One of the legacy aspects of Baseball America, here in our 35th year, is the row of filing cabinets where old photos are stored.
Most of them are prints, a lot of them are slides and a few of them are on CDs. We have storage for digital pictures covering most of the last dozen years or so, but when I first came to the magazine, actual photographs were still sent in to the magazine on spec from freelance photographers and then filed by the subject’s name.
One of my first jobs was coordinating those photo submissions to BA and filing them in manila folders in those cabinets. It was too lowbrow to really be called the photo editor, but that role enabled me to get to know the cast of characters who submitted photos to the magazine and later the website.
That’s how I got to know Ken Babbitt. First, Kenny was our only photographer based in the Boston area, a proud graduate of Scituate High (Class of ’77), on Massachusetts’ South Shore. If we needed Red Sox prospect pictures or Cape Cod Leaguers, he was our guy.
He wound up being one of my favorite photographers to talk to because he truly loved talking baseball, talking prospects and talking about the players that he shot. One of the guys I remember us discussing the most was Russell Branyan, whom I covered in the South Atlantic League in 1995 and ’96 before I came to BA and in the Carolina League in 1997.
Babbitt was excited about Branyan’s arrival in the Eastern League in late ’97, and in 1998, Kenny got him to pose with one of his signatures: the Big Bat. Made by Barnstable Bat Co. in Massachusetts, the Big Bat was a 6-foot bat, Barnstable president Tom Bednark says, made by doubling the 36-inch mold for bats used by players such as Kevin Mitchell and Mo Vaughn.
“We’d bump into him pregame at the Cape Cod League games,” Bednark said. “He might be shooting different guys for the league, or newspapers or magazines, and prior to the game we’d start chit-chatting, about his kids or baseball and all that, just being chums. He was just a very nice guy—always in an upbeat mood, loved baseball, and he was a carpenter by trade. (Photography) was just a sidelight for him. He worked with wood, so he was interested in what we did.
“One time he came over, and he saw we made bats for the Cape hall of fame, different novelty items for the Cape, and he said he wanted to make a couple of 6-foot bats.”
Babbitt posed players such as Vaughn, Adam Dunn and Branyan with the Big Bat, and there was even a card set of minor leaguers, Babbitt’s Bombers, that Team Best put out in 2001, when he posed players from Michael Cuddyer, Vernon Wells and Marcus Giles, among others. Kenny used to lobby me to get a Big Bat shot on a BA cover. We used some of the shots inside, but we never put the Big Bat on the cover.
That’s the first thing I thought of when someone texted me this morning the shocking news that Kenny had died Monday. The cause of death hasn’t been disclosed, but it appears his death was unexpected. BA contributor David Schofield, the team photographer for the Lakewood Blue Claws in New Jersey, said he spoke with Babbitt just on Sunday, said he’d complained that he’d had difficulty sleeping recently, but there were no indications of any significant illness among his friends.
The news of his death shook up the community of baseball photographers, who respected his work ethic, his passion for baseball and his integrity in a changing era for photographers, whose work is much easier to steal in the digital era.
“A lot of photogs benefited from his knowledge, his experience and his kindness,” Schofield said. “He’d say, ‘Don’t just give yourself away. If it’s good enough for them to want, it’s good enough for them to pay something for.’ He tried to come across as a gruff grizzly and he was really just a teddy bear.”
The last time I heard from Kenny was on Twitter on April 9, when I was covering a Virginia Tech-North Carolina baseball game. I tweeted about Hokies shortstop Ryan Tufts, a Boston area product, ending J.B. Bukauskas’ no-hit bit with a single to center field in the sixth inning of a game, and Kenny replied, “MA kids can play ball!!”
“He knew the whole chain of baseball,” Bednark said. “He heard about the kids who were hot in high school, and all the prep schools around—you know how it is when somebody’s hot, the word gets buzzed around, and he knew everything that was going on in New England with those players. He was very well-informed.
“My wife’s going to be devastated. She liked to talk with him and invite him over, because he was a good guy to talk to.”
Babbitt, who usually greeted friends as “pal” or “chief,” loved to talk baseball and about his children, his son Eric and his daughter Kerri. Eric’s middle name, Vaughn, hints at his father’s love of Mo Vaughn. His pride in his kids, especially his daughter’s choice to serve in the military, was readily apparent in any conversation.
“His eyes lit up when he talked about his kids,” Schofield said. “He didn’t have a relationship with his ex-wife, and he was very hard on himself for putting them through it, but he was so thrilled his kids were able to go through the divorce and be the people they were.”
No doubt they’re proud as well, but saddened today, much as this corner of the baseball world is, at his passing.