In a new group summer show at Victor Armendariz Gallery in Chicago, you can find the riveting baseball-related work of Margie Lawrence (https://margielawrence.com). This is not a show of iconic sports images (although there may be a few), but more of an examination of how we transition to and from golden ages of public memory, how shared memories of unquestioned great achievements can trigger the intense emotions developing closeness or unity and how baseball used to pervade our lives much more in America as a type of common language, experience and iconography. It is baseball before the ages of analytics and steroids, when managers used their experience and guts to make decisions and, perhaps, when we were just not able to learn of any sinful deeds among our heroes.
Lawrence’s work seems to often be about the figures whose personalities, intensity, values, work-ethic, charm and grace often made them more compelling than the game they were playing. Fitting for a show in Chicago, Lawrence sometimes focuses on the Cubs team which generated the most intense emotions – the tragic/heroic Cubs of the late 60s and 70s – a team which unified a city in a type of long-lasting grief and sorrow which was only expiated by Joe Madden and his guys of 2016, who unified Chicago (temporarily) in intense joy and jubilation.
A Chicago journalist named Mike Royko once humorously proposed a new baseball rule that would apply only to the Chicago Cubs. Once a Cubs player began to excel to the level of superstar status, the team should then be forced to trade him to a team that might actually have a chance of winning a World Series. This was due to the fact that, in Royko’s time, it became so painful to watch such great players like Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandburg et al., excel every day on Cubs teams that would never, ever enter a World Series. A list of great players who never made the World Series is replete with great Cubs. There could also be a list of great (and grateful) players the Cubs did trade to better teams who then made the World Series (including Lou Brock, Ken Holtzman, Bill Madlock, Bruce Sutter, Joe Carter, Greg Maddux and Mark Grace).
Banks is especially tragic not only due to his immense talent but also to his personal sweetness and amiability. Chicago sports fans wished for a World Series appearance, just for Ernie’s sake. But Banks never even made it to a playoff in a Cubs uniform. In 1955 Banks hit 44 home runs as a shortstop – the most ever for that position, at that time. From 1955 to 1960 nobody in baseball hit more home runs than he did, not even Mickey Mantle. The theory goes that Cubs ownership was making a yearly profit due to television and gate revenues and did not think a World Series Championship was such a big deal. People came to Wrigley because it was the most beautiful ballpark in the world and a great way to spend an afternoon in the breezy sunlight. The Cubs management primarily needed warm bodies and just a star here and there to consistently cash in. The Cubs apparently signed Ernie Banks from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League in 1953 because they witnessed how Hank Aaron brought people to the ballpark.
So the great players in Cub history were often like famous actors brought in for crappy Broadway plays to increase attendance. Back in the day, people went to see Man of La Mancha for Robert Goulet, and people went to Wrigley Field to bask in the sun and watch Ernie or Ron or Ryno or Gracie. The Cubs once brought in a guy named Dave Kingman (King Kong Kingman), who always tried to hit home runs. He either struck out or hit a homer, there seemed no in-between. His effect on fans was, however, electric. Every time Kingman came to bat the crowd went wild, everyone stood up to see whether Kingman would strike out or hit a homer, even if the Cubs were losing by 6 or 7 runs.
Playing for the Cubs often meant you knew there was a better place for your talents, but you also knew you could not leave due to the “reserve clause” which bound players to teams, sometimes forever…unless Cubs management did something stupid (as they sometimes did – like trading Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio). But, then came the late 60s, and management discovered it had the makings of a great team and brought in a famous manager, Leo Durocher. But even Durocher couldn’t harness a team to a championship missing a bullpen and playing all their home games in the hot sun. There were truly outstanding players who died on the vine…Kessinger, Beckert, Williams, “Gentleman Jim” Hickman, Santo, Banks, Hundley, Jenkins…perhaps no team had better position players. Four of these guys would make the Hall of Fame and others were All Stars. They played their hearts out in the scorching sun only to fall to a New York Mets team with supernatural pitching and night baseball.
Lawrence has created a genial painting of Santo and Banks together, two Hall of Fame stalwarts of a snake-bitten team. We also see Banks playing at Ebbets Field before the Dodgers moved West. Ernie is without a batting helmet, as the helmet only became mandatory in 1970. I love that the third baseman has crept in on the grass as Banks must have once been a speedster who might trick you with an occasional bunt. This is the stage where Ernie was a world-beater, not the later Ernie when his skills were in decline but he held on anyway in the hopes the Cubs might pull off a miracle someday. Ebbets Field was Jackie Robinson’s home turf and Banks had been the first African American player for the Cubs. Indeed, the Cubs waited too long to begin accepting players of color and this may have been one reason for their prolonged failure after World War II.
We see Banks taking a swing. As is the case with many of Lawrence’s baseball paintings, we see the possibilities for success or failure, the tension we feel when a player is up at bat – is he about to miss, hit a home run, pop out…we don’t know. There is the element of greatness present but also the element of chance. In baseball, the great ones seem to dominate the element of chance more than others. The great players Lawrence depicts are usually shown in mundane moments like the painting of Ted Williams, who took huge chunks of chance out of the game, getting ready to bat in front of Yogi Berra. She is painting the raw electricity of the players. She is painting what made us involuntarily stand up and go wild when the players entered the batters box.
There is another painting depicting Santo somewhat abstractly at third base. We can imagine that the pitcher is about to deliver the ball, Santo is poised, isolated among an immense desert of infield sand, alone and competent. A competent, dedicated guy regardless of how much his organization sucked. We can see from the shadows that the glaring sun is almost directly above him – the relentless Wrigley Field summer sun which wore the players down and was significantly accountable for their not reaching the heights they could have. In 1968 the sun was responsible for Cubs second baseman Glenn Beckert going from 190lbs. at the beginning of the season to 173lbs. at the end. It was like the great Cubs players were battling the very elements of nature along with the incompetence of their management and the Mets pitching staff.
Please look at Margie’s web page to see some amazing baseball art and to learn how she started doing this. Some of my other favorites by Lawrence include the painting of the Satchel Paige traveling baseball show, which commemorates the Negro League. Did you know that Paige was so fast that he could switch off the light and get into bed before the room went dark? (I heard Jack Brickhouse say that while going through some old YouTube videos of Cubs games.) There is a great semi-abstract rendition of Willie Mays making “the catch” in the 1954 World Series. Colors are blurred to approximate, perhaps, the frenzy of emotions felt as Mays desperately chased the ball and then did the impossible. And I love the painting of Roberto Clemente sliding so hard into a base that his big velvety Pirates helmet came off. Why did the Pirates have those fuzzy helmets in the 70s? Disco era helmets?
In Cubs World Series Bench, Lawrence has drawn three of the players essential for overcoming the curse (bad management) that had stopped the Cubs from winning a World Series for over 100 years. The irony of the 2016 World Series win is that it took a right-wing, Republican billionaire with ties to Trump to put together the type of organization and team necessary to finally win a World Series (and save Wrigley Field). In Democratic Chicago, the city supported the Cubs regardless. I guess only the charisma of Bryzzo and company could have done that. Where are they now? The Republican business family disbanded the team and cast our heroes to the wind. Baseball just seemed less of a business in its golden age, although it was the players who suffered financially for the sense of family many teams seemingly created through the reserve clause. For example, Ernie Banks had made about $680,000 in 19 years as a player.
Featured Image Cubs World Series Bench
Ernie at Ebbets, Courtesy of Margie Lawrence and Gallery Armendariz
Cubs WS Bench, Courtesy of Margie Lawrence and Gallery Armendariz