GUELPH - There is more than one way to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, as one Guelph artist recently found out when one of his hand-painted baseball gloves was voted into the institution's permanent collection.
Around the same time lifelong baseball fan Sean Kane and his family moved to Guelph from Victoria, B.C. in 2012, his portraits painted on leather baseball gloves were starting to take off.
An illustrator for magazines and newspapers for 25 years, Kane said he had to diversify after those markets began to slow down.
“That industry shifted so much that I had to stay busy and started to look at other avenues where I was interested in and where my skill set could intersect with those interests and be viable," said Kane.
Asked by a career coach what pieces of his work garnered the most attention, Kane realized an old baseball glove in his office he had painted for fun in 2001 was the one thing everyone would pick up and ask him about.
He painted that first glove before he left to attend a major league baseball team's spring training in Arizona.
“I thought it would be great to bring something to break the ice and start a conversation with fans I am sitting next to," said Kane. “I painted a bunch of goofy stuff on it, brought it with me and hall of famer Tony Gwynn signed it."
Fast-forward to 2011 and the interview with the career coach, Kane realized he may be able to capitalize on his unique choice of canvas.
“I revisited the concept and started to incorporate more realistic portraits and finer hand-lettering and graphics,” said Kane.
His first proof-of-concept was a portrait of Babe Ruth on another glove.
Eventually, Kane refined his process to tell an entire story with the glove, using gloves that matched the position played by the player, the era they played in, the hand they used and, in some cases, he is able to source the same brand and model of glove the player used.
“I typically don’t like to use gloves that are already collectibles, I don’t think adding paint to a game-used glove — it just feels wrong to me. The ones I find are typically the ones that are moldy in the basement, or dried out," said Kane.
Generally, one or more portraits are painted on each glove and, for a full body portrait, the player's head may be no bigger than a fingernail. This requires Kane to be meticulous with his painting.
"It has to look like them," said Kane. “When I know that the recipient of what I am painting is the person depicted on the glove, the bar is set really high. I challenge myself to really nail it, because they know what they look like, they know what glove they used and in some cases the teams that I am working with help me get the glove from the manufacturer, so they know.”
Susan MacKay, director of collections at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown said in her decades of experience curating baseball memorabilia, she has never come across anyone who used baseball gloves as a canvas for portraits.
Because of the size of its collection, the Hall of Fame can only ever display about 10 per cent of its collection at any one time. Other artists who have work in the collection include Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol.
“We were very pleased with the quality of Sean’s work and we were also pleased to be able to choose from a number of different players depicted on the glove," said MacKay by phone. “We ultimately chose Dizzy Dean. That will be placed on exhibit in the future, probably in the fall.”
Kane hand-delivered the Dizzy Dean glove to the president of the Hall of Fame in March.
"As a pretty weak-hitting little leaguer, it was a pretty big surprise to get any kind of association with Copperstown,” quipped Kane.
On Saturday, another one of Kane's painted gloves was presented in a ceremony in Philadelphia to retired shortstop Jimmy Rollins by the Phillies organization.
Kane and his family watched the ceremony from home.
"(It was) gratifying to see after all the hard work and hours put into it," said Kane. "And Jimmy seemed to be really taking a close look!"
Aside from the Phillies, Kane has also painted gloves for the Milwalkee Brewers organization and a number of baseball-related charities.
A baseball game is often playing in the background in the hours it takes Kane to research and paint the gloves. Sometimes it's the game currently on the radio or a historic broadcast he finds on the internet. Other time, he sources interviews with the player whose glove he is currently working on.
“I read as much as I can, but it takes so long to paint these pieces, so often I listen to audiobooks," he said.
When it comes to the design of the gloves, Kane will research baseball cards and programs from the era the player played in to ensure it feels authentic.
“The concept evolved to incorporate all of those other pieces and matching text, font, type, the banners that are relevent to the era they played in to bring all of those pieces together and transport the viewer," said Kane. “It can’t tell the whole story, but it can draw people in.”
In between commission, Kane is working toward creating his own works that will feature about 12 gloves depicting landmark moments in baseball history.
“I am putting together a collection that talks about things that happened in culture that are parralelled in baseball or reflected in the game, like the breaking of the colour barrier and women in the game," said Kane. “I am squeezing it in where I can between projects for collectors and clients, which is proving to be a challenge."
Last month, Kane was awarded an Ontario Arts grant that will help to fund his personal project.
“It will very generously help support some of the work I am doing for that exhibit," he said.
Kane was born in the United States and tries to travel every year to take in a game at as many stadiums as he can. This year, he took in a preseason Blue Jays game in Montreal for the first time.
“I am kind of just a baseball fan. I tend to root for the Cubs — they are kind of like my childhood team,” he said.
Because of the skill and number of hours that go into each glove, the cost to purchase one is between $3,500 and $4,000. Kane said he has about 13 commissions he is currently working on, including a glove in remembrance of former Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay, who died in 2017.
“I spend so many hours on these — 120 is probably a low estimate on some of these,” said Kane.
He tries to set aside one glove every year to be donated to charity. So far, gloves have been donated to charities that support inner city baseball, veterans' organizations and suicide prevention, among others.
“I get a lot of satisfaction out of that,” said Kane of the gloves he gives to charity.