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THE PEOPLE'S GAME

Ballpark Figures
Exhibition Review by Mikhail Horowitz

 

The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball. American Folk Art Museum, New York City.

 

For my fifty-third birthday I was given a major league baseball, autographed by the entire team. The team, however, was not contemporary, nor was it one of the fabled rosters of the game's golden or gilded ages—the '27 Yankees, say, or the '55 Dodgers. Moreover, it was hard to decipher the players' names, because they were signed in futhark, or runes, the alphabet of the ancient Teutons, Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings. (After much scrutiny, though, I was able to make out "Olaf Bloodbat" and "Erik Iron-glove.")

The ball was the creation of Carol Zaloom, an artist who also has decorated baseballs with Egyptian hieroglyphics, Zen Buddhist calligraphy, and Solutrean and Magdalenian cave-animal motifs (and who, for the sake of full disclosure, coincidentally happens to live with me). A truly quirky, lovingly wrought, and quintessentially poetic object, it has much in common with the trove of items on display in The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball, an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, which we visited on a dandy day to play two this past July.

With more than a hundred objects in a rainbow of media—originally made in rural shacks, farmhouses, jails, and factories, but now residing in museums, galleries, or private collections—The Perfect Game is a joyful and timely celebration of what baseball has meant, and continues to mean, to the ordinary citizens of this republic. It is not about merchandising, although several items in the show, such as old tobacco cards and a pair of andirons cast from molds in the form of a batter and a pitcher (the prototype for Iron Man McGinnity?) were obviously made to be sold. Nor is it mainly about history, or sociology, or aesthetics, although all of these are touched upon or reflected by both individual pieces and the show as a whole. What The Perfect Game is primarily about, especially in its one-of-a-kind, handmade offerings, is the singular, spontaneous, unsolicited response of one person's being to the glorious game of baseball—be it through love of a particular player or team, fascination with the game's accoutrements, or obsession with the sacred geometry of the playing field.

It's hard to imagine a more profoundly personal response to the game than Jimmy Lee Sudduth's rendering of Jackie Robinson in "sweet mud," or mud that has been mingled with sugar or molasses, with natural plant matter added for coloring. The large, yam-like head of the artist's hero has a face whose features are barely defined, giving the figure the kind of grave, transpersonal presence we associate with gods or spirits. As with so many of the works here, the portrait both charms and is itself a charm, or magical object; its combination of naive technique and sophisticated use of materials (Sudduth has identified thirty-six shades of mud in his native Fayette County, Alabama, and adds details to his paintings with the tines of plastic forks) is a potent remedy for restoring joy in Mudville.

That so many of these folk tributes pay homage to Jackie Robinson should come as no surprise. As a symbol of courage, social justice, and racial pride, he was lionized by black America and taken to its heart as no other athlete had ever been (with the sole exception of Joe Louis, the heavyweight champ); white Americans with any sense of decency and fair play admired and rooted for him as well. Sam Doyle, who lived his entire life on St. Helena Island, a former haven for freed slaves off the coast of South Carolina, was forty-one years old when Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Some thirty years later, he did a gouache painting of Jackie spearing a line drive and also depicted him stealing home. The latter image, limned in enamel on tin, shows many places where the enamel has cracked and pocked, lending the childlike figures of Robinson and an unidentified Cincinnati Red an even more poignant quality.

My favorite tribute to number forty-two in this exhibition is an absolutely stunning quilt created by Yvonne Wells of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1997. Working with freely cut strips of cotton fabric, Wells has orchestrated a lively, minutely detailed, and richly humorous scene, with nine tiny white players (including a shortstop who looks as if he's mooning the umpire or has just been hit in the ass by a line drive) awaiting a giant Jackie Robinson, who stands in the on-deck circle wielding a bat the size of a telephone pole, studded with buttons. The outfield wall that serves as the bottom border of the scene is lined with stitched-on "ads," whether actual logos (Dr Pepper, Golden Flake) or hand-scrawled approximations of them ("bud/wei/ser" on three lines).

