The early years of baseball’s so-called “modern era,” after 1900, used to be part of the dark ages, as far as visions of the athletes went. Their stories existed, for the most part, in the form of statistics. The few photographs that remained in circulation were like the woodcuts peppered sparsely through old novels. Only in oral histories like Lawrence Ritter’s “Glory of Their Times”–still one of the best baseball books ever printed– did the figures come to life.

Last year, however, saw the publication of an amazing coffee-table book, especially where baseball fans are concerned: “Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon.” It’s something of a mystery why it has received such little attention in the sporting press so far. The book consists of 205 photos taken by Conlon from 1904 to 1942. It includes images not only of Babe Ruth–already vivid in our minds from photos, newsreels, and even movies like “Pride of the Yankees”–but of earlier greats like Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Rube Waddell, and Napoleon Lajoie. It also puts flesh on the memories of secondary stars, like Orval Overall, Sam Crawford (still the career leader in triples), Fred Merkle, and Bill Wambsganss– players who appear frequently in old stories or World Series reports, but who threatened to become faceless, ghostlike presences in baseball history.

Yet not only does “Baseball’s Golden Age” resurrect old players. The photos in and of themselves–in their texture, focus, and composition–are frequently of museum quality. And the captions, by Neal and Constance McCabe, go well beyond just naming the players and their claims to fame. They dig up curiosities and anecdotes that even baseball aficionados will be unfamiliar with. (Umpire Silk O’Loughlin, for instance, was such a well-known dandy that the players insisted he would rather call a man out than safe–the better to show off the diamond ring on his right hand.) In short, “Baseball’s Golden Age” is probably the best baseball book since “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” was published in 1985. It is essential to the devoted fan’s baseball library, a delight for the hot-stove league, a future pleasure at televised rain delays.

Conlon was a proofreader at the New York Evening Telegram, but he was also an amateur photographer in the early years of the century. Through connections with the Telegram’s sports department, he began taking baseball photos in 1904, and those same connections led him to work for the Spaulding and Reach baseball guides. Those annual publications were devoted mainly to pushing the products of the sporting-goods companies, but today they remain two of the few (semi-reliable) sources of historical information on what baseball was like at the time.

By 1911, Conlon was the principal photographer for both those publications, and he would fill that role for 30 years, shooting the players as they came through New York. But he never gave up his straight gig as a proofreader. His baseball photos, he seemed to consider, were a way of augmenting his income. The McCabes write in the introduction that he was not a fanatic about the sport. He seems to have known his subject and been devoted to his craft, but in a distant, professional way–a prototype of the photographer Wegee, with baseball stars replacing mob figures.

By shooting for almost 40 years, he was able to trace careers, document athletes as they matured and then aged. Several times in “Golden Age,” photos of the same player, taken decades apart, are placed side by side, and they testify to what a tough life it must have been, to the rigors of mastering a sport and maintaining one’s place in it against rough competition. Many of the early stars were hard drinkers, and the later pictures–of Grover Cleveland Alexander and Paul Waner especially–tell almost too much. Then there’s Charlie Gehringer, the Ryne Sandberg of his day, who–aside from one or two crow’s feet–looks exactly the same in his 1934 photo as he does in his 1925 photo, right down to the pout.

Some of the photos are familiar. Conlon’s portrait of Cy Young is the one reprinted whenever a picture of baseball’s winningest pitcher is called for. And his amazing image of Ty Cobb stealing third appeared in “The Glory of Their Times” in the entry by Jimmy Austin, the third baseman in the image. But that photo is vastly different in its pure form, printed in “Golden Age.” It had been cropped in the past to allow for just Cobb, Austin, and an umpire trailing the play. (Those photos also added a baseball, thanks to a little darkroom magic; evidently it was too much to expect a fan to grasp that the throw had gone past Austin into left field.) But the negative has the play itself at the far left of the image. The first-base grandstand appears in the distance to the right, framed by the intruding arm of the third-base coach, surprisingly inexpressive (no “Get down!”) except for the way the fingers clutch at nothing. That tension is an echo from Cobb’s face, in profile. He is biting his lower lip, his spikes kicking up dirt, as he slides into the bag. It’s a remarkable picture, and considering when it was taken, 1909, and under what conditions, it is not only one of the great sports photographs, it is probably one of the best photos of any sort from its era.

Conlon did not often take action shots at the games. He was more comfortable shooting off to the sidelines before the games began. Even so, when he took a portrait he took a portrait– usually arranging the player against the top of the dugout, for background–and for the most part abstained from those corny shots of the times, showing athletes posing in action, in mid- swing or mid-stride. Taking candid shots as the athletes warmed up, played catch, took batting practice, Conlon invested the players with a remarkable ease–with their own characters, we seem to recognize today. And Conlon was able to translate that personal quality into a grace that still resonates on the page.

There is a lovely image of pitcher Lefty Gomez warming up on the sideline: his arms make a long arc across his shoulders, while his legs cut a crisp angle in mid-stride. And there is a wonderful picture of Mel Ott in batting practice, tracing the flight of the ball–suggested by a white patch of background filtering through the grandstand–at the end of his swing.

There are players both beautiful (Wes Ferrell and a truly pretty picture of Ted Williams in his rookie season) and ugly (Joe Martina, authenticated as what the “James Historical Baseball Abstract” labeled the ugliest player of the ’20s). There is a late picture of Walter Johnson that is the image of a manager waiting to be fired: he is standing in the dugout, his shoulders hunched, his two coaches at his sides, both trying to present a confident facade, secure in the knowledge they’ll be there longer than he will. There is a picture that shows, once and for all, why Johnny Mize was nicknamed the Big Cat. The book’s centerpiece is an amazing set of close-up, sharp-focus portraits of the 1927 Yankees, Murderer’s Row.

Yet the player who makes the strongest impression, both in those portraits and throughout the book, is Lou Gehrig. There are some good photos of Ruth, but Ruth we already knew. Gehrig presents himself, quite suddenly, as some sort of baseball god. His smile is large, handsome, and animated. More than that, though, his action photos show him with a stature the other athletes can’t measure up to. There is one amazing photo of him taking batting practice. He is at the end of his swing, and his legs are twisting up out of the ground much the same way Reggie Jackson’s would in more recent times. But where Jackson, typically, leans forward, having just missed, Gehrig has just swatted one deep. His trunk is erect, his arms high in his follow-through, his chin back as he watches the ball in its flight. Gehrig, from his 2,130-game playing streak to his Triple Crown season of 1934, when he hit 49 homers, drove in 165 runs, and batted .363, has been for so long simply an amalgam of almost unbelievable statistics–like so many of his contemporaries. To see these photos, it’s as if there were suddenly photographic proof that the Greek Titans really did once walk the earth.