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Colorizing some old St. Louis baseball photos with Photoshop neural filters

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I had too much anxiety about the election this week to write anything, so I colored some pictures instead.

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A colorized B&W photo of James “Cool Papa” Bell, circa 1922.

By the time you are reading this, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes is either decided or not-decided. As I have been wracked with anxiety leading up to the election, and I knew that if I tried to write on Wednesday morning I could be still be drunk in either celebration or depression, I filed this a couple days ahead of time.

Photoshop recently unveiled a set of “neural filters” which use AI to make a variety of complex changes to images. You can thicken the hair of someone in a portrait or turn their frown into a smile. You know - real dystopian shit.

But what caught my eye is the filter that automatically colorizes black and white images. And because I am a lunatic who thinks relentlessly about St. Louis baseball, my first thought was “I wonder if I can color some old-timey baseball images?”

The results are not always great, but still provide a fun, full-color glimpse into faces we’ve only ever seen in grey or sepia tones.

James “Cool Papa” Bell

This portrait of a very young Cool Papa Bell has been dated to 1922, which also happens to be just old enough to put it in the public domain. That was Bell’s rookie season with the St. Louis Stars, though I have not been able to pinpoint if that’s a Stars jersey he is wearing. As I noted in my retrospective on Bell’s career, this was also the point where he was a pitcher exclusively.

In my brief experiments with the neural filters, I found that studio portraits yielded the best results with the Photoshop colorization. So this is the first of many of these photos that will come from a studio portrait and/or a baseball card produced from a studio portrait.

George Sisler

As I noted in my look at Sisler, he and Bell had careers that very much mirrored each other. I have not been able to find a reliable date on this photo, but it is very likely from 1915 or 1916, when Sisler (like Bell) featured primarily as a pitcher.

This pose was very common among portraits of pitchers, and may well have been used for a baseball card or other promotional purposes.

Cy Young

The legendary pitcher Cy Young joined the St. Louis ball club, which had been nominally renamed from the Browns to the Perfectos, for the 1899 season. I’ve written about that season a couple times before. In a nutshell, the Cleveland team was going to be contracted. Their owners - along with a local St. Louis owner - bought what was left of the Browns and transferred over all their best players so they would not be lost to contraction.

While Young is not in a St. Louis uniform here, this portrait is dated to 1899. I did try to colorize some of the team photos that exist of the 1899 club, but with very little success.

Chris von der Ahe

This is basically THE photo that exists of Chris von Der Ahe, the man who brought professional baseball to St. Louis. He was a German immigrant and local saloon owner who saw the enormous potential in Sunday afternoon baseball and selling beer. If you aren’t familiar with Von der Ahe, I highly recommend The Summer of Beer & Whiskey.

As you can see, it comes from a set of Old Judge Cigarette cards from the late 1880s. These cards were some of the earliest sources for portrait PHOTOS of ballplayers, and while the results are not always spectacular, the filters give us a little hint of color.

Charles Comiskey

The success of von der Ahe’s Browns in the late 1880s - four straight pennants and two world championships - was largely due to the team’s captain, best player and manager: Charles Comiskey. He played in St. Louis from 1882 until 1889, when he was finally driven away by von der Ahe’s erratic behavior and meddling with the team.

Comiskey of course went on to own the Chicago White Sox, where he would serve as one of the prime villains of the Black Sox scandal, if not in reality, at least in retellings such as the superb Eight Men Out.

In addition to the portrait photo of Comiskey, the other Old Judge Cigarette card shows him posing at his first base position. While he is shown in this photo with his foot on the base, ready to receive a throw, Comiskey is widely credited as the pioneer of first baseman playing off the base to field a wider range of balls.

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These are just a few photos of note that I put through the colorizing filter with decent enough results. I’m sure some folks with much better Photoshop skills than I can do even better. The colorization filter is still in Beta, so it’s also possible the quality of its results will continue to improve.