Franklin Steele, 71; Helped Found Sports-art Company

Posted: June 20, 2000

Franklin A. Steele, 71, the voice and vision behind a successful sports-memorabilia collaboration, died of pulmonary fibrosis Wednesday at his home in Laverock, Montgomery County. Mr. Steele had been a resident of Laverock for 24 years.

Along with his wife, Peggy, and artist Dick Perez, Mr. Steele founded the Perez-Steele Galleries, a Fort Washington firm that publishes limited-edition baseball art, in 1979.

Each member of the trio brought a talent to the venture. While Perez did the painting, Peggy Steele took care of the business end and Mr. Steele did the talking.

He was the "marketer, the deal maker, the guiding force," Perez said.

Mr. Steele didn't set out to become a salesman of sports memorabilia. A Pittsburgh native, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto and a law degree from the University of Virginia Law School.

Except for a stint with the Judge Advocate General's Office while in the Air Force, Mr. Steele never practiced law. He worked on Wall Street for 14 years before coming to Philadelphia.

He was already an ardent collector when former Eagles publicist Jim Murray introduced him in 1976 to Perez, who at the time was designing yearbooks and media brochures for the Eagles and Phillies.

As the story goes, one night, Perez happened to be admiring the first baseball card that Mr. Steele had ever purchased, an Allen & Ginter Tobacco Co. rendition that he had picked up in a Bucks County flea market.

"Why don't they make baseball cards like that anymore?" Perez asked.

"Nobody paints like that anymore," Mr. Steele replied.

"I can paint like that," Perez said.

Mr. Steele, who had been looking around for something "interesting and fun," didn't need a sign flashed on the scoreboard to get the message.

"You paint like that," he told Perez, "and we'll sell them from door to door if we have to."

Mr. Steele got in touch with some friends at the Hall of Fame, and Perez-Steele Galleries was born.

The business was "going to be a side venture," recalled Perez, now the official artist of the Phillies and of the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "Neither of us needed it to further our careers.

"We were going to do portraits of all the Hall of Famers, then issue them in post-card-size sets of 30. It caught on so well, we expanded [to include reproductions of great moments and other limited-edition prints]."

The relationship between Perez-Steele Galleries and the Hall of Fame evolved into a friendship between Mr. Steele and members of the hall's management.

Mr. Steele had a "tremendous influence on myself, personally, and others," said Bill Burdick, secretary of the Hall of Fame. "He was a very caring individual who obviously felt positively about the game of baseball and the Hall of Fame."

Perez said the gallery's success came about because Mr. Steele plugged his work into a socket of Americana that had been there for decades - baseball-card collectors.

Perez said he intends to continue the business with Peggy Steele, who is a serious collector in her own right.

In addition to handling sales and distribution for Perez-Steele Galleries, Mr. Steele conducted regular seminars for young entrepreneurs at Chestnut Hill Academy and was a member of the Philadelphia Cricket Club.

Along with his wife of 24 years, he is survived by two brothers and two sisters.

Services and burial were Saturday.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Franklin A. Steele Guest Facility and Scholarship Fund of Chestnut Hill Academy, 500 W. Willow Grove Ave., Philadelphia 19118.

Rusty Pray's e-mail address is rpray@phillynews.com

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