The Turofsky Brothers: Sports Photographers

James Trautman
by Ed Warner

James Trautman was born and grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey not far from the Newark Airport. He last spoke to us back on January 20, 2010. At that time he talked about the golden age of the Pan American Clippers based on his book on the famous flying boats (now in its second printing and widely distributed) This time he talks about the famous Turofsky brothers who covered the sports scene and day to day life in Toronto in much of the first half of the last century mostly from the Alexandra Studio that Lou bought and renamed.

The Turofsky brothers emigrated from Chicago to east end Toronto when the oldest boy, Lou, was about twelve years old. Years later In Toronto, Lou went to work for Alexandra Photo Company on King Street. A few years later, he bought out the owner, renamed it Alexandra studios, and hired his brother Nat. Cigar smoking Lou married and raised a family while his younger brother Nat was a life long bachelor. Many of their photographs are available today in the Toronto Archives under “Alexandra Studios” and “Roy Mitchell Collection”. DVDs and prints can be ordered. A few images are available for viewing online at the Archives and elsewhere on the web.

The 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup to be held in Toronto this month (November 2012 and the Toronto Argos won) by a lucky coincidence. The Turofsky’s took many Grey Cup pictures over the years including some at the infamous 1950 “Mud Bowl” which was held here at Varsity Stadium.

The Alexandra studio in Toronto was founded in 1870 and taken over by Lou Turofsky in the 1920s. The large, slow, and heavy Graflex 4×5 cameras were used by many press photographers including the Turofskys. After the Maple Leaf Gardens opened in 1931, it became a second home for the pair.

Jim Trautman says he likes to haunt used book stores. On one of these browsing adventures, he came across a copy of Sports Seen – Fifty Years of Camera Work by the Turofsky brothers and newspaper columnist Ted Reeve. The book was reviewed in the Montreal Gazette back on September 17th, 1960 . It was published by Ryerson Press in 1960, a year after Lou’s death. The book shows a wealth of early Toronto sports history  through the photographs of the two brothers.

Jim was disappointed this past summer (2012) when the Toronto Star sports editor rejected his Turofsky story as “not relevant” in spite of the work the brothers did covering  the CFL, the Grey Cup, and Varsity stadium. To add insult to injury, the Star made no mention of the Turofskys in its lead-up articles to the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup played this month in Toronto. Worse, the paper flooded a stadium to commemorate the “Mud Bowl” seemingly unaware that pictures of the real 1950 “Mud Bowl” exist, taken by Lou and Nat Turofsky! Both the City of Toronto Archives and the Hockey Hall of Fame archives have photographs taken at that 1950 game.

Jim noted that digital cameras and technology give the user instant feedback but the images likely will never see a printer. Traditional paper photographs, on the other hand, are a snapshot of a society’s history: what was important, and who was there – just like Lou and Nat did with their photographs. For example, in the dirty thirties, the American president, Roosevelt, had government photographers take over 200,000 pictures to record the dust bowl of the mid west and its devastating effect on the average American.


From left: The nefarious White Sox of 1919, a Beehive Corn Syrup label, program cover from the Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931, and the old  Comiskey Park batting practice in 1986 in Chicago.

Sports photography began around the mid 1800s at the time of the American civil war. Most pictures were studio shots or posed scenes. An example is the 1898 photograph of the USS Maine’s championship baseball team. This photograph was taken when the ship stopped in at Key West, Florida. It is an important photograph for many reasons. One of the players was black in an era before black American athletes were excluded from all major sports mainly the result of pressures from parties in the American South. It was the last picture ever taken of these athletes. A few weeks later the team members were  amongst the many killed when the USS Maine exploded at its next stop, the harbour of Havana, Cuba.

The Turofskys were the earliest sports photographers to favour  action scenes over studio portraits. Lou had an uncanny ability to get his unwieldy Graflex aimed at where the ball/puck would arrive in time to get a key photograph.

Perhaps it was being homesick for Chicago, but whatever prompted them, the boys ended up at Comiskey  park for the 1919 World Series. Even better, Lou managed to charm his way into the Chicago team’s dugout! That was the series where some White Sox players  “fixed” the games in favour of the Cincinnati Reds and large gambling winnings. A book “Eight Men Out” was later published on the series and its participants. While the players involved were never found guilty, they never again played major league baseball.

In addition to the sports shots, Lou and Nat took many street pictures. The boys became a fixture at the CNE. One of them would photograph the fair visitor while the other printed the picture in time for it to be taken home as a memento. The pair also became the official Maple Leaf photographers. One story in circulation about the incident leading to this coup has Lou politely asking a gentleman at the gardens to remove his hat as it was blocking the game. The gentleman turned out to be Conn Smythe. Mr Smythe, impressed by the courtesy, signed the two up.

