An Off-Season Project: Colorizing Swampoodle Grounds

Sometime between 1886 and 1889, in either late March or early April, in the late afternoon, a photographer set up a camera and took a picture of the Washington Nationals practicing at Swampoodle Grounds, with the Capitol dome looming over the right field wall (and the McDowell & Sons Steam Elevator building). At work, the photograph has been my desktop wallpaper for about a year and a half, combining as it does history (ie., Washington of the 19th-century), politics (the Capitol dome), and baseball.

For an off-season baseball project, I decided I would learn a new skill and colorize it in GIMP, a free PhotoShop replacement that I use to edit and resize photos. I’ve never colorized a black and white photo before, so I found a tutorial online, printed out the instructions, and worked through them, experimenting as I went. Except for some finickiness with the Paintbrush tool, it’s not that difficult at all. It only requires patience.

Swampoodle was a pretty small park for the era — 325 in right, 375 in center, and 275 in left (because of the DC street grid). Other parks of the era (Brooklyn, Chicago, Pittsburgh) had center fields that approached six hundred feet deep; Swampoodle was tiny by comparison, more like its contemporary the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia than Brooklyn’s Washington Park. There was one major difference between Swampoodle and its National League contemporaries, though. Swampoodle had no grandstand. It was an infield, an outfield wall, and a clubhouse. There’s another photo of Swampoodle Grounds, this one of the infield and left field as well as the B&O rail yard beyond. Some students of baseball history believe that it’s Cornelius McGillicuddy, better known as Connie Mack, behind the plate for the Nationals in that photo, but there’s no Capitol dome here.

There are several things in the photograph I noticed in working with the photo that I hadn’t realized before, despite looking at the photo almost every single day.

First, it’s not a photograph of a game. For a long time I’d assumed that it was a photograph of throwing the runner out at first. But it’s not. It’s a practice. There are a couple of baseballs on the outfield grass near the first baseman. The right fielder has just thrown the ball (and, from his stance, toward the infield). One of the players near second base is actually carrying the bag. What’s happening, then, is players warming up, getting the field ready, and running some infield drills.

Second, the photograph was taken early in the year, possibly March or April. There are trees beyond the outfield wall, barren of leaves. This suggests to me either a pre-season warm-up or an early season game.

Third, the photograph was taken in late afternoon. The angle of the shadows is long and comes from the west. The angle of this photograph is toward the southwest. Swampoodle was near what’s now Union Station, and Union Station is northeast of the Capitol Building. The west-facing sides of the McDowell & Sons building are illuminated.

Conclusion? A late afternoon practice in March or April in the nation’s capital.

Other little details — there are two people looking over the center field fence, and there’s someone in the window at the top of the McDowell & Sons building watching as well.

It’s been an interesting learning process. To get green-ish (and, dare I say it, sickly) looking grass, I’ve had to use a pale yellow mask; even a light green made grass that looked too dark and healthy. (They couldn’t exactly go down to Lowe’s in 1886 and buy Scott’s Turf Builder.) The Capitol dome is tricky to work with (since it fades into the sky), so I’ve had to clone the dome and flip it so I have a complete dome to work with. I’ve taken liberty with the sky; the sky in the original photograph was formless, possibly because it was overcast, so I used a photograph I’d taken of wispy clouds that I’d taken last year as the layer mask for the sky. (I attempted to “age” the cloud layer in the GIMP, but nothing seemed to work.) The Capitol dome itself took some work; it faded into the sky in the original photograph, so I cloned the dome and reversed it to make a complete dome I could build a mask around.

I’m nowhere near done with the colorization, and I’m not planning on working on it intensely. Steadily will suffice, it will take my mind off of the NLDS, and by Opening Day I’ll have a new desktop wallpaper, same as the old, but this time in color. :)

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