A ball, a bat, a lock and a chain: How the ubiquitous MLB lockout stock photos came to be

For the past month, since the Major League Baseball team owners locked out the players following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, I’ve clicked on every baseball labor story.

(To very little actual development, admittedly. This has not been a great use of time.)

Pretty much always, that means clicking on a dramatically lit close-up shot of a clean baseball besieged by a silver chain locked to nothing but itself. Also there’s a bat in the background.

Here’s an example:

Brownsburg, IN - December 2: An Official Rawlings Major League Baseball sits with a bat, lock and chain to represent the lockout between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) on December 2, 2021 in Brownsburg, IN. (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Need a visual representation of the MLB lockout? Look no further. (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Here’s another, ever so slightly different, example:

Brownsburg, IN - December 2: An Official Rawlings Major League Baseball sits with a bat, lock and chain to represent the lockout between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) on December 2, 2021 in Brownsburg, IN. (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Photographer James Black said he bought the ball, chain and lock that have become ubiquitous on the baseball internet from a local hardware store. (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The image evokes “baseball lockout” in such an on-the-nose way that they can’t be for or from anything else. As the weeks without other news stretch on, they’ve become omnipresent on sports websites. If you write about the lockout repeatedly, the art for all your stories will blur together since it is, quite literally, all the same.

With depictions of the players themselves scrubbed from official channels for the time being and the news they generate slowed to a trickle, these staged stock photos have become a visual testament to baseball’s big winter freeze. They are, to a target audience that may not extend very much beyond just me, iconic.

Their provenance doesn’t matter, per se. But with little else to occupy my curiosity, I decided to seek it out nonetheless. A simple Getty search reveals that there are actually dozens of therm — although only a few are widely used — all taken by someone named James Black for Icon Sportswire. So I called Black, who lives and photographs sports in Indiana. Here’s our lightly edited, utterly pleasant conversation:

When did you get the idea to do a lockout stock photo shoot? Did you follow the news of the impending CBA expiration?

The lockout happened Dec. 2, and the manager of operations at Icon sent out a message requesting photo art for the lockout. And I was like wow, I wish I had thought of that sooner, I would have had it ready to go. So I didn’t even start it until after the lockout started and immediately I was like, well these news organizations are going to need this like right now. … I just went down to my local Little League field that I played on as a kid, and took some photos.

What would you have done if you had thought of it sooner?

I probably would have picked up more balls and done a more elaborate shoot, and not rushed it as much. They requested them at noon or something and I had another big shoot the next day so I was under a time constraint to get it done in under a few hours. So I kind of rushed it. I could have found a different location maybe, better lighting, taken my time with it a bit more. But I’m pretty happy with how the photos turned out.

Have you ever done any sort of like staged photo shoots fit with a news cycle before?

I’ve never really done anything staged like this before. Well, at the beginning of the pandemic the same thing happened, sports stopped, and it’s a sports wire service so when sports stopped it’s like how do we pivot from here and do something different. They put out a similar request for COVID-related images and I had a couple masks in my house so I kind of set up a little thing in my kitchen and took some stock images of masks. But other than that, there’s nothing comparable.

Where exactly did you get the props?

I went down to the local Meijer, which is about 5 miles down the road. I have a lock and chain in my garage, but they’re all dirty and nasty and I thought they wouldn’t look great in photos, so I picked up a new lock and chain at Meijer. And they had a bunch of generic baseballs and then they had one of the officially licensed major-league baseballs and I'm like that is exactly what I was looking for. I thought I was going to have to go to a Dick’s Sporting Goods but luckily they had it at Meijer, so I picked it up. The baseball bat I had in my garage. And yeah, I think that’s it. The four items. The lock, chain, baseball and bat.

How long did it take and how many photos did you take?

I would say I spent probably an hour, hour-and-a-half out there. And I took probably a couple hundred images. And at the end of the day, I uploaded roughly 40ish. Trial and error with the lighting, home plate was dirty so I cleaned it up a little bit, and I went out to the outfield to take some photos and someone had let their dog run loose so there was some dog excrement out there that I hadn’t noticed, so I had to retake some of those photos.

I feel like the ones with the dog excrement might have actually gotten used the longer this lockout goes on.

I think I still have those!

Do you notice them getting used everywhere?

Yeah, they are. So I check every once in a while and I look for other photographers that have taken similar images, and they’re just not really out there right now. Whenever I search on Getty “MLB lockout” there’s my images and then stuff from the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Are these the most popular photos you’ve ever taken?

It’s hard to tell because we’re still really in the middle of the game, so it’s hard to rate it, I haven’t seen any data yet of the usage of it other than just Googling it myself and seeing it. I’m always surprised whenever I get data on what photos sell because what I find on Google or Yahoo is one-ten-thousandth of what actually gets used. There’s so many photos that get used in newspapers or magazines or somewhere online that didn’t credit me. So it’s hard to tell how much it’s been used, but it’s definitely in the top 5 percent.

But hopefully the lockout doesn’t last forever and they stop using it relatively soon. Who knows when this thing is going to end.

You might need to do a second round just so we have different art we can use so all the articles don’t look the same.

I’ve already got some photos in the process for when the lockout is over. So hopefully we’ll be using those.

Can you spoil those? What do we have to look forward to?

It’ll be similar to what I took before, but, how should I say this, the locks will be broken.