Whoever wants to
know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball," critic
Jacques Barzun observed in the 1950s. In his wry and entertaining series, The
Unauthorized History of Baseball in 100-odd Paintings, artist Ben Sakoguchi
(right) shows that the converse could also be true.
Unveiled last winter at Los Angeles City College's Da Vinci Gallery,
Unauthorized History honors the national pastime's heroes ( Babe Ruth, Satchel
Paige); skewers its villains ( Marge Schott, John Rocker); celebrates its
characters ( Casey Stengel, Bill [Spaceman] Lee); and remembers its tragic
figures ( Donnie Moore, Glenn Burke). The images are amusing or provocative--and
sometimes both. But what's most striking about Unauthorized History is its
look: the Pasadena, Calif.--based Sakoguchi adapted the style of orange-crate
labels formerly used by California's citrus companies. Beginning in the
mid-1880s, colorfully illustrated labels adorned millions of wooden orange
crates shipped throughout the world until 1955, when preprinted cardboard boxes
replaced the wooden crates and their elegant lithographs. "The labels have
this unique sense of style, with beautiful colors and eye-catching
typography," says Gordon McClelland, co-author of California Orange Box
Labels: An Illustrated History. "They were designed to draw you
Sakoguchi recalls seeing the labels on crates outside his parents' small
grocery store in San Bernardino. Years later, while scouring swap meets near
his home, he discovered that the 10-by-11-inch images had become coveted
experimented with the format and found that the pastoral elements of the labels
made it easier to tackle controversial topics, including AIDS and 9/11.
"When I paint with these labels," he says, "it's disarming, no
matter the subject. People don't want to be lectured about politics or race, so
I use images and colors that soften the blow."
Always evident in
his art is what Sakoguchi calls his "feeling of otherness," which came
from his experiences growing up in one of the few Asian-American families in
San Bernardino. In 1942, after Pearl Harbor was attacked, thousands of
Americans of Japanese descent were relocated to camps. With his parents and
three siblings, three-year-old Ben was interned in Poston, Ariz., for the
remainder of the war.
perspective gives his work a political bent. "In baseball, the flaws of
America and the strengths of America come through," Sakoguchi says.
" Jackie Robinson integrated the game way before the rest of society was
integrated, but then two players in the Hall of Fame [ Tris Speaker and Rogers
Hornsby] were members of the Ku Klux Klan."
he's a "fan of baseball"--he's particularly fond of the Pittsburgh
Pirates, who held their spring training camp in San Bernardino during the early
1950s, when Sakoguchi often accompanied his father to exhibition games. "My
father loved baseball," he says. "These paintings honor his
Before he retired
in 1997, Sakoguchi spent 33 years teaching art at Pasadena City College--the
same school attended by Jackie Robinson, who appears in several of Sakoguchi's
works. Now a full-time painter, Sakoguchi recently won a $25,000 grant from the
prestigious Flintridge Foundation, and he's already researching his next
orange-crate series, about the history of slavery. But he says he has not yet
exhausted the topic of baseball, even though he's now produced more than 140
images. "My wife came up with the original title, but we may have to change
it," he jokes. "It's going to be The Unauthorized History of Baseball
in 200-odd Paintings."
To see enlarged images from Ben Sakoguchi's Unauthorized History of Baseball,
go to SI.com/baseballart.