By Doug Koztoski
With a love for baseball, a strong work ethic, a keen eye and a splendid and exacting batting stroke, culminating in a high degree of success, Ted Williams wanted to be known as “The greatest hitter who ever lived.” Several baseball fans think the Hall of Fame slugger, who retired from MLB in 1960, achieved that lofty goal.
Sports artist Dick Perez, meanwhile, possesses several of Williams’ traits, but one can, of course, swap out the batting stroke for brush strokes.
Oh, and although he never strived for it per se, many consider Perez the best sports artist who ever stepped up to the palette.
“Whether they realize it or not, every sports artist owes a debt of gratitude to Dick Perez,” said Khyber Oser, a writer and consignment director for Legendary Auctions.
The auction house is offering 26 lots featuring Perez artwork in a sale than ends Nov. 21 – a trend that will continue throughout 2014.
“Before he burst on the scene in the late 1970s, sports art was mainly the realm of cartoonists and illustrators. But Dick took things to the next level of artistic mastery with his elegant museum-caliber portraiture.”
Oser said comparing Perez to others in his field is “impossible” for numerous reasons.
“No one comes close to touching his 35-year legacy with Perez-Steele, Donruss Diamond Kings and the (Baseball) Hall of Fame. He’s head and shoulders above the rest in terms of scope and influence. He’s Babe Ruth – except with Lou Gehrig’s humility, dignity and grace.”
Williams, Ruth, Gehrig. It would be a tremendous compliment for many people and their life’s work to be compared to any one of those elite baseball players, much less all three, but Perez and his artwork justify it. However, it has been a long road to the Mt. Brushmore of sports art.
Mixing the paints
Born in 1940 in Puerto Rico, Perez moved to New York City’s Harlem as a youngster and then to Philadelphia at age 18. The budding creator attended the Philadelphia College of Art and the University of Pennsylvania.
“I knew my penchant for drawing meant a career in the visual arts, though, for some reason, I felt it would not be as a fine artist. I had no confidence that I was good enough for that,” wrote Perez via email.
So the artist first went into graphic design, won numerous awards and, with a few friends, started a small advertising agency.
“My engagement in the sports world came as a result that some of our agency clients were involved in sports, like the sports departments of some of our college and university clients,” he said.
The year 1972 turned out to be pivotal for Perez and his life’s work, as the Philadelphia Phillies decided to stop their relationship with their advertising agency and bring the work in-house.
“They needed someone on a freelance basis to deal with all their publications and writing and designing the team’s advertising,” said Perez.
Enter Phillies Vice President Bill Giles, who was also their head of marketing, advertising and promotions at the time. Some work the artist did for the Philadelphia Eagles during this period caught Giles’ attention.
“He asked to meet me,” said Perez. “The rest is history.”
A big step
In 1976, Perez met Frank Steele, a baseball memorabilia collector who not only had a gift for marketing, but who also knew some people with the Baseball Hall of Fame.
While visiting Steele’s home in the Bicentennial year, Perez took interest in Steele’s first baseball card, an 1880s era Allen & Ginter card found at a Pennsylvania flea market.
Then, Perez said, he and Steele had the following exchange:
“Why don’t they make baseball cards like that anymore?” asked the artist.
“Nobody paints like that anymore,” Steele replied.
“I can paint like that,” said Perez.
“You paint like that,” Steele said, “and we’ll sell them from door-to-door if we have to.”
Steele then contacted some Baseball Hall of Fame friends, “and Perez-Steele Galleries was born,” noted the painter.
The Perez-Steele cards, featuring Baseball Hall of Famers, grabbed quick traction within the sports memorabilia community, and the combo produced other Cooperstown products, too. For some two decades, the Hall of Fame considered Perez its official artist as he painted portraits, for display, of the newest Hall inductees.
“Frank Steele,” said Perez, “was the gateway to my career in sports art.”
Soon after the Perez-Steele cards started arriving in the hobby, produced from 1980-2001, the artist’s creations sparked an additional opportunity.
A rookie in terms of a full-blown baseball card set producer in 1981, the Donruss Co. started planning for its 1982 set, but they wanted to stand out, as they battled Topps and Fleer.
