Leagues and events like the Caribbean Series that rotates host countries from year to year. I have also always made time to shoot the amateur game, the grassroots game. If I was in Japan shooting the World Baseball Classic, I would peel off and find a little league game in Tokyo. Or if I am shooting Winter League in the Dominican Republic, I will wander the streets and look for street ball. The amateur game is where I started, and it is the purest part of the game. It is not about money or contracts, just for the pure love of the game. That setting makes great pictures and there are many stories to tell.
Q: Your book Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin, released in 2019 documents baseball through the United States and the Caribbean and now you’re following up with Grassroots Baseball: Route 66. That certainly screams Americana – did you find close ties between baseball and America’s original cross country highway?
There’s a strong connection to America that baseball and Historic Route 66 share. The passion, devotion and commitment to the National Pastime along the route runs deep. Wherever they hail from – be it the Windy City or Santa Monica, Oklahoma City or Amarillo, young players with the talent, hard work and good fortune to build a career in the game all came by way of Grassroots Baseball. Since the game’s inception, some 2,000 ballplayers born along the historic route have left the open road and blazed their own paths to the major leagues. My book includes include photography of the grassroots game intertwined with poignant imagery of the Americana that has come to define the historic highway since opening nearly 100 years ago.
Q: Your book features an introduction by the legendary Johnny Bench and an afterword by fellow Hall of Famer Jim Thome, was it hard to get them or was the subject close to their hearts?
I am very fortunate that all the Hall of Famers and legends we asked said yes to the project. They are asked so much about their professional careers and playing days, that I think they enjoyed telling stories of their early years of playing baseball and what it was like to grow up along Route 66.
Q: Most readers are probably jealous of your access to major league baseball – yet any of them could easily cover a little league game in their hometown, do grassroots games give you allow you to shoot from vantage points you could never get access to at a major league game?
I am spending more time teaching sports photography these days and I can’t stress enough that it’s the “what” not the “who” that makes great pictures. When you let go of “the who” and just focus on your angles, light and creativity, you can make something great. In professional sports, so much of the time we are making the same picture. I prepare just as much for a little league game as I do for a professional game. I shoot my subjects as if they are professional players, but with so much more ability to be creative.
Q: Does your gear differ shooting a grassroots game vs major league baseball?
At times, yes. Many times, my 400mm is a bit of overkill for a grassroots game. I also prefer to shoot a bit looser to give my pictures a sense of place, tell the story and ideally show the culture.
Q: Final question, best baseball movie: Field of Dreams, Bull Durham or Bad News Bears?
Field of Dreams 😉
Jean Fruth’s Go-to Gear for Baseball:
Three Sony Alpha 1 cameras and one Sony a9 II for back-up or as a remote
Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS
Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II
Sony FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM
Sony FE 12-24mm F4 G
Sony FE 85mm F1.4 GM & FE 135mm F1.8 GM for portraits and occasionally pre-game.
Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM
Sony FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS (I’ve been using this a lot less lately)