Take Me Out to the Art Gallery

| 11/1/2010 10:43:57 AM

The American National Game of Base Ball 

Baseball has long been considered a sport for American scribes and poets, and the list of luminaries who have written on baseball reads like an American literary Who’s Who: Ring Lardner, Damon Runyan, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Don Barthelme, Donald Hall, Charles Bukowski, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Yusef Komunyakaa, and so on. Less well known, however, is the love affair between visual artists and baseball. American illustrator Norman Rockwell is probably the most famous baseball-loving American artist; his take on baseball was like his own work, wrought with homespun pathos and irony. But beyond Rockwell, the artistic view of baseball has always been anthropological. That is, beginning around the time of baseball’s very origins, artists have recorded a telling impression of what’s happening on the diamond and beyond.

Through artists, we can follow the development of the sport, as well as that of American society. Consider for instance a Currier & Ives print from 1866. Called “The American National Game of Base Ball: Grand Match for the Championship at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, N.J.” (pictured above), the work predates the arrival of the first professional baseball team (the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869) and the first professional league (the National Association  in 1871). The Elysian Fields are believed to be the site of the first baseball game ever played, in 1846, in a game featuring a team organized by Alexander Cartright, who first wrote down the rules of the sport. If we compare the Currier & Ives image to another early baseball image from 1875, “Baseball Players Practicing” by Thomas Eakins, we can see how rapidly the game was changing, and how quickly society was adapting to the changes. Eakins was the most prominent artist of his era, and his view of the sport is quite unlike the Currier & Ives image from just nine years earlier. The former image shows a sport that is casual and rural and not much different from a picnic in the park, while Eakin’s baseball has become more codified with uniforms, grandstands, and eager spectators. The players are heroic and iconic, and Eakins revels in showing their larger-than-life quality.

Moving into the 20th century, artists continued their fascination with baseball even through a succession of art movements and constantly evolving artistic concerns. James Daugherty’s modernist painting “Three Base Hit,” from 1919, showed the approach of the short-lived synchromism movement, which was based on the idea that color and sound are similar phenomena, and that the colors in a painting can be orchestrated in the same harmonious way that a composer arranges notes in a symphony. In George Luks’ “Boy with Baseball” from 1925, we can see the urban realism of the Ashcan School. And in a cubist-inspired painting from 1949 by Jacob Lawrence called “Strike,” we can see the artist’s awareness that the country has grown into its more dynamic, mechanized, fast-moving, and multi-cultural post-War self.

Mid-century Abstract-expressionism was not immune to the charms of baseball, particularly in the figure of Elaine de Kooning, who made a number of baseball images – including “Baseball Players” (1953). Even an artist as unlikely as Andy Warhol got in on the act. One of his earliest screen prints from 1962, called “Baseball,” depicted a repeating image of Roger Maris in the midst of a homerun swing. Warhol also later did portraits of such baseball stars as Pete Rose and Tom Seaver. The Pete Rose image was commissioned by the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1985, after Rose broke baseball’s career hits record. The list goes on and includes artists such as Ben Shahn, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, and others up until around the 1970s, when there’s a sudden dearth of artistic images of baseball — with the rare, rule-proving exception of John Baldessari’s “Baseball (with beer)” from 2008, which appropriated a film-still image from Bad News Bears.  

It’s unclear why the art-baseball connection is less well-known today than the literary one. What is clear is that sometime around the 1980s, baseball and art were no longer on such friendly terms. It may have been the fault of the era’s Culture Wars, when, for a good fifteen or twenty years, art and artists were a political commodity that liberals and conservatives batted around as though with a fungo bat. Also in the 1980s, baseball stepped up its efforts to control use of its trademarked images. A special wing of the league, Major League Baseball Properties Inc., regularly sued game-makers, toymakers, trading card companies, restaurants, clothing and apparel manufacturers, and anyone caught using images of current and former baseball teams and players without “express written permission.” Because of these social factors, along with the era’s transition from analog photography to digital (and the accompanying loss of archival photos), the twenty years at the end of the last century were dark ones for baseball—at least in terms of artistic representations of the sport.

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