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Jim Drake, who captured Joe Namath on Broadway, dies at 89
Jim Drake’s image of Joe Namath, then a rookie quarterback, in full uniform in Times Square became one of his best-known photographs. Photo: James Drake.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Jim Drake, a top photographer for Sports Illustrated whose pictures of Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, Arnold Palmer and others, both in action and away from their fields of play, were among the magazine’s most indelible images from the 1960s to the ’80s, died Jan. 10 at his home in Philadelphia. He was 89.

His son Chris said the cause was lung cancer.

Drake arrived at Sports Illustrated in the pre-internet, pre-cable age, when the magazine’s weekly articles were a welcome source of illumination for fans craving more than their local newspapers provided and its photography was part of a tradition of excellence nurtured by its parent company, Time Inc.

“Jim was the best golf photographer I ever saw — he just had a feel for the sport — but he was simply a great photographer,” said Neil Leifer, who started working as a photographer at Sports Illustrated alongside Drake and Walter Iooss Jr. in the early 1960s. “Jim was the best photographer of the three of us, but he had no interest in self-promotion.”

At the 1964 Masters, Drake captured Palmer after he completed his swing, a smile creasing his face while a large gallery of fans rose to cheer him, some with outstretched arms, as he headed to victory. He photographed Wilt Chamberlain in various poses: playing the bongos, skipping rope and taking a shot, shirtless, during practice.

His lens caught transcendent forward Julius Erving soaring toward a basket; Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench chasing a pop fly with his tongue sticking out of his mouth; Jack Nicklaus, away from the golf course, eating a plate of four dozen oysters in Lafayette, Louisiana; and NHL players, none wearing helmets, looking like surreal warriors on ice in the dimly lit arenas of the 1960s.

Drake’s most famous photo was taken not in a stadium or an arena but in Times Square, in June 1965. His subject was Namath, then the ballyhooed rookie quarterback of the New York Jets with a contract worth $427,000, in full uniform.

“It was just like a natural thing: Let’s place him in the middle of nightlife, the heart of Broadway, the perfect match,” Drake told Mark Kriegel in an interview in 2002 for “Namath: A Biography” (2004).

The shoot that day was supposed to take place at dusk, with the sky and silhouettes of buildings still visible. But Namath arrived late, in a limousine, so Drake photographed him lit by neon and strobe lights.

One of the pictures was used as the cover of Sports Illustrated the next month, with the headline “Football Goes Show Biz.”

“He was in a very good mood,” Drake told Kriegel, “so it was easy to shoot.”

Soon after the issue reached Namath’s teammates at the Jets’ training camp, Sherman Plunkett, an offensive tackle, gave Namath the nickname that would last long past his playing career.

“I look at him, he looks at me, and a big smile breaks out on his face,” Namath told Jets Wire, a USA Today website, in 2017. “He says, ‘Old Broadway Joe, Broadway Joe.’”

James Alexander Drake Jr. was born April 6, 1932, in Philadelphia. His father was a civil engineer; his mother, Jane (Fagan) Drake, was a homemaker. He was a track star in high school and began taking pictures there after his parents gave him a Leica. He studied English and journalism at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1955.

After serving in the Army for two years, he worked at the Trentonian, in New Jersey, and Bucks County Traveler magazine, in Pennsylvania. He got his first Sports Illustrated assignment in 1959 — the squash team at the Merion Cricket Club, near Philadelphia — and more followed, until he became a full-time freelancer in 1960.

“That was my dream, Sports Illustrated or Life, one or the other,” he told the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, last year.

He got his wish to work for Life in 1963, when he spent a week in Louisville, Kentucky, with Ali, still known as Cassius Clay, as he prepared to fight Charlie Powell. Ali was a photographer’s dream and bestowed some of his pixie dust on Drake, who showed him in myriad scenes away from the ring: happily watching himself on television; posing with three smiling nuns; shadow boxing in the snow; mock-punching a portrait of glowering heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.

In the Patriot-News interview, Drake recalled that Ali wearied of being followed by him and a Life writer, so “he pulled the car over to the side of the road and told us, ‘That’s it. You guys are killing me. It’s too much. I can’t take it anymore.’

“And he let us out in the middle of downtown Louisville so we could get a taxi.”

Fifteen years later, after Ali lost his heavyweight title, his vanquisher, little-known Leon Spinks, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Drake’s memorable photo of Spinks showed him behind a bank of microphones, his head covered by a blue hood, his smile revealing that his two front teeth were missing.

Drake left Sports Illustrated in 1980, worked for a few years at Inside Sports magazine and then returned briefly to Sports Illustrated before taking a job at ABC Sports. He retired in the early 1990s.

He was also the photographer for the book “Philadelphia: The Intimate City” (1968), written by Gloria Braggiotti Etting, and made short films about tourist attractions there.

In addition to his son Chris, Drake is survived by another son, Patrick, and three grandchildren. His wife, Jean (Casten) Drake, died in 2016.

Palmer was one of Drake’s favorite subjects. He captured the famous fury of his drive — a picture he took of it, at the U.S. Open in 1964, was used in 2020 by the U.S. Postal Service on a stamp — and the little dance he did when he sank a putt.

But at the 1966 U.S. Open, Drake also captured a low moment for Palmer: He is consoled on the course by Billy Casper, who had just beaten him in a playoff. Palmer’s head is down, his shoulders slumped, as Casper drapes his right arm around him.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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