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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Telling Baseball's Stories In Art; Dick Perez Has Painted A Series Of Historical Portraits For The Phillies' New Citizens Bank Park

By Mary Anne Janco
Inquirer Suburban Staff

February 15, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

When Dick Perez paints the legends of baseball, he's not just painting a portrait of a player - he's recapturing a moment in the history of the game.

He has painted Tug McGraw leaping off the pitcher's mound in victory in the 1980 World Series.

He has recreated the image of Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese putting an arm around Jackie Robinson - the first black player in modern major-league baseball - in the face of a jeering crowd.

And he has shown Richie Ashburn sliding into home plate with a catcher trying to tag him out, and the umpire ready to make the call at Connie Mack Stadium.

"I'm not painting for the players," said Perez, 63, the official artist of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and of the Phillies. "I'm painting for the people who see something in the game that they want to grab ahold of and forever make it part of their memory."

For the Phillies' new ballpark, Citizens Bank Park, Perez has traced the history of the sport in Philadelphia from the late 1880s, when Sam Thompson played with the Phillies, to Mike Schmidt in the 1980s.

Working at his home studio in Wayne, Perez completed 32 oil paintings of the Hall of Famers with Philly roots. He included players with the Philadelphia Athletics and the Phillies, and the native sons - Roy Campanella and Reggie Jackson, among them - who were born in or near the city but played elsewhere.

Perez's work, now on display at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, will have a permanent home in the Hall of Fame Club's Cooperstown Gallery behind home plate at Citizens Bank Park.

"This was a great opportunity to show the evolution of the game, not only as a game, but the game in Philadelphia," said Perez, whose work portrays not only the players in a candid style but also the changes in uniforms, equipment and ballparks.

His old-time players are in baggy-style uniforms and heavy flannel jerseys, and he has the ballpark details right down to the scoreboards and advertisements.

He shows Jimmie Foxx, who first played with the Philadelphia Athletics, "boning" a bat, an old-time practice of rubbing the bat with bone to harden the surface.

In another painting, Connie Mack, legendary manager of the A's, accepts a flower in exchange for an autograph at Shibe Park in the 1930s as Foxx looks on.

And in a scene from the 1970s, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, a Norristown native, offers words of comfort to a pitcher on the mound.

"To create these 32 paintings, I used 704 photographs to confirm likenesses," said Perez, who has hundreds of baseball photographs on his computer. "You want to be as accurate as possible. You don't want to be strapped. You want to have some artistic license."

Using the historic data, Perez creates a new image unless he has found a photo that is so compelling. That was the case with his portrait of pitching great Grover Cleveland Alexander, with a woman who had to be his wife, Aimee, watching from a box seat. "It had that appeal to me," he said.

Each portrait tells a story, he explained. They're not just someone at bat, said Perez, who thoroughly researches his subjects and can rattle off anecdotes about the great personalities of baseball's past.

"He's not only a highly skilled artist - he has a love and flair for baseball and its history," said Larry Shenk, vice president of public relations for the Phillies. For the new ballpark, Perez didn't want to create an ordinary portrait, Shenk said, but rather, a great painting of a scene from that era.

Perez, a native of Puerto Rico who grew up playing street ball in New York's Harlem neighborhood, found his niche as an artist in Philadelphia's sports world in the 1970s. He first did paintings for the Eagles, then the Phillies just after they moved from Connie Mack Stadium to Veterans Stadium.

He became the official artist for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980, painting more than 250 sports heroes, after noting that they were represented at the museum by metal relief plaques but no two-dimensional paintings. He brought art back to baseball cards with his Hall of Fame art postcards and Diamond King baseball cards.

Bill Gladstone, a collector who is on the board of directors for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., began collecting paintings of all the Brooklyn Dodgers' Hall of Famers, and has about 15 of Perez's works.

"He captures his subject very well," Gladstone said. "He shows players doing something they were known for - pitching or sliding into base."

One of Gladstone's favorites is Branch Rickey, who is signing Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. "That was a major event," he said.

Perez said he's particularly interested in depicting baseball of the past - the game through the 1930s.

"There was something about the game," Perez said. "It was a little purer. A lot of these guys were amazing.

"When I was growing up, I used to idolize Mickey Mantle. He was my favorite of all time. He never failed me.

"When I went to the Hall of Fame, I did everything possible to avoid meeting him. They were really just human... . I never wanted to destroy the Mickey Mantle that was a big part of my life."

Perez said the game that wields such power over its fans is "more than just a pastime." The wonder comes in seeing someone get to a ball you didn't think could be caught, or hit a home run in a pressure situation, he said.

"Their achievements are what I paint... and their likeness," he said.

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