Baseball in the early twentieth century was dominated by larger-than-life characters such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. These icons of sport are presented to us today in black-and-white photographs that only hint at their true visage. The work of artist Graig Kreindler allows us, like Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, to transition from a world devoid of color into a brilliantly illuminated landscape.
Six years after Sports Collectors Daily first interviewed him, we take a look at how his work has impacted the sports card and memorabilia hobby, and how the hobby has impacted him.
Over the past several years, Kreindler has painstakingly toiled to bring color to the world of early twentieth century baseball. Through extensive research and unparalleled attention to detail, his work brings us as accurate a depiction of the game as is possible. His labor has been rewarded with acclaim from an unexpected source: collectors of pre-war sports cards and memorabilia. It is not uncommon to find his contemporary 2013 canvases paired with pieces more than a century old. In circles where modern reproduction and 'throwback' fantasy pieces are eschewed, the art of Kreindler has managed to break through that barrier and find itself in significant collections.
"I first saw Graig's work when he posted on Net54 a few years ago and was very impressed with his skill at capturing moments in time on the ball field so vividly. In the 1950s I went to probably fifty or more games at old Yankee Stadium. Those trips to that wonderful and historic ballyard comprise some of the richest memories of my boyhood a half-century ago. In my mind I can still readily summon the colors of the green grass, the Bronx sky, the shadows that enveloped that cavernous place, I can hear the buzz of the crowd, I can smell the cigar smoke. When I saw some of Graig's Yankee Stadium pieces, Mantle facing Feller, Yogi jumping onto Don Larsen, I was stunned. The whole feeling of being there in 1956, he nailed it," shared David McDonald, who boasts an eclectic collection ranging from photographs, to postcards, to Hawaiiana.
"I have always been intrigued by the world in the decades before I was born. My grandparents were all born in the 19th century, my parents in the 1920's and all the grown-ups I knew when I was young had lived through fascinating times that I only knew as 'history', tantalizingly close in time but the lights came on too late for me. I collect vintage baseball cards because, aside from being little gems of art, they are elements of a personal Twilight Zone fantasy of bygone America. Every card affords a nostalgic little glimpse of my imaginary world. Then Graig comes along and busts the window wide open in glorious 'Kreindlercolour'," McDonald concluded, which explains how two of Kreindler's masterworks have found their way into his collection: Ford's Effort for Naught, based on the iconic Charles Conlon photo of Ty Cobb stealing third, and a portrait of ill-fated pitcher Smokey Joe Wood originally photographed by Carl Horner.
"I’ve often found myself sitting back and starring at Graig’s painting and finding a new detail that I’ve never noticed before. For this and so many other reasons, I never tire of his work. Quite simply, I haven’t seen his equal in sports realism." said Brian Terjung, a collector of vintage sports cards who purchased a painting of Honus Wagner, titled Old and in the Grey, by Kreindler last year.
"Graig’s amazing ability to bring an image to life is what drew me to his work. I am a fan of realism in painting and he absolutely nails that. When painting scenes of realism, if one part isn’t 100% accurate, it would stand out and become the an undesired focal point. Graig’s attention to detail across every square inch of the painting and accurate portrayal of light guarantee that the image is presented in such a way that the focal point is where he intends it to be," Terjung continued, echoing the sentiments of several collectors on internet forums. "Occasionally, we may run across a grainy video showing a snippet of footage from years gone by, but it isn’t anything like the access that we have to athletes today. In some ways, not having the ability to have watched some of the baseball immortals play gives them even more heroic standing since we have to use our imaginations. Though we never saw them play, we’ve get regaled by stories of 'Honus Wagner throwing the ball so hard from short to first that pebbles also arrived with the ball' or stories like the purported interaction between Wagner and Cobb at second base during Game 1 of the 1909 World Series. Essentially, the stories tend to romanticize the greats from long ago. Being able to look at Graig’s amazing images can transport someone back to imagine what it must have been like to see them play."
Chris Levy: When you decided to paint iconic baseball figures were you aware of the vintage sports card and memorabilia hobby?
Graig Kreindler: When I first got into painting historical baseball pieces, I was certainly aware of the vintage sports card and memorabilia hobby. As a matter of fact, it was that same hobby that got me into the sport to begin with. My father was born in the mid-1940s, and like many kids of that era, he collected baseball cards. Though he had his own horror stories of his mother throwing them out when he got older, he did manage to keep some. It was through those that I first got a taste of baseball cards, as well as a history of the players that my father idolized when he was younger.
My father would sit me down on the proverbial knee and tell me about the great players of the past, especially his hero, Mickey Mantle. Bringing him to life for me were his baseball cards. Luckily, of the ones my grandmother missed when she threw out my father’s cards, his ’51 Bowman Mantle rookie remained. It wasn’t in all that great of shape, with rounded corners and a little bit of paper loss, but the image on the front was as clear as anything that I had ever seen. I used to ask my father how much it was worth, and though I don’t remember the exact number, I’m sure it was pretty darn high. Well, high for a 7-year old to fathom. But despite the value, I knew that it was one of my father’s most treasured keepsake, and he certainly wouldn’t ever sell it. So, in my mind, it was priceless.
