NEW YORK, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- Baseball is not only the nation's pastime but also the inspiration for generations of America's untrained artists, many of whose works are included in a unique exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, to run through Feb. 1.
Artistic celebrations of the so-called "Perfect Game," possibly of British origin but generally accepted as the invention in 1839 of Col. Abner Doubleday, date back to at least the Civil War. The show includes a cane carved with baseball scenes by Union soldier John Tracy, while held in the notorious Confederate Libby Prison in Richmond, Va.
Much of the material in the show has the folksy charm of Tracy's cane and cigar-store figures: decorated bats and balls, banners, quaint weather vanes, whirligigs, figurative quilts, board games, and mechanized model baseball players. There is some memorabilia, too, such as a dilapidated seat from New York Giants' Polo Grounds and a section of a terra-cotta frieze from the original exterior of Yankee Stadium.
The show has been designed as catnip to baseball fans and anyone who loves Americana. On one wall is a blown-up quote from noted historian Jacques Barzun that says it all -- "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game -- and do it by watching some high school or small-town team."
One of the most attractive displays consists of a series of embroidered miniature portraits of baseball players, logos, and flags by Ray Materson that are smaller than baseball cards. He made them in the 1990s of shoelaces, unraveled socks and scraps of underwear, the only materials available to him while serving seven years in a Connecticut prison for armed robbery.
Materson had been a Little Leaguer as a boy and was crazy about the New York Yankees. Getting 1,200 stitches per square inch out of his unorthodox embroidery materials, he created pictures of Clete Boyer at third base, Mickey Mantle at bat, and Tony Kubek scooping up a grounder, as well as a group portrait of his prison baseball team.
Each portrait took Materson 50 hours to complete, using the rim of a plastic plate in lieu of an embroidery hoop. He is quoted as saying he took up art to fill the long hours of imprisonment and even gave up alcohol, which he found available in prison, for it.
"You're not forced into sobriety in prison, but when I started the work, I discovered I couldn't do both -- so I opted for the art as opposed to the high," he said.
Other needlework includes a 44-block quilt made by Clara Schmitt Rothmeier, who played first base for a touring women's softball team from Springfield, Ill., in the 1950s. While on the road, she appliquéd pictures of her baseball favorites such as Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, and Casey Stengel and sent them to the players to be autographed.
There is painting aplenty on view, but none more intriguing than the primitive work of Jimmy Lee Sudduth of Fayette County, Ala., who is represented by a 1989 finger painting of Jackie Robinson. When Sudduth started to paint as a child, his medium was "sweet mud," a cheap combination of mud mixed with molasses that he applied to wood scraps, but now he works with real paint supplied by admirers.
Naïve sculpture is also a strong category of baseball art, as exemplified by Elijah Pierce's cartoon-like wood carving of Pete Rose, bat in his right hand and left foot propped up on a tree stump, and a cigar-store figure of an unidentified slugger believed to be King Kelly by Samuel Robb, a 19th century ship carver of more sophisticated talent.
Oddball art can be seen throughout the show. There are baseballs lovingly adorned with India ink pictures of ballplayers and games by George Sosnak, who had a career as an umpire before he devoted himself to baseball art in the 1960s, and fantasy baseball scenes drawn by Lamont Alfred Pry who took up art after he was confined to a Pennsylvania county home for the aged where he died in 1987.
The most esoteric display consists of photographs of the patterns in which the grass at Boston's Fenwick Park is rolled by David R. Mellor, the stadium's current groundskeeper. The patterns include the American flag and the Red Sox logo, and like the famous Nazca Indian tracings of animal figures in the Peruvian desert, they are best seen from above in the stands -- or on television.