It's never too early for young students to let art draw them to baseball. The opportunity exists through the Rockies, who are conducting the first Jackie Robinson Youth Artistic Contest for elementary and middle school students at 100 schools in the Denver area.

Local artist Darrell Anderson -- whose own artistic tribute 10 years ago to the iconic player who ended baseball's color barrier in 1947 is an important piece of baseball Americana -- proves that it's never too late, either.

Anderson, 56, didn't turn to art until age 35. After serving in Vietnam, he became the first male flight attendant at the original Frontier Airlines. "It was me and 300 women, so it was challenging and exciting," he said. But after the airline was sold, he declined an offer to stay on and decided to try his hand at art.

By the 1990s, Anderson's artwork was so well-known that he was invited to festivals in Brest, Brittany -- Denver's sister city in France -- and Burkina Faso in West Africa. His work also became featured in the form of mosaics at Denver International Airport and the University of Colorado in Greeley, and in various forms at venues around Denver.

Anderson said he didn't have a background in baseball, yet he would expand his career through baseball and Denver's home team. It started with Don Baylor, the Rockies' original manager when they began play in 1992, walking into Anderson's studio, which was at 18th & Blake St. before Coors Field was built.

"It led to me doing a serigraph [a print made by the silk screening process] called 'Baylor Ball,'" Anderson said of his 1993 piece. "We became the best of friends."

The relationship with Baylor sparked the artistic tribute to Robinson.

The year 1997 was the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking into the Majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson's daughter, Sharon Robinson, was touring ballparks as part of an initiative to touch the lives of students that continues today.

Sponsored by Baylor and his wife, Becky, Domino's Pizza, Hexagon Investments Inc., local business leader Scott Ryan and others, Anderson produced a pastel portrait of Robinson, entitled "Jackie Robinson: 50th Anniversary," that was presented to Sharon Robinson.

To say the painting was well-received is an understatement.

"There were 900 prints," Anderson said. "They're all gone."

One of those prints dominates the Coors Field office of Paul Egins, the Rockies' director of Major League operations.

When Egins began working in pro baseball in the Braves' Minor League system, he listened as all-time home run leader Hank Aaron gave him a deeper understanding of Robinson's struggles than any history book could. After Egins joined the Rockies, he met Anderson through Baylor and eventually obtained the portrait.

"It's a beautiful portrait, and it reminds me each day of how I got this opportunity to be in professional baseball, because of the struggles Jackie Robinson went through," Egins said.

Anderson's Denver contacts helped the original Robinson portrait make an important journey.

Branch Rickey, the former Dodgers' general manager and the person who selected Robinson to break the color barrier and supported the player through trying times as many quarters of baseball and society resisted, is a 1904 graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. His grandson, Branch Rickey III, the president of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, was a 1967 OWU grad.

One of Anderson's friends is Greg Moore, editor of the Denver Post newspaper and OWU class of '76. Anderson, Ryan and Moore, through a collaborative effort, arranged for the transfer of the original to OWU.

"What a great home for this piece," Anderson said.

Anderson was delighted to hear of the Rockies' effort, the theme of which is "Breaking Barriers." Students may submit "anything artistic to describe what breaking barriers means to them." Poetry, music, art or a video presentation of dance and drama which may focus on Robinson or a personal experience relating to the theme are fair game in the Rockies' contest.

Anderson said that fits with his initiative to bring art to the young.

On Feb. 17, Anderson spearheaded the StART the Rhythm Family Event at the Denver Art Museum, during which local high school students conducted "Stomp" performances and Anderson conducted an art workshop.

"I know I like to keep my hands involved with kids and inspire them to find their own personality in art, and I think what the Rockies are doing is fantastic," Anderson said.