BY ALLEN RABINOWITZ / AJT //
It’s a team any fantasy baseball aficionado would boast of having: an outfield of Hank Greenberg, Ryan Braun and Art Shamsky; an infield of Al Rosen, Kevin Youkilis, Ian Kinsler and Mike Epstein; Ron Blomberg at designated hitter; Steve Yeager behind the plate; and on the mound, the incomparable southpaw Sandy Koufax.
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Watching from the stands would be a number of celebrity fans, including Rob Reiner, Larry King, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein.
True, it would be impossible to gather this talent together, but a portrait of the squad does exist. This team of Jewish baseball greats can be found on a limited edition of prints by noted sports artist Ron Wilson.
The work – known as the Jewish Baseball Players art project – is offered in prints ranging in price from $6,500 to $10,000. Entrepreneur Greg Harris, a suburban Chicago-based lawyer, conceived the concept to be profitable but also raise money for the participants’ favored Jewish charities,
The idea first came to Harris five years ago, when his son’s team was knocked out early from a tournament being played in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the baseball Hall of Fame. Walking around the town, he explored the souvenir shops. Inside one of them was a print of Negro League ballplayers by Lewis, in which 20 old-time Negro League stars posed in a team setting.
“Each one was individually signed, and I thought it was great and bought one for myself,” Harris recalled. “When I got home, I loved it so much that I called the store and bought 10 more of them.”
Harris, who runs a charity foundation for Major League pitcher Doug Davis, thought the prints would be great prizes for fundraising auctions.
“We started having events,” he explained, “so I put them in the auction. The people who were going crazy and bidding the most money were the black players. That gave me the idea about doing this for Jewish people.”
After sitting on the idea for a year, Harris informed Steve Stone, former Cy Young-winning pitcher and current Chicago White Sox broadcaster, about the project. It was 2011 when Harris sat down with Stone and told him of the concept; the latter loved the idea, but said with a hint of sarcasm:
“Good luck getting Sandy Koufax, [and] good luck getting Major League licensing.”
Harris and Stone met a few weeks later – this time at Goldman’s Deli in Glendale, Ariz., the White Sox’ spring-training site – when Harris says “a stroke of fate” occurred.
Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf was standing outside, and Stone went to say hello. A few minutes later, the pair was joined by Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, and as Selig and Reinsdorf sat down at a nearby table, Stone explained the idea for the project.
“They both loved it,” said Harris, “and when Steve came back to our table, he said, ‘You’re going to get the rights.’”
In fact, Selig was very cooperative and supportive; the main obstacle was getting Koufax to join. His participation would give the project the bona fides Harris would need to convince other ball players that it was a legitimate enterprise.
“There were two Jewish Cy Young Award winners,” Stone said, then smiled. “One of them was great, the other one was me.
“[And] there are only two Jewish Hall of Fame members, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax – so Sandy was the guy we really had to get.”
Harris and Stone strategized for six months on how to get to Koufax to participate in the project. Stone called friend and award-winning sportswriter Bill Madden. He in turn got in touch with Pulitzer Prize-honoree Ira Berkow, who was working on a project with Koufax.
Berkow phoned Koufax’s agent, who had the Hall of Famer call Stone later that afternoon.
“I explained the project to him,” said Stone. “Sandy heard that I had a great deal of credibility, and if I was involved, he had no doubt that it would be a totally above-board project.
“I stressed that this was going to be a piece of history and tastefully done. [Koufax] told me that he didn’t usually do things like this and wanted to think on it a bit, and within less than an hour called me back and said he would do it. Much to my amazement, after six months of strategizing how to get Sandy, we got him within a few hours.”
Harris still believes that getting the former Dodgers great was key to the project’s success.
“It would really be a different piece [without Koufax],” he said. “I hear about all the people I forgot, but it isn’t always a matter of forgetting them as it is they didn’t want to do it nor had time in the majors to justify it.”
Selecting the Stars
Harris made the final selection of who appeared in the piece, both in the stands and on the field.
“I tried to make it as complete as possible,” he said. “There was no limit to how many you could squeeze in. I did my research on all the living Jewish ballplayers and came up with a wish list of about 30 and ended up getting 26 of them.
