By Ed Lucas and Paul Post
At 34, James Fiorentino is already an icon in the world of sports art, which he’s been painting since childhood.
The New Jersey resident has enjoyed friendships with dozens of baseball Hall of Famers, from the late Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle to Cal Ripken Jr. and future inductees such as Derek Jeter.
Many of his pieces have been displayed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and all are highly prized collectibles in and of themselves. In addition, he’s acquired many other valuable and unique items through his contacts with ballplayers and other athletes.
Fiorentino recently discussed his work, memorabilia collection and favorite memories from his amazing career.
Sports Collectors Digest (SCD): Who was the first major sports figure you painted?
James Fiorentino (JF): The first one I ever did to be autographed was a painting of Joe DiMaggio. That was a painting I took to a baseball card show and actually had him sign it. I was 13 or 14 years old. I still have that. It’s in my studio. I did it because I was looking for ways to have something cool signed besides baseballs. So I decided to paint him.
He looked at me and said, “Oh my gosh! Did you do this?” I guess for him to even say something was kind of a big reaction. I met DiMaggio a few times after that. He was always very nice to me and would talk to me.
SCD: What was your first big breakthrough?
JF: The next thing that really kicked everything off was having a picture of Reggie Jackson in the Baseball Hall of Fame for his induction. I would send images of my work to them. I remember I was playing American Legion baseball at the time. I was about 15, and I got a call from the Hall of Fame saying they’d love to showcase my painting and they were going to put it in the Reggie Jackson display area.
I remember going with my parents. That was the first time – like wow! – thousands of people were seeing my work and taking pictures of it. I really believe that led to everything else. I started getting a lot of local press, features in the Newark Star-Ledger. Local ABC and NBC affiliates in New York were doing stories on me about this high school kid doing paintings of famous baseball players.
SCD: What did you do for the Ted Williams Museum in Florida?
JF: Right after the Reggie thing, I ended up being at a baseball card show and showed my work to people from the Ted Williams Museum. They said, “How about doing a painting of the 20 greatest hitters that Ted chose?” They were planning a big gathering of these players at the museum. So I ended up doing this big 40-by-50-inch painting. I don’t think they had any idea what I could do or how big. They were blown away by it. Ted Williams actually hung the painting in his house for months before the event. I had flown down to Florida to meet with Ted with my sister. It was surreal, just meeting him. Months later, we came down for the event, my family and I.
I think it was the biggest gathering of Hall of Famers ever – even bigger than Cooperstown. All these guys who signed the original were there, such as Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Ted Williams. Mantle was my mom’s hero. Growing up, I’d always hear her rooting for Mickey Mantle. My mom actually called The Mick to come over and sign my painting. It was a pretty cool experience for sure.
SCD: Where is the original now?
JF: I ended up selling it to one of my best clients. The museum actually wanted to buy it from me. However, I got it back from them. I remember telling people that some day this will probably be one of the most valuable sports paintings because I don’t think there are too many signed by Mantle, DiMaggio and Ted Williams all on the same painting. The fact that it hung in Ted’s house for a while and that’s a painting he chose, it’s just one of those historic, cool types of pieces.
SCD: What else do you have from that event?
JF: The Ted Williams Museum gave me a signed bat from Ted. I have a beautiful photograph, the color shot of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, signed by Ted and a baseball signed by Ted. I did that painting of the 20 greatest hitters the summer of my junior year in high school. When I went to that event, I brought these 12 or 13 baseballs to have signed. The table I was sitting next to had Mays, Mantle and Ted Williams; they were sitting at the table right next to me. It was just a really kind of wild type of thing – very, very cool.
SCD: What one piece means the most to you?
JF: I’ve just acquired a lot of neat stuff. I have one of the uniforms that they made for the movie A League of Their Own. That was given to me by one of my real good friends, Pepper Davis, one of the most famous ladies in baseball. Every player in the movie was based on her. She was a catcher, so Geena Davis kind of played her, but every other player was modeled after her. Things like that are incredible to me.
