Sam Stephenson is a large man drawn to large projects. He's part ethnographer, part collector, part Americanist and part project manager. In another century, he might have been a botanist, obsessively collecting plant specimens and categorizing them. In a sense, that's what he does today, only his field of study is American cultural history.
For a decade Stephenson had a position at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), where he labored on the Jazz Loft Project, a colossal undertaking in which he cataloged and published a cache of photos of the mid-20th century New York jazz world that were left behind by W. Eugene Smith.
Stephenson left CDS earlier this year, but he's hardly slowed down. He's working under the aegis of his own company, Rock Fish Stew, and his current project takes him to another American institution that also perhaps hit its apex in the 1950s: baseball.
Bull City Summer is a yearlong multimedia mission to document the lives found within the ballpark that sits at the intersection of Blackwell Street and Jackie Robinson Drive. At bullcitysummer.org, writers and photographers are providing regular updates as they cover the team from the press box to the dressing room, from the concession stands to the Blue Monster.
Taking its cue from the daily-ness of baseball—the 72 games that are played in Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP) between early April and early September—the project's point of entry is a regularly updated blog that features words and pictures by an impressive bullpen of contributors. Writers have contributed accounts of daily fixtures of the ballpark ranging from the well-known (on-field emcee Jatovi McDuffie) to the important but unseen (official scorer Brent Belvin) to a below-decks receptionist with a rather macabre day job.
Among the photographers are local shooters Leah Sobsey, Frank Hunter, Alex Harris, Elizabeth Matheson and Ivan Weiss. Several photographers were brought in from out of town, too: Hiroshi Watanabe (see Related Story below) and Alec Soth came for a few days apiece, and Kate Joyce (see cover photo above), one of Stephenson's former colleagues at CDS, is spending the season in Durham, away from her Chicago base. Joyce's work has appeared in The Paris Review and The New Yorker (where it accompanied an Alice Munro story).
Stephenson says the project acquired its scope of support after a boost from Triangle Orthopaedic Associates, a major Bulls partner. This medical firm directed him to a meeting with Larry Wheeler, executive director of North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), and Capitol Broadcasting Co. (which owns the Durham Bulls) also came on board as a key sponsor. The Southern Documentary Fund came on board as a fiscal sponsor.
"I like projects with a lot of different partners," Stephenson says wryly.
Baseball was an early love for Stephenson, a native of Washington, N.C. "I played through childhood and high school," he says, noting that he even pitched for a couple of years at UNC as a walk-on. "I wasn't very good," he modestly hastens to add. "But I had fun."
In 10th grade, a teacher introduced him to an important landmark of baseball literature, Bernard Malamud's The Natural. "He's probably my favorite writer of all time," says Stephenson, who also lauds the baseball themes found in more recent titles, including Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding and David James Duncan's The Brothers K.
Baseball, Stephenson observes, "is one of the only sports that is not a battle over real estate. Most sports are modeled on warfare." These martial sports, he adds, are played in "coliseums," while baseball games are most often played in "parks."
Baseball's literary gene is present, too, in the writing in Bull City Summer. A number of local writers, including Allan Gurganus, have signed on to the project, but Adam Sobsey's seemingly effortless dispatches are the anchor, the ballast and the mainsail of the blog. "He comes from a theater and creative writing background," Stephenson says. "He applies those skills to cover sports, which is really unusual."
Sobsey's erudite approach to baseball (which he honed over several years on the INDY's sports blog, Triangle Offense), produces stories that typically contain deep historical, arcane tradecraft, allusions to literature, philosophy and poetry and, not least, shameless puns.
A recent, typical post began:
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," George Santayana warned us. The better known version goes, "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it," but that is a corruption of what Santayana actually wrote. "Cannot remember" is not the same as "ignore." One is a (forgivable) failure of recall, work unfulfilled; the other is a willful disregard, a resistance to the truth.
This preamble was followed by an impressive recounting of different at-bats—weeks apart—by Ernesto Mejia of the Gwinnett Braves. The pitcher, catcher and Sobsey remembered that Mejia had a distinct weakness for sliders low and outside. The narrative slid from past to present, and Mejia repeated his past failures by swinging and missing at a slider. Sobsey concluded his account with a gentle nudge in the direction of "Funes the Memorius," by Jorge Luis Borges.
While Sobsey's passion for baseball is perhaps matched only by Stephenson's, not all contributors have a particular interest in the game. Joyce grew up in an artistic family that paid little attention to sports. "Visually, there's a lot to tap into [at the ballpark]," she says. She admits to occasionally "running into a wall" with her lack of baseball knowledge. But she has a solution handy: She sat down and watched a game with Sobsey, absorbing his abundant knowledge. With her background in dance and the repetition of rehearsal, she has been drawn to pre-game batting practices.
After the season, the raw material from Bull City Summer will find new life in a book to be published next winter by Daylight, a Hillsborough-based art publisher. "Having been involved in the photo-publishing world for 10 years now," Daylight co-founder Michael Itkoff writes in an email, "we are interested in ways to diversify our approach to art books. We are also baseball fans."
Daylight was involved with Stephenson and NCMA in commissioning photographers, and the collaboration with NCMA will reach fruition next February, when the museum exhibits prints from the season at DBAP.
The book recently became available for preorder, and even though the season has a few weeks to run, Stephenson is already editing it. It's planned to be 216 pages, with 129 photos. He's not sure yet which ones to include, but this is his element. He calls himself a story-finder rather than a storyteller.
"I'm good at finding order in chaos," Stephenson says with a smile.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Writing and shooting with the Bulls."
There are numerous INDY Week ties to this project. The INDY's website hosted Bull City Summer during its beta run during the 2012 season; Sobsey started his baseball writing on our sports blog and continues to write about wine and other topics for INDY Week; Bull City Summer project manager Emma Miller is an INDY Week freelancer and former intern; Glenn McDonald has written about film and DVDs for the INDY, as well. Poet and playwright Howard Craft judged this year's Poetry Contest, and both he and Stephenson have received Indies Arts awards in recent years.