New York Daily News sportswriter Bill Madden just happened to collect Perez-Steele cards. Madden, who landed in the Hall of Fame for his scribe skills, had connections at Donruss. The writer suggested the cardmaker contact Perez and see what ideas bubbled up.
“I had always wanted to bring back art to baseball cards,” said Perez, “so we proposed a subset of baseball art cards as a way of separating Donruss from the rest of the pack.”
The end result? The highly successful “Diamond Kings” subset, featuring one player from each of the 26 MLB teams.
“I painted them for 15 years,” said Perez.
About a decade ago a mutual acquaintance put Perez in touch with Topps.
“If I was to be associated with baseball cards, Topps had to be on my resume,” recalled the sports artist. “To revisit the classic card designs of the past was Perez-Steele Galleries’ main emphasis, so I wanted to contribute on a larger scale through my association with Topps.”
Over a few years, starting in 2006, Perez created close to 250 paintings for Topps.
“They are the baseball card trading company with a real legacy, and a big part of the magic that baseball has on American fans of baseball,” he said. “I was flattered to be asked to create work for them. It was a good run.”
In addition, Perez has done several more paintings and provided the artwork for The Immortals, An Art Collection of Baseball’s Best, a critically acclaimed book (2010) featuring mostly original pieces from the artist.
Time well spent
Depending on a painting’s “size, medium, and degree of complexity,” said Perez, the finished product completion time ranges from a few hours to one month, including “stepping away time,” he said. “It is always good to step away and come back to re-evaluate.”
Doing the basic legwork before the painting starts is a Perez strong point.
“My research for these pieces can take more time than the painting,” he said. Several single images can come from various sources – just for one painting. “My aim is to create an image unfamiliar to the viewer.”
Although Perez has tackled many sports on canvas, with football being his first, baseball is his favorite sports subject. His top pick within that genre? “I have many.
However, I guess my favorites are the paintings from the Negro Leagues. They were more challenging to come up with reliable images, and no player is dressed in polyester.”
Baseball historian and author Bill Kashatus, who wrote the text for The Immortals, has known Perez for several years, and said the Puerto Rican native is “much more than a sports artist, he is a gifted historian who can illuminate the game of baseball in ways that those of us who write books can only dream of doing.”
Kashatus said Perez’ paintings “bring to life the era in which they are set through exhaustive research on ballparks, uniforms, rituals and interactions between players and their managers, umpires and each other.”
The author, however, added that the most impressive item the painter brings to a project is his “special ability to capture the human element by revealing the personalities of his subjects.”
Framing the art
Looking at his creative canvas, Perez ultimately points his paintbrush to one area as the key to his artwork. “Passion is the necessity for the process of painting. I must have had the passion before making art became my life’s work,” he said. “I do not believe that a person is born with the specific desire and innate ability to paint, to write, to sculpt or to do anything connected with the arts.
“And what maintains the passion is the on-going, continuous course to further develop, cultivate and refine the ability to create – not to mention affirmation from fans and collectors through feedback and praise.”
Perez’s words remind me of former MLB pitcher and Ball Four author Jim Bouton who said, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
So has Perez gripped the paintbrush all these years or has the brush actually been clutching him? Like much in the art world, the answer is perhaps one of interpretation.
Either way, as the artist explores his passion in years to come, his body of artwork will have a continuing hold on fans and collectors alike. In a word, his sports art is “immortal.”
A Teddy Tidbit
While wrapping up the research on the article, with the lead paragraphs already firmly in place, Koztoski asked Perez if he had ever met Ted Williams.
The artist said, “Ted Williams is my favorite member of the Hall of Fame. Not so much for the numbers that got him there, but for his honest approach to life, caring personality and loyalty to the game, the Hall of Fame and the Red Sox organization. We would play in the tennis tournaments during the Hall of Fame weekends. He was in his 70s, but, even then, his competitive fire was the one that burned during a distant youth. I got to know him pretty well. He appreciated my work and my tennis.”
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to SCD. He welcomes comments and questions about this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.