Sculptor Mark Lundeen can relate to an athlete failing in the clutch. His high school basketball team in Holdrege, Neb. (pop. 5,624), lost the 1976 state class B title game in the last two seconds of play. Later, as a running back for Kearney (Neb.) State, he was forced to endure three seasons that ended with losses in the NAIA championships. Shouldn't he be satisfied with simply getting as far as he did in sports? Some might think so, particularly in light of the fact that Lundeen lost half of his left foot in a hunting accident in high school. But Lundeen, like so many others who have fallen short in sports, was left not with a feeling of satisfaction but with a wistful sense of unfulfilled promise. He decided to do something about it.
"Based on my own frustrating experiences, and those of a lot of other athletes, I decided a few years ago to do a bronze statue of a sports figure who symbolized failing in the clutch, but doing it in style," says Lundeen. 30, who now lives and works in Loveland, Colo. "The poem Casey at the Bat immediately came to mind."
Lundeen is referring to Ernest L. Thayer's century-old tale of the legendary slugger for Mudville whose whiff in the bottom of the ninth with two men on base is the most celebrated strikeout in baseball lore.
The seven-foot, 600-pound statue of Mighty Casey—one of 15 that Lundeen has made, along with 30 smaller replicas—depicts the muscular, mustachioed slugger leaning on his bat. Officials at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., were so impressed with his work that they accepted one of the seven-footers—some of which have brought prices as high as $30,000—as a loan from the owners: James Cole of Knoxville and John McGivern, a contractor from Topeka, Kans. "It's been one of our biggest attractions since we put it on display last June," says William Guilfoyle, the associate director of the Hall of Fame.
Lundeen's Casey is in good company, inasmuch as the only other life-sized statuary in the Hall's museum are wooden sculptures of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and a wax version of Roberto Clemente. The two works in wood were crafted by Armand LaMontagne of North Scituate. R.I., a former Boston College football player. His recently completed lifelike statue of Celtics forward Larry Bird is on display at the New England Sports Museum in Boston, where his current project—a statue of Boston hockey great Bobby Orr—will also be displayed.
Though sports statuary is hardly a new phenomenon, it has suddenly become big, in every sense of the word. On April 19 in Philadelphia's Spectrum, a 13½-foot bronze of Julius Erving was dedicated at halftime of a 76er game during which Dr. J's jersey, No. 6, was retired. The bronzed Erving's final resting place, as it were, will be outside the Spectrum, a long three-point shot from the statue of another Philadelphia legend, Rocky Balboa (a.k.a. Sylvester Stallone), the fictitious heavyweight champion who trained for some of his memorable celluloid bouts in the city of brotherly love.
Rocky's rise to immortality was strictly an accident. "The statue was a prop in the Rocky III movie and was set on the top steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art," says Spectrum spokeswoman Nancy Marakowski of the life-sized figure sculpted by A. Thomas Schomberg of Evergreen, Colo. "The movie people offered it to the museum, but the museum didn't want it because it wasn't considered art, so we sort of adopted it six years ago."
These recent creations notwithstanding, it is surprising how few sports figures have been immortalized in sculpture. Of those who have achieved that distinction, most have been baseball players. Perhaps the biggest and oldest work is the bronze statue of Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner that greets Pirate fans as they enter Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Dedicated in 1955, the nine-foot. 1½-ton figure, atop an eight-foot concrete pedestal, was in Schenley Park, across from Forbes Field, until it was moved to Three Rivers in 1972.
Sculpted by Frank Vittor, the statue of a smiling Wagner, following through after one of his mighty swings, actually looks like its subject. That's more than can be said of the slightly larger-than-life sculpture of Stan Musial that has stood outside the entrance to Busch Stadium in St. Louis for the past 20 years. "It doesn't look like Musial at all," concedes Bob Broeg, the retired sports editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who spearheaded the fund-raising drive to commission Carl Mose to do the work. "Even the famous Musial stance isn't right. But once it was done, it was done. I guess it's more of a symbol than anything else."
More true to life are three statues in the concourse surrounding Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium; they depict former Braves stars Hank Aaron (swinging) and Phil Niekro (pitching) along with Georgia native Ty Cobb (sliding). To date, it is believed that only one manager has been immortalized with a life-sized likeness: Connie Mack, who lasted 50 years as the skipper of the Philadelphia Athletics, partly because of his managerial skill and partly because, as the club's owner, he couldn't find a good reason to fire himself. Wearing his trademark suit and waving his ever-present scorecard, Mack is enshrined in bronze outside Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.