Friday, March 7, 2014


For the next fifty-four days, we'll be doing our best to tag along with two of baseball's most ardent admirers and drollest critics--the Baseball Reliquary and Ben Sakoguchi.

The symbiosis between the Reliquary, with its reverent anti-institutionalism, and Sakoguchi, with his critical phanstamagoria, has been palpable for years, but the ongoing exhibition entitled "Purpose Pitch," which runs at the Arcadia Public Library from March 4-April 29, clarifies and crystallizes that association while demonstrating how history can be the springboard for an aesthetic assignation with the true nature of things.

We'll be examining each of the fifty-four paintings from Ben's Unauthorized History of Baseball that were chosen by Reliquary executive director Terry Cannon, and offering some brief commentary on each of the works as we go.

First up, from Display Case #1, is the exhilarating "Fly Ball Brand" (you'll remember that Ben has couched all of this work in the form of "orange crate art," a blend between the plein air movement in early twentieth-century California and the commercial art that adorned the packaging of what used to be the Golden State's most voluminous export).

Some of you may have seen this image previously; it adorned the cover of the 2011 convention edition of The National Pastime, the SABR publication devoted to baseball in Southern California that appeared in conjunction with the Los Angeles-based convention of that year. (The publication was valiantly edited by Jean Hastings Ardell, who risked more than a little by defiantly placing our essay on the Reliquary into its pages, an act of genuine courage for which we remain extremely grateful.)

As with virtually all of Ben's paintings, there's more history behind the image than initially meets the eye. (But what a wonderful, incongruous image: a hot air balloon defying the laws of gravity by carrying an entire squad of baseball players!)

Those players, taken from a contemporary photograph, are the member of the 1902 Los Angeles Angels, playing in the primordial California League. The signature of one of those players, as is usually the case with Ben's work, is displayed as part of the painting. In this instance, it's the signature of the legendary, wayward Rube Waddell, the greatest (and wackiest) left-handed pitcher in the Deadball Era.

1902 proved to be the pivotal year in Waddell's wild odyssey, transforming him from a promising young pitcher into major league baseball's greatest gate attraction during the first decade of the twentieth century. The great historian/analyst Pete Palmer researched Waddell's 1902 season in detail and shows how Rube almost single-handedly turned around the fortunes of the Philadelphia A's when he left Los Angeles in late June, going on to win 24 games in barely more than three months of elapsed time (the most wins in the least games since the 1893 rule change setting the pitcher's mound distance at 60'6").

So, in one sense, Sakoguchi celebrates the aerial achievements of Waddell even as he depicts him in what we might term his "waiting to fly" location. A free spirit with more than a trace of "arrested development" in his makeup, Waddell would spend six tempestuous years under the bemused care and guidance of Connie Mack, who built a championship team around him.

Note also how Ben slyly insinuates the diamond shape of the infield into the rows of the orange groves below. As we'll see on many occasions as we proceed, he's a tricky fellow, capable of chiding and celebrating at the same time.