For her 1983 work Gaylord Jackson Perry, New York City artist Susan Grayson arranged 35 small black-and-white photographs of the veteran Seattle Mariners pitcher in neat rows. All of the images show Perry on the pitcher’s mound— fiddling with his glove, hitching up his belt, tweaking the inside of his visor. Did Perry, who retired in 1983 after pitching for six majorleague teams, throw spitballs, as he was alleged to have done? And if so, which of the many moves depicted in Grayson’s work did he use to put an illegal substance on the ball? A touring show that opened last week at Toronto’s SkyDome raises those and other questions. Diamonds Are Forever. Artists and Writers on Baseball is a switch-hitting exhibition, directed at art lovers and sports fans alike. Its chief curator, Peter Gordon, senior exhibit designer for the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y., says that the show is “probably the only one ever reviewed by both Sports Illustrated and Artforum."
Diamonds Are Forever features 116 works by artists including French painter Raoul Dufy and American Andy Warhol. As well, the exhibition displays 29 excerpts from writings by mainly American authors ranging from Garrison Keillor to John Updike. It will remain at the SkyDome—the exhibition’s only Canadian stop on its 18-city tour, and the site of the July 9 All-
Star Game—until June 22. When Diamonds Are Forever opened in the Albany museum in 1987, its curators had no idea that it would still be on the road four years later, with future stops scheduled for Tokyo and Taipei, Taiwan. But baseball is such a potent subject that requests have kept coming in. Said Gordon, who describes himself as an ardent Boston Red Sox fan: “In American culture, everyone is somehow touched by baseball. It’s just part of our social fabric.” Added former New York Mets pitching superstar Tom Seaver, the exhibition’s spokesman: “We hope the show’s subject will attract people—kids especially—who might not normally think of going to a museum or art gallery.”
The show’s organizers discovered— through “word of mouth, people tattling on their friends,” said Gordon—that many artists had at some time found inspiration in baseball. Objects in the exhibition range from a bat-andball weather vane to Warhol’s slick 1985 print of Pete Rose as a baseball-card superhero. Since Warhol created his Rose portrait, the former Cincinnati Reds slugger has served a five-month sentence for federal income tax evasion, darkening a bright image of fame with a wash of infamy. But Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and other heroes depicted in Diamonds Are Forever remain larger-than-life in the mind’s eye, just as they were supposed to.
One of the funniest and most incisive images in the show is Scott Mlyn’s 1986 photograph Two Fans and Wally Joyner, Memorial Stadium, Baltimore. In it, the handsome ball player, who was then a star rookie with the California Angels, leans nonchalantly on a ball-park fence. On the other side of the fence are two small boys, staring up at the young god with wonder and a hint of fear: they are close enough to touch him.
But baseball’s hold on the North American imagination has to do with a lot more than hero worship. During a game, a ball park can be a roaring, crowded carnival of a place, as in Ralph Fasanella’s Night Game—Yankee Stadium (1961). Other works in the exhibition, which is on view in the SkyPlace complex adjoining SkyDome, convey the grandeur of empty stadiums, which in their desolation somehow suggest sacred ruins. For his part, Michael Langenstein wittily satirizes the almost mystical power of baseball in his 1982 postcard collage, Play Ball. He has irreverently altered the most famous detail of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling—
that of God stretching out his fingertip to bestow life on Adam—by slipping a regulation baseball into the divine hand.
Diamonds Are Forever is as much about writers and baseball as it is about visual artists
and the sport. Baseball has for decades been beloved by authors—in part, no doubt, because it has much in common with literature. Roger Angelí, a senior fiction editor at The New Yorker and the author of several highly regarded collections of baseball writing, told Maclean’s'. “Baseball is nothing like any other sport in the way it moves. It’s slow-moving and linear. It has a form of narrative; it’s not like hockey or basketball or any sport of swirling activity.” Angelí is among the many writers whose work has been excerpted for Diamonds. The curators selected short passages of text for the gallery walls, and the show’s catalogue (Chronicle Books, $29.95) includes some longer works in full, such as John Updike’s Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, a vivid account of Ted Williams’s triumphant last game with the Boston Red Sox in 1960.
Like the artwork, the texts celebrate baseball’s infinite variety. In an excerpt from his classic study of the sport, How Life Imitates the World
Series (1982), Thomas Boswell theorizes on the ancestral resonance of baseball: “Ever since the first caveman picked up the first cudgel, went to his front door and smacked the first nosy sabre-toothed tiger in the snout, mankind
has known the atavistic power and pleasure of the bat.” In a more elegiac vein is Roger Kahn’s account of following the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952 and 1953, the years in which they lost the World Series to the New York Yankees. “You may glory in a team triumphant,” Kahn wrote in his 1971 book, The Boys of Summer, “but you fall in love with a team in defeat.”
Some of the texts revel in the sheer loveliness of the baseball park. “Inside was eternity,” Robert Parker wrote in his 1986 work “Spenser’s a Fan, Too,” which includes a description of entering Fenway Park in Boston: “Through the darkness under the stands and up and into the bright green park, bathed in light, change-
less and symmetrical, contained, exact, and endlessly different, like water in a stream.” And some find profundity in the sport’s complexity. Novelist Philip Roth, who became a passionate fan in childhood, wrote in his autobiographical
“My Baseball Years” (1975): “Not until I got to college and was introduced to literature did I find anything with a comparable emotional atmosphere and esthetic appeal.”
But at the same time that baseball bears the
weight of all kinds of significance, it remains an essentially lighthearted pastime, a game for sunny, lazy afternoons. Humorist Garrison Keillor’s advice to softball players on how to spit like a major-leaguer is the flip side of Roth’s pronouncement. “Spit frequently,” Keillor wrote. “Spit correctly. Spit should be blown, not ptuied weakly with the lips, which often results in dribble. Spitting should convey forcefulness of purpose, concentration, pride.” Recognizing that the sport has as much to do with Keillor’s spit as with Roth’s polish, Diamonds Are Forever sheds some interesting light on baseball’s multifaceted fascination.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.