If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Mark Rucker’s vast and varied collection of historical images from the last two centuries must have an infinite number of stories to tell.
Over the last three decades, Rucker has compiled and preserved close to 500,000 images on a wide range of subjects, and in many mediums, including original photography, illustrations, posters, cards and prints.
In 2005, Rucker and his wife and business partner, Alison Moore, moved from Boulder, Colorado to an orchard in Peachland where the two continue to add to, manage and maintain the collection through their company, The Rucker Archive.
A renowned collector, photo archivist and baseball historian, Rucker’s first love is baseball. But his archival stockpile extends far beyond the diamond, depicting other topics such as arts and culture, politics, entertainment, the Wild West, carnivals and circuses, advertising and architecture.
Whether the images are of Babe Ruth, Buffalo Bill Cody, Barnum and Bailey, Native America, a sporting event, labels from a fruit crate, or simply ads in a magazine, Rucker has always been intrigued and fascinated by the stories that live within each and every picture.
“(Images) give you information about a time that has come before, you have a moment locked down in time,” said Rucker. “Depending on that information, you can create a story long or short. Often it’s a combination of pictures, pictures that interact with one another to produce a full story. Sometimes it takes just one picture to find out exactly what you want. Each picture can teach you something.”
The Rucker Archive—originally known as Transcendental Graphics—rents out its images for use in projects such as books and publications, for film and T.V., or for public displays.
Images from his collection have appeared in the past in Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and Vanity Fair, as well as in HBO programs and many documentaries.
A graduate of State University of New York Albany in 1976, Rucker began his career as a painter and in his early years frequented flea markets, auctions and antique shops in search of pictures on which to base his art.
By the mid-1980s, his natural appreciation of images and the history connected to them had evolved into serious collecting.
“I would go out and look for pictures to work from for my drawings or paintings, and I realized I had all of this really interesting material coming through my hands on a regular basis,” he said. “I started to take pictures of everything I got, and shortly after that publishers started contacting me about historical baseball I had been collecting. It opened up a window in history for me, I started to do a lot of research, to know everything I could about it, and I haven’t stopped since.”
Rucker’s first major project was a 1988 pictorial history of Babe Ruth, a joint effort with Lawrence Ritter entitled ‘The Babe: A Life in Pictures.’
Many of his earliest baseball pictures were featured in Baseball, Ken Burns’s critically acclaimed multi-part documentary on the history of the game which first aired on PBS in 1994. So valued was his expertise by Burns, Rucker was brought on as the project’s pictorial archivist.
“That whole project was just great,” Rucker said of Baseball. “They were getting a lot of things historically right that the public had perceived incorrectly about baseball for years. It was nice to be part of that.”
Rucker also published the first ever pictorial history of Cuban baseball in 1999—Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball. Travelling to Cuba to research the book was one of the more fascinating cultural and historical experiences of Rucker’s career.
“Cuban baseball passion runs high and little was known of it,” he said. “The history is interesting and complicated, due both to the high quality of play and the racial boundaries that were broken. Negro league players from the U.S. had played there for decades and were treated much better than they were back home. Cuba is a wonderful place, baseball’s in their blood. They’ve been playing it since the 1870s, almost as long as North America.”
Baseball history always came first for Rucker, but by the late 1990s he had expanded his collecting into many other areas. No image with any historical significance was off limits for his collection.
“Regardless of the subject, historical images are always interesting to me,” Rucker said. “It’s a passion of mine, it has to be to be in this line of work. There’s nothing like finding a brand new and rare image. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, if it grabs me I’m going to try and acquire it for the collection.”
In Alison Moore’s opinion, the Rucker collection has grown and evolved over the years thanks in large part to her husband’s naturally keen eye and artistic sensibilities.
“What sets his work apart is that, as an artist, Mark only connects with the most wonderful and beautiful,” Moore said. “Because of his personality he can spot the wild and strange. Like Ken Burns, he has a visual eye all based on the aesthetic.”
One of Rucker’s most prized and memorable antique finds occurred in 1990. Upon buying a rare baseball book from a dealer in New England for $150, he found a number of items tucked into the back of the book.
Among them was a red and white circular program celebrating pitching great Cy Young’s last game in Boston, valued at $750.
But the ‘piece de resistance’, as Rucker called it, was a program from Game 3 of 1903 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates.
“It was an excellent-to-mint program, printed on plain brown paper, so plain I couldn’t believe it. It had the scorecard with it, too. It was real, it was genuine from Game 3 of the first World Series. There’s only one other in existence and I was offered $30,000 for it. That was a jaw-dropper, a wonderful moment for any collector.”
As has been the case with so many of his treasured finds over the years, Moore said Rucker’s knowledge and passion for collecting served him well.
“Every antique dealer is given an opportunity to make the score of a lifetime,” Moore said. “It’s all dependent on their knowledge and knowing immediately what they have in their hands. What Mark has been able to acquire over the years is really a testament to his expert knowledge. His scholarliness when it comes to history, antiques and collecting really shines through.”
One of Rucker’s most recent and enjoyable discoveries was a label issued by an early-20th century fruit packing company in Northern California.
Circa 1910, the Champion Brand Apricot crate label is in near-mint condition and features a picture of a player from the Ontario Base Ball Club of the 1870s.
“This one turned up about nine months ago in Long Beach, California, there are likely two or three in the world,…very rare,” Rucker said. “I love it, it’s very exciting to find something new and reach into the story behind it. It’s what keeps the business interesting.”
The Rucker Archive is available for viewing at www.theruckerarchive.com
The web site also features Rucker’s baseball blog.