As we wind up our blogathon coverage of "Purpose Pitch"--the Baseball Reliquary's tribute to its kindred spirit, Japanese-American artist Ben Sakoguchi and his Unauthorized History of Baseball series--we must note that we've been remiss in quoting from the curator's notes that accompany this singular installation (still on display at the Arcadia Public Library through April 29!).
We're going to remedy that right now, by permitting Reliquary Executive Director Terry Cannon to guide us through nine superbly rendered artworks, all of which embody Ben's eye for history and his abiding love--actually, fixation might be a more accurate term--with the team photo.
We don't know exactly how many of Ben's "orange crate art" paintings feature team photos (or clever variants of same). There are over 200 paintings in the complete series, and we'll just have to spend an evening doing a manual count in order to put this artistic wrinkle into full numerical context.
He's also written with a vengeance--in fact, with a definite flair--and his own plain-spoken eloquence is at its most moving in his notes for these eight "group-click" works of Ben:
Union Brand Ball
The Civil War marked the first extensive connection the game made to America's long history of wars, thereby linking baseball, patriotism and the military. During the Civil War, baseball was played both informally and in organized contests by soldiers. The game boosted soldiers' morale, and was responsible for relieving their boredom and healing their homesickness. The game was even played in prison camps, thus allowing prisoners to better endure their captivity.
Some have speculated the North won the war because baseball prepared the soldiers for challenging drills and group cohesion, which wound up paying dividends in the heat of battle. "Union Ball Brand" depicts Union soldiers with baseball bats in their Civil War encampment. The game would ultimately help reunite the torn country when peace brought an end to the fratricidal conflict, thus earning its billing as the "national pastime."
Barefoot Boys of Summer Brand
...reminds us that kids are the true hub of the baseball universe. As children we learned the secrets of breaking in a glove, and we got together with friends and chose sides to play baseball. We studied the backs of bubblegum cards like our lives depended on it. We would go to sleep at night and dream of striking out the side or getting a clutch hit to win a game in the bottom of the ninth.
Baseball was never more fun than in the spring of our lives, and at times it seemed like the only world worth knowing about. The only trouble with baseball is that we all get older.
Remember the Maine Brand
Once baseball became identified in the popular imagination as the national game, it also became a vehicle to sell and export the American dream. At home, baseball has often promoted patriotism and nationalism, while beyond our shores it has bolstered U.S. foreign and military policies.
The painting "Remember the Maine Brand" recalls the sinking of the USS Maine, a Navy ship blown up in Havana, which became a rallying point for revenge and precipitated the Spanish American War of 1898, and the subsequent Philippine War. The ship's baseball team had won the Navy championship, and was scheduled to play Cuba's top ballplayers in a series of exhibitions, before the huge explosion ripped through the ship. All but one member of the baseball team perished.
Patriot Game Brand
With America's entrance into World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson claimed the nation was fighting to "make the world safe for democracy." Major League Baseball became involved in the patriotic war effort from the beginning. Displaying a nationalistic sentiment, American League president Ban Johnson, with "preparedness" as the watchword, issued an official resolution for ballplayers to be trained in military tactics" to get other Americans "to emulate their example."
Players became civilian soldiers, as depicted in the painting "Patriot Game Brand," devoting an hour daily to military instruction, performing military drills before each game, traveling to and from the ballpark in military formation, and attending military training camps after the 1917 World Series. Wherever the U.S. military and flag went, Major League Baseball was eager to follow, presenting itself as crucial to the nation's morale.
Baghdad by the Bay Brand
...we see the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League as they parade through downtown San Francisco on May 16, 1914, on their way to their brand new ballpark in the Richmond district, Ewing Field. Built for $100,000, just eight years after the San Francisco Earthquake, Ewing Field was the city's first fireproof ballpark.
But it was the fog, not fire, that doomed the park. The opening dame drew a large crowd, nearly 18,000 fans, and featured the burial of a box at home plate containing relics of bygone baseball days. The game would eventually be called on account of the fog, a chronic problem which forced the Seals to abandon Ewing Fields after only one year.
Fresno Cubs Brand
All sorts of Californians played amateur and community baseball in the first few decades of the twentieth century--sometimes called the "mixed multitudes," these were Californians of both sexes, and of varied racial, ethnic, and social identities.
The state's African-American, Asian-American, and Mexican-American communities embraced the sport, and found through baseball a way to connect to their pasts, gain wider social acceptance, link to other communities, achieve control of their lives, shown pride in their heritage, and just have fun. The painting "Fresno Cubs Brand" present the first all-black amateur baseball team in Fresno, Calfornia. The 1914 club played at the Fink-Smith Playground.
Debutantes Ball Brand
'The presence of women as spectators at baseball games in the 19th century was encouraged by promoters as a way to bring in added gate receipts and--hopefully--to have a calming effect on the sometimes unruly crowds.
"If there is any one effort that clubs ought to make more than another to promote the popularity of our game and to ensure its respectability, it is the one to encourage the patronage of the fair sex," wrote the editor of Mayer's Chronicle in 1867. "The presence of an assemblage of ladies purifies the moral atmosphere of a baseball gathering, repressing, as it does, all outbursts of intemperate language which the excitement of a contest so frequently induces."
While many women were content with their role as spectators and moral uplifters, others yearned for the opportunity to try their hand at playing the national pastime. Those who lived out their fantasy often had to endure verbal abuse from those who sought to preserve the status quo of baseball as a masculine domain. The criticisms notwithstanding, countless women pursued their own field of dreams, as depicted in the painting "Debutantes Ball Brand," contributing their unique chapter to baseball's rich heritage.
Los Tomboys Brand
For women players in the postwar Mexican-American communities of southern California, baseball was a way to defy the social mores of their times and make gains in the field of gender equality. "Los Tomboys Brand" documents the Orange Tomboys from the Cypress Street Barrio, who were the regional women's team champions in 1947.
Led by the Cornejo sisters, the Tomboys played 26 games in Orange County and won every one of them. "Nobody liked us because we beat everybody," remarked Lucy Cornejo, one of five sisters who played on the team. "We were rivals to everybody."
House of David Brand
Any discussion of the national pastime's hirsute highlights must include the House of David, the Benton Harbor, Michigan-based religious colony whose barnstorming baseball teams crisscrossed America from World War I through the mid-1950s, playing against all forms of amateur and professional competition.
The House of David ballplayers caught the nation's attention with their long hair and bears, which were forbidden to be cut or shaved as a code of their religion. Much like the Harlem Globetrotters in basketball, the House of David players were great showmen who delighted crowds with their zany antics and entertaining style of play. They mixed trick plays into games, and many an opposing ballplayer was tagged out with a ball conveniently hidden in a long beard.'
Even a cursory perusal of Ben's imagery for these paintings indicates that he's operating at the pinnacle of his game. Like a musical composer who's mastered the art of variation, Sakoguchi takes the dusty old cliché that is the "team portrait" and creates something both vibrant and uncanny with it. If, as William Carlos Williams says, the pure products of America go crazy, then this is a type of madness worth reveling in. There is something lasting and true in these snapshots of history, of extraordinary common folk resisting adversity, embracing their otherness, and learning to play with extremity as if it were a strange but wondrous musical instrument. There is a noisy joy in life and living here that all of us slogging through the shadowy muck of meta-irony need to recapture.
All of these nine paintings are grand-slam home runs, each hit with two out in the bottom of the ninth, with the home team down three runs. We all rise, collectively, as one, and salute the man who brought us the joyous and unexpected riches of victory.