Malcah Zeldis's epic-scale "Homage to Hank Greenberg" is a tour de force, an exceptionally fine example of how to cram an almost infinite amount of pictorial activity into a finite space. Its larger-than-life subject, standing at the plate in Tiger Stadium, top center, with a rather leonine-looking tiger at his breast, is only a small part of the picture. We're given a generous account of the artist's Detroit neighborhood in all its bygone hustle and bustle—street-cart vendors, marching bands, ice wagons, flags, equestrian statues, even glimpses into private homes, schools, and shuls—the whole of it brightly illuminated and divided into discrete sections that flow together seamlessly. Like many other pieces in the show, it reminds us how inextricable baseball once was from the life of a community, and how deeply those ties extended.

Among the other players who lent inspiration to the unassuming craftspeople, blue-collar machinists, communal quilters, and solitary geniuses whose works are displayed in The Perfect Game are Hank Aaron, Martin Dihigo, Gene Woodling, Vic Raschi, Pete Rose (who has a piggy snout and a vaguely Mennonite air about him in a painted wood carving by Elijah Pierce), and, of course, Babe Ruth, whose career was equal parts fact and folklore.

Although iconic depictions or devotional portraits of favorite players abound, they constitute only a small part of the exhibition. The diversity of themes and media is itself reminiscent of a crazy quilt: oil paintings of unrecorded games between anonymous teams; a baseball enwrapped with leather and decorated with thread-sewn glass beads by a member of the Lakota Sioux nation; croquet wickets of wrought iron in the shape of infielders with their arms akimbo; seats from the Polo Grounds and a terra-cotta frieze from the first incarnation of Yankee Stadium; an automaton made for an arcade game, evoking the Tin Man of Oz stepping up to the plate; carved batsmen on wheeled bases that served, perhaps, as the equivalent of cigar store Cleveland Indians; vintage photos of early- twentieth-century players, including a close study of the grotesquely gnarled, repeatedly insulted right hand of Cubs catcher Jimmy Archer; a meticulously executed portrait of the championship softball team at Carl Robinson Correctional Institute in Connecticut, created from unraveled sock and shoelace thread; a densely textured, allegorical depiction of a black ballplayer in the bad old days of the color line, incorporating tin, rope, feed sacks, chicken wire, and enough additional materials to make a German neo-Expressionist green with envy; a bat painted firehouse red, adorned with a mystic rayed eye and other Masonic symbols; and a drum once thumped at Ebbetts Field in the Dodgers Sym-Phony Band.

Best in show? Impossible to choose, but for sheer exuberance, I'd have to say an oil on Masonite by the Reverend Johnnie Swearingen. The good reverend makes a joyful noise unto the Lord in this wild, tumultuous scene of a game in progress; in fact, his painterly jubilation is so great, he seems not to have noticed that the umpires at second and third are making calls on simultaneous plays. Where's the ball? And, for that matter, why are two outfielders apparently covering second? The reverend's no longer here to tell us, but if he were, he might reply, "Oh ye of little faith, such prosaic considerations are entirely beside the point. Baseball is poetry, and poetry moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform."

The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball is the perfect tonic to the corporate slickness pervading and purveyed by MLB. In place of hype, it offers heart; in place of clichÈs, visions. Far from being mossy with nostalgia, most of the objects and artworks in the exhibition are as fresh and vibrant as the day they were created; they exist, like a baseball written over with Viking runes, in Eternity. "Against all odds, the game renews itself," writes Roger Angell, in an introductory essay to the handsome book that accompanies the show. "Who is to say that at this moment in St. Teresa, Venezuela, some eleven-year-old girl, a genius with poster paints or computer graphics, is not finishing her tribute to Edgardo Alfonzo, while in northern Hokkaido a hoary calligrapher, with his beard almost touching the pristine rice paper beneath his hand, adds a swirl to the ultimate Ichiro Suzuki portrait. Both works may be ready before this exhibition finishes its run."

—EFQ

 

Editor's note: The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball runs through February 1, 2004, at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street in Manhattan. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10:30 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. (until 7:30 on Fridays). Admission is $9; $7 for senior citizens; free for museum members and children under twelve. The book, which bears the same title as the exhibition, sells for $29.95. There are documentary films, curatorial lectures, and guest speaker events taking place this fall in conjunction with the show; for more information, call (212) 265-1040

 

MIKHAIL HOROWITZ is the author of Big League Poets (City Lights, 1978) and a contributor to the seventh edition of Total Baseball. He recites his poem "Pearly Babe," originally published in EFQ (vol. 16, no. 3), on the Diamond Cuts Top of the Sixth CD.

© 2003 Mikhail Horowitz

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