The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Crate Stuff

Even with Pitchers and Catchers just about a week away, and the new PECOTA cards now up at BP, it's about the deadest time in the year as far as baseball is concerned, s as dead as the Pittsburgh Pirates' chances in the NL Central -- and I've got no more sympathy for Steeltown after that bag job of a football game on Sunday. With Bengie Molina now a Blue Jay, our long international nightmare is over; just about every major free agent has signed somewhere. Meanwhile, I'm afraid of going blind playing with my DIPS spreadsheet, as if squinting harder with my head cocked at a 45 degree angle might provide some brand new insight into the vexing mysteries of year-to-year correlations.

With all that, it's nice to come across something as colorful as artist Ben Sakoguchi's Orange Crate Label Series: The Unauthorized History of Baseball in 100-Odd Paintings. Those paintings are part of an exhibit -- curated by those wonderfully wacky folks at the Baseball Reliquary -- called "Winter Ball" which opened yesterday at the Los Angeles City College Library and runs through March 4.

Here's what Sakoguchi's web site has to say about the Orange Crate series:
From the 1880's to the 1950's, California oranges were sent to market packed in wooden crates with big, multi-colored labels pasted on the ends. Among Ben Sakoguchi's early influences were the bold graphics and fanciful images on the orange crates that were stacked behind his parents' grocery store.

In the 1970's -- after cardboard cartons had replaced wooden crates -- beautifully printed labels that had long been stored in packing houses were being sold as collectors' items at the flea markets Sakoguchi frequented. He was attracted by the familiar orange crate label format, and started using it in a series of small paintings.
Sakoguchi produced several hundred 10" x 11" orange crate paintings (acrylic on canvas) from the mid-'70s to the early '80s, depicting "events, issues and attitudes of modern culture," as the site says. After moving onto other projects, he began revisiting the form in the mid-'90s. Created last year, the baseball series is but a small subset of a much larger body of work, one with an edge that often reminds me of the satirically remixed war propaganda posters of Micah Ian Wright. If you're like me, destined to remain several thousand miles away from the exhibition as it runs, you ought to set aside a chunk of time to check it out.

Sakoguchi's work uses wonderfully vivid colors, but its message isn't always so sunny. One painting for "Iron Horse Oranges" depicts Yankee star Lou Gehrig and Negro League legend Buck Leonard standing on either side of the frame, with the word "Ineligible" stamped over Leonard. The phrase "White Knight" appears below Gehrig, while "Black Buck" is inscribed below Leonard. In the painting preceeding it, "Topsy Turvy," Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson are juxtaposed in a circle, with Gibson labelled "The Black Babe Ruth," and the Bambino rechristened "The White Josh Gibson," yet another example of just how ridiculous and arbitrary the color line seems now. Further down the page, the old, garishly Semitic-looking Cleveland Indians logo is used for "First American Oranges" alongside a depiction of Larry Doby. "Bush League" offers George H.W. Bush in his Yale baseball uniform and his idiot son Dubya outfitted in a Texas Rangers jacket from his days as an owner.

Not all of the paintings are quite so charged. One called "L.A. Heat" has Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan side by side, while "Pirate Hats" offers Dave Parker in a creepy hockey-style mask (which he wore for a broken jaw, I think), Kent Tekulve in the star-spangled train conductor hat of the late '70s Fam-i-lee, an old time Pittsburgh ballplayer wearing what looks like a pith helmet, and a few scurvy dogs lacking only the parrot on the shoulder. Arrrrgh!

In all, only 30 of the 100+ baseball paintings from the current exhibit are up, but there are plans to add more, and several of the artist's earlier baseball paintings are among the hundreds of images shown elsewhere on his site. As enjoyably edgy as these little pictures are, I'd love to see them in a book. Sakoguchi is definitely onto something that's worthy of your coffee table.

(Thanks to Jon Weisman for the exhibit link).

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