My father continued to casually collect baseball cards into the late 1980s, and both my brother and I started to get into it ourselves. My dad would take us to Gloria Rothstein’s conventions held in White Plains, NY, and we would just be awestruck by all of the amazing cards that were out there. Actually seeing baseball cards with Babe Ruth’s picture on them was quite a trip. I even remember seeing a T206 Wagner for the first time, and my father remarking that it was the most expensive card in the world.
By the time I took to painting these images seriously, I found that the research I would do led me back into the industry. It was then that I was able really sink my teeth into all of the cool stuff that was out there.
CL: Are you surprised by how popular your work is with the vintage sports card and memorabilia collectors?
GK: I am indeed surprised by how popular my work is amongst many collectors of vintage sports cards and memorabilia. I’m also incredibly honored.
I’d like to think that in some way, collectors don’t think of my paintings as ‘contemporary.’ Sure, they were made months ago and are composed of modern materials, but I feel like the subject matter takes precedence over that.
Let’s say you have a collector who’s really into Ty Cobb. He has all of his cards. He has game-used bats from his career with the Tigers. He has vintage advertisements or broadsides that feature him. He has autographs and other sorts of correspondence with his name. He has original contracts. The fact is, he’s very passionate about Ty Cobb.
If that collector were to see a painting I did of Cobb, I don’t think he sees it as something that’s ‘contemporary’, and especially not in a negative way. I think – or at least, I hope – that he just sees Ty Cobb in a particular setting, doing stuff Ty Cobb did.
In one particular painting I did of him, I depicted the first game of the 1908 season, with the Tigers facing the White Sox in Chicago. Specifically, the viewer sees Cobb as he’s about to smash the ball into the right-field stands for his first home run of the year. I feel like the advanced collector can look at that and say, “Wow, that’s Ty Cobb in 1908, only a few years after he came into the league. It’s a year before his T206 card was released, and the bat in his hands is actually one that I own from that very same season!” So in a way, they’re able to make a deeper connection to Cobb through that. They have something that is unique, something that can stir the imagination in the same way those 100-year old cards, autographs, bats and contracts can.
CL: Do you maintain a personal collection of sports cards or memorabilia?
GK: I don’t really have much of a memorabilia or card collection myself, though there is one project that I am VERY slowly working on.
Though my father grew up a Yankee fan, his father was actually a New York Giants fan his whole life. Being born in 1905, he had the chance to see some AMAZING players at the Polo Grounds in those years, be they with the home Giants, the home Yankees (for a time) and whichever teams they played against.
My grandfather passed away when I was somewhat young, so I wasn’t able to really talk baseball with him. I can only imagine the stories he’d have to tell. The mere notion that he could have seen Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig or Carl Hubbell in person just sends shivers down my spine.
As a way of honoring him, when I was around 29 or 30, I decided that I wanted to get signatures of all of the players from the Yankees and Giants of 1936. Since it was around that same time that my grandfather was also in his early 30s, and with the two teams playing each other in the 1936 and 1937 World Series, he must have seen those exciting baseball seasons unfold. So, in my head, even though I have no idea whether he went to any games that year, I always imagine him at the Polo Grounds watching Mel Ott homer, or at Yankee Stadium during either of those two Octobers, watching a rookie Joe DiMaggio patrol centerfield. In a weird way, it’s a very comforting thought. I guess that getting the signatures of everyone from both teams is a way for me to connect with that feeling even more.
The plan is to get them all in pencil on cuts or album pages (whether singles or bunched with other teammates), and hopefully put them all up in two displays, one for each team. Also, I’m really hoping that the signatures can be period (in other words, signed during that time period). Over the past year or so, I’ve picked up a few here and there, but have never really made any huge effort to seek them out. I just buy one or two a year, and since there’s no hurry in achieving the goal, I’m not expecting to finish the project anytime soon. And it doesn’t hurt that finding a nice Gehrig signature would be rather expensive.
CL: In February of this year, a Kreindler painting of Ty Cobb, titled Navin's Nominal Star, sold for $19,120 in Legendary Auctions and had the distinction of being featured on the catalog's cover. Do you feel the recent appearance of your work on the secondary market in a major sports auction has increased your exposure?
GK: I would imagine that the recent exposure of my work to the secondary market has increased my exposure. I think when you have auction houses that have been in the business for years, they offer a great opportunity for me to have eyes on my artwork that could be impossible to get otherwise. The fact is, so many of them have long lists of clients running the gamut from the average Joe to the multimillionaire mogul. And if you’re into the hobby, chances are, you’re devouring the catalogs (be they in book or online form) for each auction. So if nothing else, the overall visibility of my work has probably increased.
