It has been said that baseball is the only thread that ties America together over three centuries. If so, as artist
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'
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
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
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
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
"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
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
Ross has been commissioned for sports themes --
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."