I have a big signed baseball collection. Any time I meet a player, I try to get a baseball signed by him. I probably have a couple hundred. I’ve met more than 70 Hall of Famers in person. From being in Cooperstown, I met a gentleman who was a photographer for Norman Rockwell. He was going to trade me some signed prints from Rockwell that he acquired from him. He ended up giving me the Brooks Robinson print signed by Rockwell and the Main Street signed by Rockwell. He also gave me one of Rockwell’s brushes. I have that all in a collage, framed. It’s beautiful. To me that’s just like the coolest thing.
SCD: What did you do for Cal Ripken Jr.?
JF: Ripken’s agents saw my Ted Williams stuff and they were looking for an artist to do the official 2,131 artwork. That ended up being the thing that kicked everything off nationally for me. I was the official artist, so I ended up going to the 2,130 and 2,131 games. I was on the field the next day for CBS This Morning. Soon afterward, the late, great Dick Schaap came to my house and did a piece for ABC World News on me. I started getting the New York Times – all these big things from that Ripken project.
SCD: How old were you then?
JF: I was 17 or 18 years old when I did the Ripken stuff, my senior year in high school going into college. That’s actually kind of funny, because I tell people one of the reasons I’m successful is that I’ve been doing it for a long time, almost 20 years. I’m 34 now. I guess I’m getting old!
SCD: Were you a child prodigy?
JF: I was your average kid – in first, second and third grade, drawing everything they liked. I think my parents saw that I was doing things a little more advanced. When I was 8 years old, I took private lessons where I learned all different mediums … water color, oil. From that age on I loved sports. From 9-13 or 14, I was drawing a lot of sports guys. Right before the Joe DiMaggio painting, I did a Mickey Mantle piece. I remember doing it with my instructor and bringing it home. I was getting pretty decent by then.
SCD: What sets your art apart?
JF: I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I’m in a great area – to be an artist in this tri-state area with great teams. There are a lot of people who collect and want to buy art. I paint in water color and my water color is very tight and realistic. It looks like oil or acrylic. When artists, professors and professionals see it, they can’t believe it’s water color. So I think there’s something in my painting because of the way I paint with water color. There’s also a lot of emotion, a lot of spirit in my paintings. I think just my passion and my love for sports, my passion and my love for baseball comes out in my pieces. I’m glad that other people really love it.
SCD: Is there something special you’d still like to do?
JF: In the hobby, I did 1999 Topps cards. Some of them became really well known. Then I did probably 120 paintings for Upper Deck. One year they were called the Fiorentino Collection. I would absolutely love to do an entire set of baseball cards just by myself, where I would paint the entire set, maybe like 200 cards. I just love vintage stuff. I think it would be so cool to do an entire set of art by one artist. That would be like a dream project.
SCD: If you could meet and paint any athlete in history, who would it be?
JF: The ultimate baseball player would be Babe Ruth. I would have loved to have met and painted him or someone like Satchel Paige. Those kind of guys to me would have been incredible. I’ve met most of the current baseball guys. Michael Jordan, I think, would be outstanding; even Tiger Woods, to me, would be an interesting guy to paint. I just did a painting of the actor Hugh Jackman, as Wolverine for the movies. He’s a huge sports fan. We had signed reproductions done to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Michael Fox is another guy I’ve painted. I get to meet a lot of cool political people. I’ve painted presidents, Nobel Peace Prize winners, actors. That’s really fun, too.
SCD: What are you most proud of?
JF: The thing I’m most proud of is that I’m allowed to help out charities by donating my work. That’s a big part of my life, playing a lot of golf outings, donating work, helping people out. One golf tournament I help out in particular is for St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in Jersey City, N.J.
SCD: What’s one of the funniest stories from your career?
JF: When I was in college, one Sunday morning my roommate and I were sleeping. I got an early phone call, like 7:30 in the morning, after having fun the night before. My roommate was like, “Who is calling this early?”
It was Whitey Ford. Whitey was calling me about a project I had done on Mantle and he was in it. I was sending him some prints, and he wanted to know where the prints were. It was kind of funny. How many college kids have Whitey Ford calling them up in their dorm room?
For more information and to view Fiorentino’s art, visit the website www.jamesfiorentino.com.