CL: Of the pre-WW2 sports photographers whose images have inspired your art, do you have a favorite, and why?
GK: Of the pre-war photographers, it’s hard to mention one that HASN’T inspired my work. I’m always a fan of what I’ve seen from my favorites, like George Grantham Bain, Carl Horner, and Louis Van Oeyen.
For me, the king is Charles Conlon. I know it’s probably the expected answer to a question like that, being that he’s the most well known, but he truly was amazing. It’s very impressive that he produced such a large body of work between 1904 and 1942, as he was able to document almost every single player in both leagues (and even many in the Federal League!) during that time period.
However, the genius of Conlon lies in the quality of his work. Granted, he was an amateur photographer, and many of his images were taken somewhat out of focus, but he was able to capture something better than the photographers of the era didn’t. When seeing his images, I’m always attracted to the quality of light within them. A player portrait that was shot during an overcast day always gets me the most. The subject’s skin is always immaculate. And by that, I don’t mean pretty, but that it gives the viewer so much information. You can feel the texture of the ballplayers face. You can see the sky reflecting onto his oily skin. You can see the smallest wrinkles surrounding eyes that have patrolled a sunny outfield for years. When you look at a Conlon photograph, it’s more than just something that documents these people; it’s something that puts you in front of them. I feel like I can imagine exactly what Conlon saw in his viewfinder, and even in full color. There was simply nobody like him.
A close second would be Francis Burke, who used to work in the Chicago area during the first 25 years of the 20th century - I believe he was the official photographer of the Cubs for a time. In terms of game action shots from the Deadball Era, NOBODY took better ones than him. His images are some of my favorites to make (or imagine making) paintings from.
CL: Could you describe the research process, and whether you think that plays a role in the popularity of your work amongst collectors, who are notoriously anal when it comes to attention to detail?
GK: One of the things that I go crazy over is color accuracy. In the old ballparks, the outfield stands were usually heavily covered in billboards. Since these were usually changed from season to season, certain looks of billboards act as a handprint for a particular year. The amount of time I spend trying to figure out what the proper color scheme is for each billboard can run on being insane. It’s certainly not easy information to come by, and it takes plenty of digging.
With my paintings, I try to be as historically accurate as possible. In that sense, artistic license isn’t necessarily an option. And that sort of approach definitely lets me get to know each project intimately.
I think that in the end, collectors really get into that idea. Baseball fans, especially those in the card and memorabilia industry, can be VERY anal with details, whether they are physical or statistical.
If I’m painting Babe Ruth during the 1928 season, it obviously has to look like him. If he’s swinging a bat, I need to make sure that he’s doing so left-handed. If he’s doing so at Yankee Stadium, I need to make sure he’s wearing pinstripes. That stuff is easy.
But with me, I have to take it further. What color hair does Ruth have? What color eyes? What was his body-type like in 1928, compared to 1927? How are the pinstripes on his jersey arranged? How does it fit him? What kind of undershirt was he wearing? What brand and weight is the bat that he’s swinging?
And it won’t end there either. Once I get started on a concept, I try to learn everything I can about it. Beyond the main subject, I want to know the date, the time of day it took place, what the light was like, what the weather was like, what the attendance was like, where the players were standing on the field, whether their uniforms had dirt on them from prior innings, and really any other minutia that comes my way. This is achieved through a lot of newspaper research, as well as other reading materials, be they period or not. Videos also play a huge role in the process, whether they’re just from highlight reels of the era, or even home movies.
This is all stuff that really concerns me – I want the viewer to have as real of an experience with the painting as possible. Yankee Stadium needs to look like Yankee Stadium, and Babe Ruth needs to look like Babe Ruth. I don’t know how far most fans need that to go, but I know for me, it needs to be as close to real life as possible. I feel like baseball fans want to have that experience when they look at images like mine, and I think I’ve earned a lot of fans for that kind of diligence.
CL: From inception to delivery, how long does a typical painting take to craft?
GK: From inception to delivery, the time it takes to finish a project will usually be related to its size. For the most part, once the actual painting process starts, it’s usually at least 30 to 60 days from start to finish. The larger and more complicated the painting, the more the latter number changes – they’re plenty that have taken MANY months to finish.
CL: Are you still accepting commissions, or has the increased popularity of your work made it too difficult?
GK: I am indeed still accepting commissions, as it’s always a joy to recreate specific moments for my clients.
People sometimes ask me whether those commissions get in the way of doing ‘more personal’ work, but in the end, I explain that this stuff IS my personal work. Sure, they’re certain players I’d like to paint that aren’t the sexier names of the sport’s history, but when I’m kept inside of the theme of the sport, I just enjoy the creative process so much. I’m just so grateful and overjoyed that I’m able to do what I do for a living. I hope I’ll be able to do so for the rest of my life.
For more information on Graig Kreindler and his artwork: www.graigkreindler.com