By Doug Koztoski
It will never show up in a Major League box score, but Jamie Cooper has hit another home run worthy of some ESPN SportsCenter highlight coverage.
In 2008, the Australia-based artist created a painting showcasing 25 Philadelphia Phillies greats to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the team.
“I did it without the Phillies knowing it was coming and appeared with it on their doorstep, and they bought it,” said Cooper. The painting has hung for some time just above the entrance of the stadium’s prestigious Diamond Club.
This time around, however, Cooper just might have outdone himself with “Yankees Dream Scene.” Legendary Auctions commissioned the artist to spotlight five of the biggest names in Yankees’ history: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter.
Khyber Oser, a consignment director with Legendary Auctions and the auction house’s point man for the oil painting, said Cooper welcomed input from him about the all-time greats. The artist’s focus for the project simulated the Yankee icons in a clutch game situation. “Once Jamie sets his mind to something, he goes all the way,” Oser said.
“After three months of research and 10 weeks of painting, it is finally finished,” said Cooper in a recent interview. Like the stitches thread in and around a baseball, the superstars in the piece mesh well amongst themselves and within different generations of Yankees’ clubhouse décor.
Part of the research also included getting feedback from Yankee fans, “about the history of the club and the character of these five players, both on and off the field,” Cooper said. The artist noted that portraying lifelike images of Yankee legends was one thing, but the painting needed to tell a story. Cooper said the figure’s interaction fuels “the imagination to ask, ‘What is he saying to him? What stories and feelings are they sharing?’ That is what this painting is about.”
Legendary Auctions will put “Yankees Dream Scene” on the auction block at this year’s National Sports Collectors Convention. The pre-auction estimate for the 4-1/2-by-5-1/2-foot piece is $30,000-$50,000. “But based on Jamie’s earlier work, some have gone for six figures, we’ll see,” said Jeff Marren, Legendary’s vice president of operations.
Wherever the hammer price ends up, Marren said the new owner of the Yankee artwork will receive “a modern masterpiece.”
“Jamie was incredibly engaging and detail-oriented to a fault – he drove the process to be period specific for each player,” Marren noted.
In Ruth’s case, for instance, the painter looked to show the slugger’s “primal nature, his indulgences and flamboyance, his flawed genius if you like,” said Cooper. “His overflowing locker represents, not only his chaotic life off the field but the magnetic attraction he had on the public. He was the man, the idol, the superstar.”
Since Ruth was a famous after-hours participant, the “Sultan of Swat” sometimes needed “the seltzer of soothe,” or bicarbonate of soda, for his stomach. Cooper found a 1920s brand of bicarb soda and put some in the Babe’s locker. Other Ruthian items in the “Scene” include his choice of cigars, a handful of autographed baseballs and some fur coats.
The DiMaggio part, meanwhile, might have even made Joe D. crack a smile.
“Joe is said to have been a more even, placid natured man, so I chose this great pose of him enjoying a post-game Chesterfield (cigarette),” said Cooper. “It was the 1940s and ’50s, and things were a little different. Joe was the wholesome face of Chesterfield, so it was suggested to me that he must have a smoke “on the go.”
Joining the carton of cigarettes in Joe D.’s locker: a newspaper clipping from his 56-game hitting streak and a picture of his beloved Marilyn Monroe.
We see Mantle, however, as a smiling and fresh-faced player from the mid-1950s, around the time he won the Triple Crown.
“It was a decision to show him at this stage of his career as opposed to the more rough-edged older Mick of the early ’60s,” said the Aussie. “He has a Ballantine (beer) in hand and leans in to join the fun. His locker is full of bandages and tape in readiness for the injuries that were to come.”
Another nice subtle touch to Mantle’s section: His locker frame is etched with markings representing his 18 World Series home runs.
The artist chose Gehrig, with a period first baseman’s mitt at his feet, to be the artwork’s central figure.
“The one serene, humble base to this elite group. Whilst the big personalities swirl around him, he sits quietly at the heart of this painting, at the core of what it is to be a Yankee,” said Cooper.
The sports portrait expert said he decided to portray Jeter, wearing his lucky Air Jordan wristband, as the only hatless player in the piece for artistic reasons – the key one being the angle of the shortstop’s head.
“Because I needed Jeter leaning in and looking down, putting a cap with a peak on him would have obscured his face,” he noted.
“I wanted him walking into the scene as the latest person to join the group, a group into which he truly belongs. He is placing a respectful hand on Lou’s shoulder, acknowledging Gehrig’s legacy as a player and a man,” said the artist.
“Jeter fills in the most recent chapter of Yankees’ history, with him the story of the club’s elite is brought up to date,” said Cooper. “For over 100 years this great club has consistently produced players that stand out at the very top.”
The Australian pointed out that the most difficult aspect of putting together a “Dream Scene” boiled down to one primary focus: “Capturing the perceived essence of a person’s character.”
Since people possess multi-faceted natures, which show themselves at different moments, portraying these baseball icons, he said, was challenging to “get it right.” The Scene’s creator “chose different moods for the five guys to create a variation of emotions in the scene, and for the viewer.”
Cooper added that different obstacles arose for finding the right elements for each Yankee, but DiMaggio’s was the easiest.
“He has such distinct features and was taken all from one shot. He went on in one go,” he said. “The pose was great, too. I felt it captured his more laconic nature nicely. And the pose offered perfect finger positioning to slip in a Chesterfield.”
Creating Dream Scenes for some 15 years, the artist said each one teaches him a great deal.
“I am constantly amazed at the impact that a sporting organization can have on its fans and the culture of a city, state, country and in the Yankees case, the entire world. The Yankees are not so much a club as a culture unto them themselves,” he emphasized.
“Their appeal transcends baseball and reaches to all corners of the globe, evidenced, in a way, by the fact of this painting being created on the other side of the world.”
Cooper will be crossing most of the globe as he travels from Melbourne, Australia, to Chicago for The National to help exhibit the Yankee painting and watch it go at auction.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
And the 49-year-old means it, as this trip revolves around a long-time dream.
Having played four seasons of Australian Rules Football in the 1980s, Cooper retired from the sport at 23 “to travel the world and pursue my other love . . . art.”
While honored to play football at such a high level, the artist said, “It was a rather one-dimensional life.” Painting immediately followed his pro sports career and, he noted, “I am so glad I made that decision early in my life.”
No doubt many who take the time to explore the “Yankees Dream Scene” also feel Cooper made an excellent choice to pursue his painting passion.
Perhaps an advertising slogan associated with DiMaggio’s Chesterfield cigarette best describes the artwork: “Satisfies.”
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to SCD. He welcomes comments and questions related to the article at firstname.lastname@example.org.