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Pasadena painter's traveling show knocks the ball out of the park

Pasadena painter's traveling show knocks the ball out of the park
Paintings from "Purpose Pitch: Ben Sakoguchi and the Baseball Reliquary," now on display at the Arcadia Public Library. (Courtesy of Jan Sakoguchi)

To call the sandy-haired Terry Cannon a baseball fan is to damn with faint praise. He's a baseball obsessive. But Cannon is no Rain Man with batting averages, career wins and losses, and career RBIs rolling around in his head. He's fascinated with the little-known sociopolitical aspects of the national pastime's history. Which is where the Baseball Reliquary, his "traveling museum of baseball," comes in.

Cannon is something of a Renaissance man and his name should be familiar to the Pasadena arts community. He was a major mover in the old Pasadena Film Forum of the late 1970s and early '80s. Cannon also published GOSH! and Follies, printed forums for all manner of renegade artists and writers. Then there was Skinned Knuckles, his journal of automotive repair.

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Cannon looked for a way to combine his two great passions, art and baseball, and in 1996 he founded the Baseball Reliquary, a nonprofit educational concern. "I looked at what David Wilson did with his Jurassic Technology Museum," the 60-year old Pasadena resident points out, "and used the traveling show as a model."

The Reliquary has a quirky history, like its Shrine of the Eternals, a hall of fame that doesn't use statistics as a yardstick. Some 300 baseball writers, experts and fans around the country have voted in 45 luminaries. George "Dummy" Hoy is one of the Eternals: he was the first deaf major leaguer. So is Emmet Ashford, the first black major league umpire, as is Lester Rodney, the Daily Worker correspondent who agitated for desegregation beginning in the 1930s. Dock Ellis, who threw a no-hitter on LSD, is an Eternal, as is owner Bill Veck, who signed a midget player with a microscopic strike zone.

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One constant in the Reliquary exhibitions has been the paintings of Ben Sakoguchi. The Pasadena painter had handled politically charged work since the 1960s (he earned his B.F.A. in 1960 and a M.F.A. in 1964 from UCLA). Sometime in the '70s, he began using orange crate art as a format for serial meditations on historical themes. Sakoguchi has essayed the history of slavery, warfare, and the internment of Japanese-Americans as long-form series. Baseball is another subject for Sakoguchi: To date he's completed over 200 canvases that examine horsehide subject matter.

Cannon has just opened a Reliquary exhibition of Sakoguchi's baseball paintings at Arcadia Public Library. It runs through April 29.

Sakoguchi comes by the orange crate motif honestly. As a boy in his family's San Bernardino grocery store, the colorful, fantasy-laden imagery was his first exposure to art. The labels depicted an imagined California, where orange groves dominated the landscape, bringing health, beauty and happiness in every piece of fruit. Sakoguchi has stood the format on its head — certainly with his internment series — but in his baseball pieces as well.

Though the 76-year old Sakoguchi taught art for 33 years at Pasadena City College (he retired in 1997), he seems to let his work speak for him. "The bottom line with Ben," Cannon says, "is that he'll talk your ear off about other artists. But try to get him to talk about his own work and he clams up. I made the mistake of introducing him at a public event once and he told me don't ever do that again. Ben doesn't like to draw attention to himself in public."

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When San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal went after Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro with a bat, it was a shocking incident that reflected the turmoil of the larger national culture of the 1960s. "The Dodger fans never forgave him," Cannon says," but Marichal's last days in the league were as a Dodger. Eventually, he and Roseboro made up and became great friends."

"Baseball is a great prism," Cannon says, "to view the American experience through. It contains the best and the worst: Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier but Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby were members of the Ku Klux Klan. And it's all there in Ben's paintings."

What: "Purpose Pitch: Ben Sakoguchi and the Baseball Reliquary"

Where: Arcadia Public Library, 20 W. Duarte Road, Arcadia

When: Through April 29, 2014. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Sundays.

More info: (626) 791-7647

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

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