Earlier this summer I watched Roy Campanella play baseball one afternoon. The Brooklyn Dodger catcher was poised near the screen behind home plate, his mask tilted back as he searched the sky for a foul pop that would never come down. That day I also saw Bob Feller on the mound for the Cleveland Indians as he kicked up his left leg and prepared to fling a high, hard one that would never meet a bat. I saw Mickey Mantle striding across the outfield grass, his eyes tracking a long fly ball that would never land in the Yankee centerfielder's glove. And I saw Josh Gibson, the Negro leagues' celebrated catcher, crouching near the dugout, his mitt at the ready, destined to wait forever for a call to action.
And I saw all of this at San Francisco's Candlestick Park.
These scenes were more than just a mind's-eye fantasy or clips from an old, herky-jerky black-and-white film. I saw these things in full color while I stood on the field at Candlestick. Of course, they were all really just paintings, but with the the sun shining, actors dressed in baggy period uniforms and the loudspeaker blaring a big-band tune, the paintings took on lives of their own, becoming more than two-dimensional portraits of former ballplayers.
The conceptual-art exhibition, Legends at the Stick, was a daylong extravaganza held on July 11 and the brainchild of Tom Rodrigues, 39, an artist from nearby Tiburon. Late one night in May of 1991, Rodrigues had just finished a nearly life-sized double portrait of Christy Mathewson and Smokey Joe Wood, the legendary pitchers for the New York Giants and the Boston Red Sox, respectively. The Mathewson and Wood painting was the fourth in his series of 30 acrylic-on-canvas recreations of vintage baseball photos, and it occurred to Rodrigues that there ought to be an unusual way of exhibiting his artwork.
"I stood back from the painting, looked around the studio and saw them all on a baseball field," says Rodrigues. His idea was as simple as it was inspired: complete the series of portraits or action scenes of Hall of Famers and display them on a major league baseball field. Wherever possible, the likenesses of the greats would be placed at the positions they once played. It would, Rodrigues hoped, be a magical meeting of baseball and art.
Making the dream a reality, however, wasn't a simple matter of "If you paint it, they will come." It took a year and a half of negotiations with the city of San Francisco, the owner of Candlestick; $60,000; and a change in the Giants' ownership to secure the exhibition space. But finally, on a glorious summer's day, Rodrigues's canvas-backed Dream Team took the field at Candlestick Park. The 30 paintings were displayed in the infield and the outfield, near the dugout areas and in the bullpens; all rested securely on green wood-and-steel easels designed by Rodrigues's father, Rod, a mechanical engineer. Costumed actors stood near the paintings, remaining in character as they discussed teammates, friends or opponents with the exhibition visitors. Kids in knickers, city cops, cigar-chomping reporters and even Babe Ruth himself roamed the infield. In the outfield, players dressed in the uniforms of long-gone teams played catch and pepper.
Despite the intriguing paintings and the enthusiasm of the on-field actors, it was a living legend who probably drew the biggest crowd: Visitors stormed the first base dugout once word spread that former Giant Willie Mays had taken the field. Invited by Rodrigues to help publicize the event, Mays signed autographs to raise money for his Say Hey Foundation, which benefits Negro-leagues players, and toured the exhibit. He stopped for a leisurely look at a painting of himself that had been placed in his old stomping grounds in Candlestick's centerfield.
While Mays couldn't recall the catch portrayed in the painting of him, which Rodrigues had modeled on a 1960 grab against the Chicago Cubs, Mays had no trouble remembering other big catches. "There was one over there in left center in '61," he said, pointing to a spot about 30 yards to the left of the crowd gathered around him. "And another farther back in center," he said, gesturing to a spot behind the painting. The people surrounding Mays looked toward home, their view the same as the one he had taken in as the ball arced out, 33 years ago.
The sense of being on the field with real ballplayers was a big part of the attraction for the 2,000 people who attended the event. "This is like a fantasy," said one visitor, bemoaning the fact that she had brought only one roll of film.
"It is so cool," said another, wearing a Giant cap. "I got a picture of myself getting booted by the ump and another spitting in the dugout."