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Dale Owens, general manager of the Triple A Louisville Redbirds, will tell you that he has been involved in some pretty unusual negotiations in his time, but it's a certainty that the contract talks he had in the spring of 1988 with John Hull were unique. That's because Hull, an assistant professor of painting and printmaking at Yale and a lifelong baseball fan, was proposing to put in a stint with the Redbirds as baseball's first artist-in-residence. Like any cagey free agent, Hull knew exactly what he wanted.
"Specifically, I needed two weeks with the club, complete access to the dugout and permission to set up my easel in the bullpen during games," he says. "Much to my delight, Dale Owens said yes to all three requests."
So the following June Hull, who had spent many a summer evening painting minor league games in ballparks around the country, packed up his bags and brushes and reported to the Redbirds. "Peter Morrin, the director of the JBSpeed Museum here in Louisville, had seen some of John's baseball paintings done from the stands at other ballparks," says Owens. "Peter was so enthused about the idea that I thought it might just work—especially if we allowed John to get down on the field and into the dugout, clubhouse and bullpen."
On Hull's previous travels to minor league parks, from Bluefield, Ky., to Albuquerque, he had always found himself in the bleachers. "Because the bleachers are rarely crowded for minor league games, I had lots of room to set up my easel and get into my work," says Hull.
"Up until Louisville," he adds, "I was never close enough to the players to do portraits. But with access to everything in the Louisville ballpark, I realized I would be able to capture the tension and anticipation of the game as seen on the players' faces during the game."
The results of Hull's efforts are 44 paintings, ranging in price from $2,200 to $9,500. They were on display at the JBSpeed Museum for seven weeks earlier this summer and will be on exhibit at the Grace-Borgenicht gallery in New York City from Oct. 5 to 31.
Hull did most of his initial work in pencil and then translated the sketches onto canvas in his studio in Meriden, Conn., using acrylics. Not surprisingly, some of Hull's biggest fans were the subjects of his work.
"I must confess that I was worried at first as to how the team would react to an artist coming into their highly personal world with a sketch pad and easel," he says. "In fact, on the first day I arrived in the clubhouse, the Louisville manager, Mike Jorgensen, came over to me with a who-the-heck-are-you-and-you're-going-to-do-what? kind of look on his face. But I had the good fortune to have packed my painting materials in my old Marine Corps bag.
"Jorgy took one look at the bag, looked back at me and said with a stunned expression, 'You? You were in the Marines?' When I assured him that I had been, he said, 'Shoot, I was in the Marines, too!' From that moment on, I was accepted into the closed fraternity of the clubhouse."
Hull made sure his two weeks with the Redbirds were productive. "I worked as much as I could, sketching the players' faces on the bench and other scenes throughout the ballpark," he says.