Tony Gwynn first saw his likeness in bronze on the day last summer when the San Diego Padres unveiled a 9 1/2 -foot statue of the Hall of Famer, in mid-swing, just beyond the outfield wall at Petco Park.
“When they took the tarp off of it, it was like an out-of-body experience,” he said.
Then he noticed the inscription, a quote from his late father, Charles: “If you work hard, good things will happen.”
That’s when he lost it.
“I teared up when I saw it,” he said. “And I still tear up. It’s a remarkable thing to be remembered in bronze.”
Gwynn is one of a group of baseball greats to have his likeness etched in stone. Two sets of sculptors have taken chisels to the Hammer, with statues of Hank Aaron on display in both Atlanta and Milwaukee, while at Willie Mays Plaza in San Francisco you can say “hey” to a larger-than-life likeness of the Say Hey Kid.
Babe Ruth lives on in Baltimore, George Brett is still swinging in Kansas City and you could almost field full lineups with the number of player statues in Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis.
In fact, more than half the 30 major league stadiums -- and dozens more minor league ballparks -- have erected monuments to past greats, a tradition that dates back nearly 130 years. That sets baseball apart from the other major professional sports in the U.S., which don’t enjoy the same long and romantic history.
“They would commemorate people in the 19th century with statues. And this all comes out of it,” said Joanne Hulbert of the Society for American Baseball Research. “And how do you keep that romantic theme? Well, we still put up statues. We definitely would reach back and use those same types of things that we used in the 19th century in order to harken to that romantic period.”
Hulbert has found written accounts of baseball statues being constructed on the Boston Common as early as the 1880s. Nearby Fenway Park didn’t get one until 2004, but that monument might have changed the course of history since the Red Sox, who famously went 86 years without winning a World Series, broke the spell seven months after a statue of Ted Williams was dedicated outside Gate B.
And Hulbert finds significance in the fact that Williams, who was respected in Boston but not beloved, had been retired more than four decades -- and dead nearly two years -- before he was immortalized.
“You give it a few decades and that tends to soften all of that stuff and we tend to forget . . . and we revert back to the romanticized period of it,” she said. “We forget all the negative side of things and we put the statue up.”
Yet despite baseball’s long history with statues, the gold standard in bronze is probably college football’s 25-pound Heisman Trophy, originally sculpted by Frank Eliscu and modeled after Ed Smith, a standout running back at New York University in 1934.
“As an artistic piece, I don’t know that it’s great,” said sculptor Malcolm DeMille, a distant cousin of filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille who has created several sculptures for the PGA Tour, among others. “But it’s very good. And the neat thing with stuff like that is over time, it just comes into its own, it becomes its own important thing. Whether or not initially it was the greatest thing done or not, it is so important that it becomes recognized.”
But other statues have been stoned for heresy. The monument of a youthful Ruth in front of Camden Yards, a block from where the left-handed outfielder grew up, shows Ruth holding a right-hander’s catcher’s mitt. Despite howls of criticism, it is historically accurate; Ruth was a catcher during his high school days at Baltimore’s St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, long before catchers’ mitts were made for lefties.
History can’t save the larger-than-life shortstop diving across the third floor of Venezuela’s 5-year-old hall of fame and museum in Valencia, however. The player is reaching for an unseen ground ball with his glove on his right hand, making him a lefty, too -- an impossibility for a shortstop.
Then there’s the 300-pound steel, wood, fiberglass and bronze likeness of Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, installed this season outside Wrigley Field. Although the tribute to Mr. Cub was long overdue, the extra time apparently didn’t help apostrophe-challenged sculptor Lou Cella, who originally inscribed Banks’ famous quote on the granite base as “Lets Play Two”.
Punctuation aside, DeMille said accuracy and attention to detail are what set sculptures apart.
“The likeness, obviously, is critical,” he said by phone from his studio in Nipomo, about 25 south of San Luis Obispo. “When I do pieces I ask for a lot of photography of the person, from all different kinds of angles, all different kinds of poses and things. Those little nuances are what really make a good piece great.”
Still, there have been some unusual choices for granite greatness. In Kansas City, there’s a statue of Frank White (career average .255) not far from the one of Hall of Famer Brett. U.S. Cellular Field will unveil its seventh statue in July with a bronze likeness of Harold Baines -- the flesh-and-blood version of whom the White Sox traded twice. And in Miami, where the Marlins have won two titles in the last 11 years, the only athlete memorialized in front of the stadium is Dan Marino, who never won a ring in his 17 years with the NFL’s Dolphins.
But while bronze doesn’t tarnish, reputations do. Which is why the St. Louis Cardinals have decided to keep Harry Weber’s statue of former home run champion Mark McGwire in storage rather than on display alongside Negro Leagues immortal Cool Papa Bell and nine former Cardinals greats outside the team’s new ballpark.
Maybe that’s why the minor league Portland Sea Dogs and Rome Braves decided to forget athletes all together, honoring their fans instead. So in Maine the double-A Sea Dogs recently placed a 9 1/2 -foot bronze statue of a family of four outside Hadlock Field, while the entry plaza fronting State Mutual Stadium, the Georgia home of the Class-A Braves, features a life-sized tableau vivant of three bronzed children playing ball.
And while Hulbert, Steinberg and others insist all those statues have been erected with the fans in mind, Frank White, like Gwynn, offers a different perspective. When White’s father, who would die just months later, pulled the tarp off his monument in front of Gate D at Kauffman Stadium four years ago, the former All-Star second baseman said it was humbling.
“It was kind of like being in a state of shock,” he said. “Because you’re saying, ‘Was I that good?’ When I told my wife, she cried.”
White, who still works for the Royals as a broadcaster, says he drives past the statue every day on his way to work. And he still can’t help but sneak a peek.
“It’s still hard to believe,” he said. “Every time I come down the hill and I drive by it, I still get that same humbling experience. Sometimes when I come in, if there are [fans] around it, I’ll stop and go and shake their hand and take a picture with them.
“I think that’s kind of cool.”