It has been said that baseball is the only thread that ties America together over three centuries. If so, as artist Thom Ross has discovered, it is a slender and fragile thread.
Ross, who lives in Seattle, came to New York five years ago to commemorate the most famous defensive play in baseball history, on its 50th anniversary. As every baseball fan knows, on Sept. 29, 1954, in Game 1 of the World Series, the Cleveland Indians' Vic Wertz slammed a ball deep into the Polo Grounds center field, traveling an estimated 450-460 feet from home plate. There it landed in the glove of the Giants' young phenom Willie Mays, who, running furiously with his back to home plate, caught the ball, wheeled around and fired it back into the infield to complete a play that, in the words of Birmingham News sports editor Alf Van Hoose (who had covered Mays since he played for the Birmingham Black Barons), "you had to see not to believe."
It may have been true, as Mays later insisted, that he made better catches during his career, but no one has ever argued that no greater play has been made in all of World Series history.
Ross, a devoted baseball fan, was 2 years old at the time of The Catch. He first heard it described by his father when he was 5, and grew up in awe of something he had never seen. At age 12 he read Arnold Hano's classic book on the game, A Day In The Bleachers, and became inflamed with the thought of capturing the moment in an artwork. When Ross came to New York in 2004, he and a handful of friends and assistants searched Upper Manhattan at the site of the old Polo Grounds, near West 155th Street and Eighth Avenue, where they found a plague marking the stadium's home plate. They then proceeded to step off about 460 feet toward the East River to the approximate spot where Mays made The Catch.
In an empty lot behind a building, the crew set up five painted plywood figures -- Ross calls them "installations" -- illustrating the five stages of the play, from pursuit to throw. The work attracted a few curious onlookers, mostly, says Ross, some young black kids wondering what six middle-aged white guys were doing fooling around in their neighborhood. Deciding that more people needed to see them, Ross moved the figures closer to the street near a subway station, where a few dozen people gathered.
A few older men pointed and smiled at the five Willies, but to Ross's disappointment, none of the teenagers recognized the man depicted in the artwork. Ross produced his battered copy of A Day In The Bleachers and read selected passages to the crowd, walking off the distance from where Wertz hit the ball to where Willie caught it. He was rewarded with applause.
The next day, Ross and company moved the exhibit to Central Park, where he had a permit to display it, and the day after that they staged "a guerilla raid" to set up the figures in Times Square. "Most people's response was appreciative but a bit puzzled," he says. "I thought almost everyone in New York would remember Willie's catch, but it was more like one person in 20. I thought I'd light a fire that day, but it was more like a candle in the wind." (Note: 2004 marked the second incarnation of the Willie Mays installation; the first was photographed for the Oct. 6, 1986, issue of Sports Illustrated and shown in a Cooperstown art gallery before being purchased by a doctor for his home in Watchung, N.J.)
Ross spent more than $7,000 from his own pocket to fly the installation across the country and drive it up to Coogan's Bluff. He wrote to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to Major League Baseball, the New York City Parks Commissioner, and even to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, asking for permission to erect a permanent steel installation, but got no response.
"It's tough being an artist fascinated with history at a time when people don't seem to be interested in history," says Ross, "but sometimes it's exhilarating." Ross's other great passion, the legendary Old West, has sent him on pilgrimages to the O.K. Corral, to the site of Custer's Last Stand in Montana and to his boyhood home in Northern California, where Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West troupe once posed for photographers. "I love events with long-term mythical connections," he says. "Things that people want to see depicted over and over, as if they could, if they see it from enough angles, finally understand its significance."
In 2005 he hauled 200 hand-painted figures -- soldiers, Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, and horses -- to the Little Big Horn Battlefield, about a mile from Custer Hill, joining white and Indian reenactors in creating a version of the battle that was a dazzling mix of art and live action. "Amazing," he recalls of that day. "One of the Cheyenne got so worked up he smashed one of my figures from horseback." His intent, Ross emphasizes, was "not political. I simply wanted to pay tribute to the men who made that day part of American mythology."
Last year Ross returned to his native Bay Area to recreate one of his favorite photographs: Buffalo Bill and more than 100 cowboys and Indians from his traveling show on horseback lining the beach against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean in 1902. The installation drew an estimated 40,000 spectators.
Ross's figures are about a foot larger than their inspirations were in real life, because, he says, "That's the way they live in our memory -- larger than life."
Those two projects (which can be seen on his Web site) cost Ross in excess of $150,000 for materials and transportation. "I'm not a bad businessman," he says, "but these weren't business ventures. More like something between a labor of love and an existential errand. Call them my homage to iconic American moments."
Ross has been commissioned for sports themes -- Reggie Jackson asked him to do a painting commemorating his three-home-run game in the 1978 World Series, and his work, The Defining Moment, capturing the Seattle Mariners' 1995 victory over the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series, can be found inside the left-field gate of Safeco Field. He doesn't, however, consider himself either a sports or western artist. "Just call me a contemporary artist in love with the process by which fact evolves into legend," he says. "You know what the reporter says to James Stewart at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? When the fact becomes legend, print the legend. Put it this way, when the fact becomes legend, I paint it."
Late last year, preparing for Tuesday's 55th anniversary of The Catch, Ross re-petitioned the authorities for permission to erect a permanent artwork, again without success. But he isn't discouraged by the lack of official response. "Willie's catch is going to live on in the hearts of many," Ross says. "The tale must be told and told again."