Baseball Paintings That Double as Fine Art and Historical Documents

Rookie Routs Ruffing, Yanks (2008) (Graig Kreindler)
Graig Kreindler sweats the details, as a researcher no less than as an artist.

‘I believe the lights were on,” wrote Bobby Thomson to Graig Kreindler, who was researching the Shot Heard Round the World, the storied walk-off home run that sent the New York Giants to the World Series five decades earlier. Kreindler knew that the sun was low in the sky behind first base and dimmed by dark clouds when Thomson came to bat a few minutes before 4 p.m. on October 3, 1951, at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan.

Was it hard to see the ball? Or did the Giants turn the lights on, if only for the primitive TV cameras, there to capture the deciding game of the first baseball series ever broadcast live to a national audience? From the grainy black-and-white film and photos, Kreindler couldn’t tell, and newspaper accounts were silent on the question. So he asked Thomson, half-expecting either no response or an autographed souvenir from a retired player trained by experience to assume that a personal letter from a stranger must be fan mail.

Even if Thomson hadn’t hedged his answer, Kreindler would have counted it for what it was: a datum, good to have but not dispositive. He reasoned that the slugger was “in a tight situation”: the tying run on second, the National League pennant on the line, half a city’s hopes pinned on his shoulders. “Does he even notice the lights? I mean, why would he?” After weighing the probabilities, Kreindler, an artist who paints old-time baseball, went ahead and made the banks of rooftop lights glaring, adjusting the shades and shadows on the canvas accordingly.

Doubt about the historical accuracy of that detail nagged at him until, years later, he came across an article that corroborated Thomson’s iffy memory. About the painting, however, Kreindler remains ambivalent, because it’s rough, although that’s not his adjective. “It’s just not representative of what I do now” is how he puts it. Twenty-two years old and unsure of what he wanted to paint or how, having graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York only months earlier, he was a rookie, talented but struggling here and there to find the strike zone. “I was a different artist,” he says, 15 years and 250 baseball paintings later. No apologies necessary. People mature.

His parents named him after Graig Nettles, the star third baseman for the New York Yankees back when the Steinbrenner era was young. As Nettles trotted into the cool-down phase of his long career, the junior Graig bolted out of the gate, diving for every ball that came his way at, naturally, third base for a couple of years in Little League. A student of the game, he lived for 30 years in the same house in Airmont, N.Y., north of the city, inhaling baseball wisdom. His father is a hardcore Yankees fan and former card collector. For most of Graig’s life, men long retired or even dead before he was born have been playing ball in his imagination, though often they just laze and relax there; it’s where he does half his work.

Returning the favor, he travels to the past and knocks on the door to their own inner life: “I try to inhabit the players I’m painting,” he explains, comparing that meditative exercise to method acting. “It’s like having a dialogue with them.” His heart goes out to journeymen, ballplayers half-forgotten even in their own time. No complaints from Kreindler about earning handsome sums for painting Hall of Famers, whom he admires, but he looks forward to the day when he can afford to lavish longer hours on his calling to honor rank-and-file old-timers.

For a preview of what he has in mind, see his portrait of Eddie Bennett, the career batboy who, at age 16 or 17, in his first year with the Yankees, turns his head just slightly to face you and smiles, a kind old soul behind juvenile features. Breathing life into obscure names that haunt ancient box scores or hover just outside their frame gives Kreindler pleasure. While taking pains to ascertain their physical appearance, the “visual historian,” as he sometimes calls himself, forms an impression of their air and demeanor. How he conducts it from his brain to his hands and onto the canvas is of course a mystery.

Banjo, Batboy Eddie Bennett (2010)

You can look into their eyes and trust that their color is true: The visual historian checked it. Around the middle of the last century, Karl Wingler, a baseball researcher, began to mail questionnaires to retired players. His forms included a field for hair color too. Kreindler relies on Wingler’s collected data when necessary, which is often in the case of men whose likeness was seldom recorded by photographers and perhaps never described or even hinted at by sportswriters.

