In a new group summer show at Victor Armendariz Gallery in Chicago, you can find the riveting baseball-related work of Margie Lawrence. This is not a show of iconic sports images (although there may be a few), but more of an examination of how we transition to and from the golden ages of public memory, how shared memories of unquestioned great achievements can trigger the intense emotions developing closeness or unity and how baseball used to pervade our lives much more in America as a type of common language, experience and iconography. It is baseball before the ages of analytics and steroids, when managers used their guts to make decisions and, perhaps, when we were just not able to learn of any sinful deeds among our heroes, who were barely paid enough to sin.
Lawrence’s work seems to often be about the figures whose personalities, intensity, values, work ethic, charm and grace often made them more compelling than the game. Fitting for a show in Chicago, Lawrence sometimes focuses on the Cubs team which generated the most intense emotions – the tragic/heroic Cubs of the late 60s and 70s – a team that unified a city in a type of long-lasting grief and sorrow which was only expiated by Joe Madden and his guys of 2016.
A Chicago journalist named Mike Royko once humorously proposed a new baseball rule that would apply only to the Chicago Cubs. Once a Cub began to excel to the level of superstar, the team should then be forced to trade him to a team that might have a chance of winning a World Series. During Royko’s time, it became painful to watch such great players as Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandburg et al., excel every day on teams that would never enter a World Series. A list of great players who never made the World Series is replete with Cubs. There could also be a list of great (and grateful) players the Cubs did trade to better teams who then made the World Series (including Lou Brock, Ken Holtzman, Bill Madlock, Bruce Sutter, Joe Carter, Greg Maddux and Mark Grace).
Banks is especially tragic not only due to his immense talent but also to his personal sweetness and amiability. Banks never even made it to a playoff in a Cubs uniform. In 1955 Banks hit 44 home runs as a shortstop – the most ever for that position, at that time. From 1955 to 1960 nobody in baseball hit more home runs than he did, not even Mickey Mantle. Apparently, ownership was making a yearly profit due to television and gate revenues and did not think a World Series Championship was worth pursuing. People came to Wrigley because it was the most beautiful ballpark in the world and a great way to spend an afternoon in the breezy sunlight. Management primarily needed warm bodies and a star here and there to consistently cash in. The Cubs apparently signed Ernie Banks from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League because they witnessed how Hank Aaron brought people to the Milwaukee ballpark to see that guy from the Negro League.
So the great players in Cub history were often like famous actors brought in for crappy Broadway plays to increase attendance. Back in the day, people went to see Man of La Mancha for Robert Goulet, and people went to Wrigley Field to watch Ernie or Ron or Ryno or Gracie. The Cubs once brought in a guy named Dave Kingman (King Kong Kingman), who always tried to hit home runs. He either struck out or hit a homer, there seemed no in-between. His effect on fans was, however, electric. Every time Kingman came to bat the crowd went wild, standing up to see whether Kingman would strike out or hit a homer, even if the Cubs were losing badly. When the Cubs traded batting champion Bill Madlock for a washed-up but famous Bobby Murcer, Wrigley patrons embraced the ex-Yankee. The washed-up but famous ex-Yankee, Joe Pepitone, ultimately replaced Ernie Banks.
The “reserve clause” bound players to teams, sometimes forever and unless Cubs management did something stupid (as they sometimes did – like trading Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio) players were stuck on their teams and we were stuck with them. Then, however, came the late 60s, and management discovered it had the makings of a great team and brought in a famous manager, Leo Durocher. But even Durocher couldn’t guide a team to a championship missing a bullpen and playing all their home games in the hot sun. There were truly outstanding players who died on the vine…Kessinger, Beckert, Williams, “Gentleman Jim” Hickman, Santo, Banks, Hundley, Jenkins…perhaps no team had better position players. Four of these guys would make the Hall of Fame and others were All Stars. They played their hearts out in the scorching sun only to fall to a New York Mets team with supernatural pitching and night baseball.
Lawrence paints Banks playing at Ebbets Field. Ernie is without a batting helmet, as the helmet only became mandatory in 1970. I love that the third baseman has crept in on the grass as Banks must have once been a speedster who might trick you with an occasional bunt. This is when Ernie was a world-beater, not the later Ernie when his skills were in decline but he held on anyway as long as he could. Ebbets Field was Jackie Robinson’s home turf and Banks had been the first African American player for the Cubs. Indeed, the Cubs waited too long to begin accepting players of color and this may have been one reason for their prolonged failure after World War II.
We see Banks taking a swing. As is the case with many of Lawrence’s baseball paintings, we can partly experience the tension we feel when a player is at bat – is he about to miss, hit a home run, pop out…we don’t know. There is the element of greatness present but also the element of chance. In baseball, the great ones seem to dominate the element of chance more than others. The great players Lawrence depicts are usually shown in mundane moments like the painting of Ted Williams getting ready to bat in front of Yogi Berra. She is painting the raw electricity of the players. She is painting what made us involuntarily stand up and go wild when the players entered the batters’ box.
There is another painting depicting Santo somewhat abstractly at third base. Santo is poised, isolated among an immense desert of infield dirt, alone and competent. A competent, dedicated guy regardless of how much his organization sucked, regardless of how little he was being paid. We can see from the shadows that the glaring sun is almost directly above him – the relentless Wrigley Field summer sun which wore the players down and was significantly accountable for their not reaching the heights they could have. In 1968 the sun was responsible for Cub's second baseman Glenn Beckert going from 190lbs. at the beginning of the season to 173lbs. at the end. It was like the great Cubs players were battling the very elements of nature along with the incompetence of their management and the Mets pitching staff.
Please look at Margie’s web page to see some amazing baseball art and to learn how she started doing this. Some of my other favorites by Lawrence include the painting of the Satchel Paige traveling baseball show, which commemorates the Negro League. There is a great semi-abstract rendition of Willie Mays making “the catch” in the 1954 World Series. Colors are blurred to approximate, perhaps, the frenzy of emotions felt as Mays desperately chased after the ball and then did the impossible. And I love the painting of Roberto Clemente sliding so hard into a base that his big velvety Pirates helmet came off. Why did the Pirates have those fuzzy helmets in the 70s? Disco-era helmets?
In Cubs World Series Bench, Lawrence has drawn three of the players essential for overcoming the curse (bad management) that had stopped the Cubs from winning a World Series for over 100 years. It took a right-wing, Republican billionaire with ties to Trump to put together the type of organization and team necessary to finally win a World Series (and save Wrigley Field). In Democratic Chicago, the city supported the Cubs regardless. I guess only the charisma of Bryzzo and company could have done that. Where are they now? The Republican business family disbanded the team and cast our heroes to the wind. Baseball just seemed less of a business in its golden age, although it was the players who suffered financially for the sense of family many teams seemingly created through the reserve clause. For example, Ernie Banks made about $680,000 in 19 years as a player.