“There were a few guys who didn’t want to be in it because, even though they had a Jewish parent, they were brought up in another faith; or they might not have even heard of it because it was their representative who turned me down.
“[But] everyone I approached was eager to be a part of it. What I found out was they didn’t want to be left out of it.”
Although there are four deceased players in the crowd watching the game, only one deceased player is among those in uniform on the field: the late Detroit Tiger slugger Greenberg.
“He was added because he’s a Hall of Famer,” Harris explained. “Between Greenberg and Koufax, you can go back and forth as to who was the best of the Jewish ballplayers. There was no doubt he was going to be somewhere in the piece.
“We were originally going to put Greenberg in the crowd because I thought that only the guys on the field were signing. I discussed this with Greenberg’s son and Stone, and got Jerry Reinsdorf’s opinion. They were all positive about putting him on the field.”
While the players were compensated for their participation, Harris says that the money was by and large a secondary consideration.
“They were all very proud of their heritage,” he explained. “Mike Epstein could still write his name in Hebrew and speaks some Yiddish. Even some of the younger guys, like [2011 National League MVP] Ryan Braun, might not have grown up practicing Judaism, but…they respected the religion and loved knowing that one day this print would be on their (family’s) wall.”
The charity component was also a big factor.
“I asked the players to pick a charity they wanted me to support, and we’ve been funding them as they sell,” Harris said. “Players got paid to be in it, but some of them deferred their money directly to the charity, or gave it to the charity themselves. The people in the crowd and the executives signed fewer pieces; they were based on a charity donation.”
About the Artist
Ron Lewis, the Pocatello, Idaho-based artist who painted the Negro Leagues lithograph that first inspired Harris, was chosen for the Jewish Baseball Player project as well. Although he calls his entry into sports art “serendipitous,” he has painted similar pieces on such baseball subjects as the 500-home run and the 3,000-hit clubs.
“Greg picked up my name by word of mouth, which is the usual way these projects go,” said Lewis. “About three years ago, he called me out of the blue to run the idea past me. I thought it was an interesting idea. He worked out all the plans, and six months later, he spoke to my long-time business partner Bill Hongach.”
Lewis’s preferred medium is oil paint on canvas, and like the majority of his work, he didn’t have the subjects of the lithograph sit for him. Instead, he used old baseball cards and magazine photos.
“I would try to get a fairly unknown photograph to work from rather than a very familiar picture,” Lewis said. “I’d go online and look for pictures. Or I would have just the player’s head, and I’d have a friend come by and put on a uniform and pose.”
Lewis followed Harris’s guidelines on placement of players. Nonetheless, there were a few challenges the illustrator had to solve.
“Greg said he wanted the players to sign on the chest of their images,” Lewis said. “Almost all the photos I got were headshots, straight-on views. I had to elevate my perspective, which was challenging. I also had to figure out how the player would occupy their space.”
Own a Piece of History
The 500 lithographs come in five different series; each series is numbered, and prices vary depending on what’s included with the artwork. For example, at $6,500 – designated “Series I” – the purchaser receives the art with the players’ autographs.
For “Series II” or “Series III,” priced at $7,500, the buyer gets either a slightly larger canvas or one with an inscription relating to the player’s achievements. The $8,500 pieces (“Series IV”) include the autographs of the celebrities and baseball executives in the stands in addition to those of the players; and in “Series V” – priced at $10,000, of which nine of 12 have already been sold – the numbered editions relate to great moments in Jewish history.
The primary marketing for the lithographs has been by email and word of mouth, in addition to a video on YouTube. Each piece is authenticated, and the video even contains footage of people like Braun and Selig doing the signings.
Harris will be approaching synagogues, youth groups and other Jewish organizations, giving them an opportunity to auction or raffle one. He believes these pieces will not only retain their value, but also become treasured family heirlooms.
“This is not the kind of thing you’ll see on eBay,” he said. “People will buy them and put it on their wall and hand it down to their kids and grandkids. There’s nothing else like this out there.”
Visit jewishbaseballplayer.com for more info or to order.