Ballparks are treated to the same loving scrutiny. Did Bobby Doerr by any chance remember the colors of an ad, for Gem razor blades, on the left-field wall at Fenway Park in 1939, his third of 14 seasons with the Boston Red Sox? He did not, he regretted to report, on the back of a three-by-five-inch index card 70 years later, when he was in his 90s. Kreindler realizes that the strangers from whom he seeks information about light or color at the ballpark during a particular hour or season in baseball antiquity are liable to find his questions bizarre. Do they think he’s nuts? A few might; not all reply. He asks anyway.

Home movies sometimes help. Thanks to Kodachrome, introduced in the mid 1930s, we have color film of ballparks from as early as the Great Depression. His main source before such footage became available online was When It Was a Game, a three-part HBO documentary (1991, 1992, 2000). The producers compiled home-movie clips, most of them in color, taken by fans and players from 1934 through 1957.

Kreindler paints baseball from the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, to the mid 1960s, after which visual documentation of the game mushrooms and would compete with his talent for working that sweet spot where art and baseball historiography meet, though he’ll make exceptions. To fulfill commissions, he’s done the 1986 Mets, for example, and the 2004 Red Sox, the miracle team that sorely embarrassed his beloved Yankees.

If you called him a starving artist in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, Sarv, and their baby sons, Jonah and Bennett, you’d be only two-thirds right. He makes a good living. His prices per square inch begin at $14.50, higher than most Manhattan real estate. A small portrait, nine by twelve inches, will set you back $3,800; a ballpark panorama complete with in-game situation, tens of thousands. It’s a measure of the quality of his work in the estimation of his clients. Most are collectors.

Bob Feller pitched the only opening-day no-hitter in baseball history, and the museum dedicated to memorializing his life and career asked Kreindler to paint the feat. “The Heater Makes History,” he titled the final product, just under five feet wide and three feet tall. In 2009, he traveled to Cleveland to present it to the legendary Indians fireballer. The game depicted was 69 years earlier. Feller, 91, recalled it in granular detail and congratulated Kreindler for getting it so right: The clouds off Lake Michigan that afternoon were thick. The crowd at Comiskey Park was thin. The day was dark, grayer than the Indians’ road uniforms.

The Heater Makes History, Bob Feller, April 16, 1940 (2009)

The intricacy of the historical detail is commensurate with the precision of his brushstrokes: In the foreground of some of his paintings, he approaches hyperrealism. Either he’s still en route to it or he stops short on purpose, taking just enough off the pitch to induce the viewer to peer in, curious, a little off balance, finally transfixed. He wants you to smell the hot dogs and beer.

Peter Fiore, his former teacher and enduring mentor and friend, was taught by an artist who was taught by . . . Kreindler traces his professional lineage back to the father of American illustration, Howard Pyle (1853–1911). The seriousness of Kreindler’s artistry is easy to miss because of his subject matter and manifest love for it. Prize committees may have a bias for the brazen or edgy, but to convey warmth and uplift the viewer is no less an achievement, a marriage of vision and discipline.

“Art critics might scoff at what we do and consider it kitschy,” Kreindler acknowledges, referring to the small fraternity of baseball artists, several of whom he touts and cites as helpful influences, including “obviously Norman Rockwell,” although you won’t always find a conspicuous resemblance between their work and his. “I like to think I bring something different to this,” he says. “I don’t expect my work ever to hang in major museums, but it could, in theory.”

Forty years after his death, Rockwell, mocked and dismissed by the cognoscenti in his lifetime, is revered as an American master by connoisseurs and critics in and out of the academy. The Guggenheim and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, have exhibited his work. If the tastemakers ever likewise catch up with Kreindler, the baseball historians and fans who got there first will rise from their catbird seats behind home plate and make room for them, under the lights.


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