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A painter with baseball as the canvas05/12/2008 1:13 PM ET
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Dick Perez grew up in New York's Harlem with a stickball bat in his hand and dreams of the Baseball Hall of Fame in his head.
By the age of 16, he had a .188 batting average, which made him realize quickly that his mark would have to be made in another industry. Fortunately, the Hall of Fame eventually did call Perez, but it was for the work he creates in between the meticulously drawn lines of his art studio.
Over the last three decades, Perez has become one of the most well-known baseball artists, a master of portraiture painting whose work has been featured in Cooperstown, on special editions of baseball cards, and in stadiums throughout the Major Leagues.
"I kind of stepped into the genre of baseball art that I have a passion for as a fan," says Perez, who was born in Puerto Rico, idolized the Yankees while in New York and then moved with his family to Philadelphia in the late 1950s.
"I think there's a greater variety of visual facets to the game. There's defense, offense, running, pitching, catching, and so much history. It goes back to the 1800s. The uniforms, the equipment, the stadiums, the facial hair, the fans in the stands who all used to wear hats ... there's so much. There's such a great rich history that you really don't find in some of the other sports."
Perez's own history is rich, too.
He attended the Philadelphia College of Art and the University of Pennsylvania and served briefly as illustrator for the United States Air Force before taking a job as an apprentice in a graphic design studio and a printing company.
He eventually met Jim Murray, the former general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Bill Giles, an executive -- and eventual part-owner -- of the Phillies, who had Perez contribute artwork to yearbook covers and other team-related materials.
A career was born, and it continued with the Donruss baseball card company, which debuted special "Diamond King" cards featuring Perez's art in 1982, a popular subset that continues today. The "Diamond King" cards, which represented the first combination of baseball cards and art since Topps had done it in 1956, allowed Perez to further carve his niche in the genre.
Although he remains the official artist of the Phillies, he was the official artist of the Hall of Fame for over 20 years and many of his paintings still hang there. He has painted portraits of every inductee, in fact.
Perez's work also hangs in the homes of countless private collectors throughout the country, including the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan and also President Bill Clinton.
He has been the winner of numerous design awards, including the winning entry for the national contest held in 1976 to create the official centennial logo of the National League, and he also designed and illustrated the 1983 World Series program cover
In 2004, Perez was commissioned by the Phillies to create a 32-painting series honoring the Hall of Fame members of the Phillies, the former Philadelphia Athletics and legendary "native sons" of baseball who were raised in the City of Brotherly Love. That exhibit remains a fixture in the Cooperstown Gallery of Citizens Bank Park.
And Perez, who has a current partnership in Perez-Steele Galleries, has done projects for The Topps Company, including exclusive portraits for retro cards patterned after the old Turkey Red cards and the 1887 Allen & Ginter tobacco insert cards.
Working primarily in oils, watercolors, acrylics and gouache, Perez says he uses the techniques he learned and emulated from his main influences -- John Singer Sargent and Diego Velazquez among them -- to try to do more than just paint a picture that looks like a photograph.
"It's all about how you make shadow tones, highlight, skin tones, middle tones, like shadows on a piece of fabric," Perez says. "Maybe I do put blue in shadows, but nobody notices it. Sometimes I'll make the light areas of a face yellow and the dark areas deep blue. It's almost abstract, but they read as faces, they read as shadows and light, and the likenesses are there. It creates a more interesting thing to look at than a regular photograph-like portrait."
Perez also says some baseball faces are more like landscapes than others.
"If you're talking about painting Mickey Mantle, that's a great face with dimples," Perez says. "He's pretty, so to speak.
"But with guys like Ernie Lombardi, Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel, there's so much more to work with. I don't want to say 'the uglier the better,' but the landscape of an Ernie Lombardi face is a lot more expressive than, say, an Aaron Rowand."
But whether he's painting Roberto Clemente sitting on the end of the bench with a lonely look on his face or Joe McCarthy sandwiched between Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in Spring Training, Perez says he'll always find something inherently artistic about the National Pastime.
"It's a great, great game with rich history and rich, rich color," Perez says. "The green grass, the blue skies, all the signage, and that's before you even begin to talk about the ballet of the game, the action, the double play, leaping for the ball, the follow-through on the pitching mound.
"There's a lot of variety in the game and I love painting it."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.