A portrait of the portraitist

Perez's "Prelude to a Homer" depicts the Phillies' Mike Schmidt.
Perez's "Prelude to a Homer" depicts the Phillies' Mike Schmidt.
Posted: July 23, 2010

This weekend's National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony will stir a host of vivid memories of boyhood heroes. The annual rite has been a highlight of my summer since I first visited Cooperstown at the age of 12.

It was around that time that Dick Perez became the Hall of Fame's official artist. Perez's paintings of the annual inductees quickly became the standard for baseball art. His images also redefined the hobby of card-collecting, and the Phillies reproduced many of them as giveaways that remain treasured keepsakes of my youth.

Perez made a valuable contribution to the nation's historic memory of baseball. His work celebrated the game's spirit of teamwork, fair play, and competition during the 1980s and '90s, when the sport was beset by scandal.

Perez was raised during the 1940s and '50s in one of Harlem's multiethnic neighborhoods, where baseball transcended race and ethnicity. His love and understanding of the game began with stickball in the streets around 125th and Amsterdam. It deepened in the local playgrounds and at Yankee Stadium, where as a child he imagined playing alongside his pin-striped hero, Mickey Mantle.

Although Perez aspired to become a professional baseball player, he realized by age 16 that his talents lay in another passion - drawing. After relocating to Philadelphia in 1958, he attended the Philadelphia College of Art, where he studied European landscape romanticism, classical realism, and expressionism - the same styles American artists had used to portray baseball players on tobacco cards and magazine covers at the turn of the 20th century.

Introduced to the possibility of baseball as subject matter by American artists such as Thomas Eakins, William Morris Hunt, and Norman Rockwell, Perez decided to wed his twin passions, baseball and art. He began experimenting with baseball portraiture and figurative painting. In the process, he established a unique artistic genre that gave voice to the American national character, with its emphasis on youth and dreams, fame and success, and hard work and devotion.

Perez's baseball art reflects the influences of such masters as John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Joaquin Sorolla, and Diego Velazquez. It provides an enduring record of ballplayers' physical features and demeanors, as well as their professional achievements.

Using oils, watercolors, acrylics, and gouache, Perez brings his subjects to life by articulating character, emotion, youth, and the chiseling effects of age. Not only does he offer a historically accurate portrayal of each athlete, based on years of painstaking research; he also captures a special moment in time, reminding us of how our heroes wish to be remembered, and how we want to remember them.

While other baseball artists tend to offer aesthetic renditions of players grounded in historical photographs, Perez's work is wholly original in terms of context and pose. His portrayals also show the evolution of the game through its changing uniform styles, equipment, and ballparks.

During the 1980s, when the game suffered from labor conflicts, drug abuse, egotism, and greed, Perez's artwork gave fans what they yearned for: a visual depiction that celebrated the game and its heroes, reminding them of a simpler, more innocent time.

The fans ate it up. Between 1982 and 1996, Perez partnered with the Donruss Trading Card Co. to produce an annual series of paintings of premier players, known as the "Diamond Kings." Several major-league teams, players, and prominent figures - including two U.S. presidents - commissioned his artwork.

Perez also became the official artist for the Baseball Hall of Fame, where his work was exhibited. Other exhibitions of his art have appeared at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico, among other venues.

Perez recently published a retrospective of his work, The Immortals: An Art Collection of Baseball's Best, which offers a colorful visual history of the national pastime as seen through the lives of the 292 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The collection helps establish Perez as indisputably the best baseball artist of our time.


William Kashatus is a writer, historian, and the author of the text of "The Immortals." He can be reached at bill@historylive.net.

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