Thursday, July 23, 2009
Updated: July 27, 5:27 PM ET
Tributes to greatness
By Paul Lukas
Mindy Ellis won't be in attendance when Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice and Joe Gordon are inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. But she'll be there in spirit, just as she has been for each Cooperstown induction ceremony since 1995.
That's because Ellis is the artist who sculpts the faces that appear on the Hall of Fame plaques. Including this year's class of inductees, she's now rendered 55 Hall of Famers for Matthews International, the Pittsburgh bronze-casting firm that manufactures the plaques. It's a key behind-the-scenes role that few fans are aware of.
"I don't mind not getting all the attention," she says. "It's an honor to do this work, especially since I've always been a baseball fan."
Ellis had primarily been a woodworker and furniture maker when a friend told her that Matthews International needed a sculptor back around 1994. She worked on a few nonbaseball projects and then was asked to try her hand at one of the Hall of Fame plaques. Soon the job was hers to keep.
With hundreds of thousands of fans visiting Cooperstown each year, Ellis is arguably the highest-profile sculptor in America -- and yet also, paradoxically, one of the most anonymous. I wanted to learn more about how the plaques are manufactured, so I recently visited Pittsburgh to see Ellis at work and watch the rest of Matthews' production process (you can see a video of my visit at the top of this page).
For each inductee, Ellis begins with a series of photos, and sometimes video, provided by the Hall. Then she sits down for the painstaking process of capturing the subject's essence in modeling clay. Turning a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional sculpture is tricky, especially since that third dimension is usually only an inch deep. Or to put it another way, Ellis has to make the brim of the cap look like it's sticking out several inches, even though it protrudes only a centimeter or so.
Speaking of caps, Ellis is well aware of controversies surrounding which logo the various inductees should be wearing, especially since this sometimes requires her to mix and match a face shown in one photo with a cap from another, which isn't as easy to do in clay as it would be in Photoshop.
"It's tricky, because a cap sits on the head in a very particular way, each brim is curved in a distinct way, and each player has a particular manner of wearing his cap," she explains. "It's the same thing if I have to take a hairstyle from one photo and add it to another photo."
Ellis' work is just the first phase of the manufacturing process, however. After she finishes her sculpture, it's positioned on an aluminum frame. Text provided by the Hall of Fame is set into type and added in the appropriate spot. This piece -- the image plus the text -- is called the pattern.
The pattern is then taken into the Matthews foundry, where the process is a lot like what you may remember from junior high shop class: A mold is created by using the pattern to make an impression in very fine sand. Then hot metal -- in this case molten bronze -- is poured into the mold (which looks soooo cool!). After the metal hardens, it's removed from the mold, sandblasted, painted, buffed and finished.
But most of that work is fairly routine and is pretty much the same for each plaque, whereas Ellis faces a unique challenge each time she sits down to capture a Hall of Famer's likeness. Here are some of her favorites among the 55 she's done so far:
• Sparky Anderson: "He had a big smile. I like the way his teeth came out, and I'm very happy with how the brim of the cap came out."
• Goose Gossage: "There were all those whiskers! Also, the lighting in the reference photo was from underneath, so that was a big challenge."
• Alex Pompez: "He was wearing that really cool hat, which was fun to create."
• Bowie Kuhn: "A lot of sculptors find glasses to be a real challenge, but I've figured out how to create the illusion that the glass is there. That's kind of become one of my specialties. I was later told that his family was particularly happy with this one, which was very nice to hear."
One problem with this kind of work, Ellis says, is that she instinctively imagines a clay-sculpted treatment of anyone who comes into her field of vision. So has she imagined how she'd sculpt Pete Rose, if he ever gets into the Hall?
"It's crossed my mind, sure," she says. "With someone like him, nothing really pops out at me except his hair, so I've thought about how I'd do that. But I really enjoy getting these gnarly looking guys with sort of irregular features -- more lines in their faces and things like that."
Despite being a key player in the Hall of Fame process, Ellis has visited Cooperstown only once, for the 1998 induction ceremonies ("It was pretty awesome to see those plaques displayed up on the JumboTron!"). She'll be watching this weekend's festivities on TV, though -- eventually.
"I usually wait until my husband's been watching for a few minutes," she says. "Then I'll say, 'Does it look all right?' And if he says yes, then I come in."
He's given her the green light every year so far. And although this year's plaque designs are still top secret, that streak seems likely to continue this time around, and for many years to come.
Paul Lukas loves any kind of factory tour. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, and his Uni Watch glossary is here. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.