Dale Owens, general manager of the Triple A Louisville Redbirds, will tell you that he has been involved in some pretty unusual negotiations in his time, but it's a certainty that the contract talks he had in the spring of 1988 with John Hull were unique. That's because Hull, an assistant professor of painting and printmaking at Yale and a lifelong baseball fan, was proposing to put in a stint with the Redbirds as baseball's first artist-in-residence. Like any cagey free agent, Hull knew exactly what he wanted.
"Specifically, I needed two weeks with the club, complete access to the dugout and permission to set up my easel in the bullpen during games," he says. "Much to my delight, Dale Owens said yes to all three requests."
So the following June Hull, who had spent many a summer evening painting minor league games in ballparks around the country, packed up his bags and brushes and reported to the Redbirds. "Peter Morrin, the director of the JBSpeed Museum here in Louisville, had seen some of John's baseball paintings done from the stands at other ballparks," says Owens. "Peter was so enthused about the idea that I thought it might just work—especially if we allowed John to get down on the field and into the dugout, clubhouse and bullpen."
On Hull's previous travels to minor league parks, from Bluefield, Ky., to Albuquerque, he had always found himself in the bleachers. "Because the bleachers are rarely crowded for minor league games, I had lots of room to set up my easel and get into my work," says Hull.
"Up until Louisville," he adds, "I was never close enough to the players to do portraits. But with access to everything in the Louisville ballpark, I realized I would be able to capture the tension and anticipation of the game as seen on the players' faces during the game."
The results of Hull's efforts are 44 paintings, ranging in price from $2,200 to $9,500. They were on display at the JBSpeed Museum for seven weeks earlier this summer and will be on exhibit at the Grace-Borgenicht gallery in New York City from Oct. 5 to 31.
Hull did most of his initial work in pencil and then translated the sketches onto canvas in his studio in Meriden, Conn., using acrylics. Not surprisingly, some of Hull's biggest fans were the subjects of his work.
"I must confess that I was worried at first as to how the team would react to an artist coming into their highly personal world with a sketch pad and easel," he says. "In fact, on the first day I arrived in the clubhouse, the Louisville manager, Mike Jorgensen, came over to me with a who-the-heck-are-you-and-you're-going-to-do-what? kind of look on his face. But I had the good fortune to have packed my painting materials in my old Marine Corps bag.
"Jorgy took one look at the bag, looked back at me and said with a stunned expression, 'You? You were in the Marines?' When I assured him that I had been, he said, 'Shoot, I was in the Marines, too!' From that moment on, I was accepted into the closed fraternity of the clubhouse."
Hull made sure his two weeks with the Redbirds were productive. "I worked as much as I could, sketching the players' faces on the bench and other scenes throughout the ballpark," he says.
Did the players mind his being everywhere with a sketch pad and pencil? "No, not at all," says Hull. "But, of course, like anybody else who glances over the shoulder at an artist's work, the players quickly adapted to the role of art critics. Usually a player would look at a portrait I was doing of one of his teammates and say something like, 'You didn't make him ugly enough,' or, 'You have to make his nose bigger than that.'
"I remember Bien Figueroa, the shortstop, was particularly persistent in his over-my-shoulder criticism. One day I was doing a portrait of pitcher Howard Hilton, and Bien kept telling me, 'He's not that skinny—you gotta make him fatter.' Figueroa wouldn't leave me alone until I did, in fact, make Howard a little chubbier.
"By the same token, I did a portrait of pitcher Scott Arnold while he was sitting on the bench with his hat off. I thought I had captured Scott's profile pretty well, but his girlfriend had a look and noted that I hadn't made his hairline recede enough. So I took away some of Scotty's hair and added more scalp. I can only assume it made his girl happier, though I doubt Scotty liked the result."
One player had reason to take a serious interest in Hull's work. "[Pitcher] Bob Tewksbury does a lot of drawings on his own, and he and I struck up quite a rapport," says Hull.
Says Tewksbury, who has been in the St. Louis Cardinals' starting rotation since being called up in June of this year, "I've been doing sketches off and on for a number of years, and becoming a professional artist is something I'm thinking about pursuing when I finish playing ball. So when John gave me some tips on my work, on how to work on my shadings and how to draw portraits, it was terrific." (Tewksbury, who is also a cartoonist, recently designed a T-shirt that honors Cardinals teammate and local hero, Rex Hudler. The T-shirt has become a hot item in St. Louis.)
Hull's fortnight with the Redbirds—during which they went 5-5 with two rain-outs—as well as a brief meeting with the team in Pawtucket, R.I., later in the summer, included a typical minor league bus ride, and like any minor league trouper, he climbed on board for the team's three-hour trip to Nashville. Indeed, several of Hull's paintings capture the ennui of traveling from town to town.
Looking back, Hull considers his stay with the Redbirds to have been "a wonderful gift, my own 'field of dreams.' There's a mystique about a professional baseball team, a joyfulness, a playful camaraderie that really doesn't exist anywhere else in society.
"I've heard it said that you're only young once but that you can be immature for a lifetime," continues Hull. "That observation has certainly been made of professional ballplayers. But, you know, I'm not certain that's necessarily bad—and I hope my paintings express precisely that feeling."
Rick Wolff, a senior editor for Macmillan Books, has written several baseball pieces for SI.