Being official Leaf photographers likely led to the famous Beehive photographs of players in the NHL. Jim mentioned that he too has many of the Beehive photos in his personal collection. He likes to collect the lesser known players, pictures that go for $5 or $10 today compared to stars like Gordie Howe, Johnnie Bower, and Syl Apps whose photos sell for as much as $150 in spite of being far more numerous. St Lawrence Starch, makers of Beehive corn syrup offered the photos from 1934 to 1967. People would send in part of a cornstarch package and a request for a player’s photograph.The more popular the player, the more requests. Up to 1959, most of  the pictures were taken at the Maple Leaf Gardens by the Turofskys (this economic practice follows that of baseball where most team players were photographed at Yankee Stadium, conveniently near the Brooklyn based printing company).

Recently, after attending a sports collectible show here in Toronto, Jim received an email from a woman wishing to sell her father’s collection of Turofsky photographs from the 1940s. She sent him an image of an 1948-50 album. On his inspection of the actual album, he saw that on the inside front cover was a picture of two Leafs with the Stanley cup between them, and on the inside back cover was a list of 100 players. At the bottom of that cover, it was stated all pictures were taken by the “Famous Turofsky Brothers” along with their King Street address. Any picture could be had by sending the player’s name, and 50 cents to the Turofskys. From this album inner cover page, Jim concluded the brothers had retained rights to their photographs.

Jim wrapped up his talk with ten representative jpeg copies of Turofsky photographs held by the City of Toronto Archives. Jim mentioned that Turofsky photographs are held by many Toronto organizations such as the City of Toronto Archives, Jewish Archives, CNE and the Hockey Hall of Fame as well as institutions like the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary. Many of the photographs are also online at various web sites.

Jim asked the Archive to make a Mac compatible Power Point show on the DVD. Instead, the Archives sent over a DVD with the images in Jpeg and TIFF formats. The image files were quite large so they were slow to load but enlarged without breaking up. I was pressed to help out and ran Jim’s laptop for him. It was an old family MacBook running OSX Panther (c2004/5) with an early version of Preview.

In the Q&A that followed Jim added some added anecdotes.

– The brothers took humorous shots of each other too. For example at one varsity grey cup game, they posed a policeman getting his tie straightened by one brother and being photographed by the other. In the 1950 mud bowl photographs were taken of both brothers sitting on a crate, and then Lou alone on the crate in the rain.

– The brothers did lots of work for the Toronto baseball team from the 1930s through 1956/1959. One player Jim remembers from the days of the Yankees’ Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, was  “push em up Tony Lazzeri ” Lazzeri’s job was to go to bat and try for at least a walk or a single to push up the guys already on base. Tony was briefly on the Toronto team.  One 1939 shot at the all-stars game in NYC shows Tony with an arm patch for the 100th anniversary of Baseball.

– Amongst the great portraits of sportsmen in 1940s to 1960s the brothers shot Toronto  baseball team owner Jack Kent Cooke with a birthday cake celebrating a young players birthday at the Toronto ball park. Jack owned CKEY at the time as well as number of sports teams.

– Today, Lou and Nat are both famous and somewhat forgotten with their photographs scattered across the country. In the 1960s the Maple Leaf baseball team went into decline, Lou had died, and Jack Kent Cooke moved down to California and remarried.

Following are just a few of the many prints produced by Lou and Nat over the years.

Catching the “decisive moment…” The ball is in the catcher’s mitt and the batter doesn’t even know it, but Lou does as he shows off his knack of catching that special moment with his big ungainly  graflex.

Leaf’s Tony Lazzeri was known as “Push-em-up Tony” for his ability to get a single to advance the runners. This 1939 photo shows Tony with baseball’s centennial arm patch.

Tony Lazzeri in a Maple Leafs uniform tries to burn off an early snow fall in Toronto in the late 1930s or early 1940s before the game starts.

Nat at the far left, and Lou third from the left, cigar and camera in hand, on the sidewalk in front of his Alexandra Studio on King street west in downtown Toronto.

In 1950 the Grey Cup at Varsity was called the “Mud Bowl” because of the bad weather. The brothers are kibitzing around and here Lou is snapped camera ready sitting on a box.

Lou shoots some Leafs in the days when the locker rooms were less auspicious…

Team owner Jack Kent Cooke celebrates a player’s birthday in a big way down at the Toronto ball park. Jack owned Toronto radio station CKEY at the time.


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