Warhol, Baseball and Pete Rose

Andy Warhol (United States, 1928-1987) Pete Rose, 1985 Acrylic on canvas with screen-printed image Cincinnati Art Museum, Museum Purchase: Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Walter J. Wichgar, 1985.208 © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Photo provided by Cincinnati Art Museum

The Cincinnati Art Museum is hardly known as a home of sports memorabilia. Indeed, the worlds of art and sports rarely meet.

But they did 30 years ago when the Cincinnati Art Museum commissioned famed pop artist Andy Warhol to do a Pete Rose painting during that thrilling summer of 1985 when Rose chased and surpassed Ty Cobb’s 4,191 hit record.

Warhol selected a photograph from a Rose how-to book on hitting and, using acrylic paint on canvas, produced four silk-screened images of Rose in a right-hand batting stance mimicking the motif of a baseball card.

As the city gears up to host the Major League Baseball All-Star game July 14, museum officials decided it was a good time to remind Cincinnatians of Warhol’s “Pete Rose,” which turns 30 this year.

The exhibit, “Up at Bat: Warhol and Baseball” (April 11-Aug. 2), also features the only other paintings Warhol did on baseball players: one of Roger Maris and one of Tom Seaver. In fact, Warhol’s Seaver painting shows him in a Reds jersey, which was created in 1977 after he had been traded to Cincinnati from the New York Mets.

“It will be the first time that Warhol’s three baseball works have been brought together,” says Kristin Spangenberg, curator of prints at the Cincinnati Art Museum, who has more than 40 years of experience in her field. “They show what Warhol did best; in this case appropriating baseball images in his capture of pop culture.”

The exhibit will display Warhol’s progressive proofs for the Pete Rose print and the original photograph he used, taken by Cincinnati photographer Gordon Baer. There will also be a display of vintage baseball cards including Rose, Seaver and Maris.

The museum came off as prescient when it commissioned the Warhol painting. Cincinnati art dealer and gallery owner Carl Solway urged the museum to commission a piece of art on Rose, figuring the museum and the art world should be caught up in the feel-good spirit of Rose’s hit chase. The museum paid Warhol $100,000 and would quickly make its money back selling 50 limited screen prints of the painting for $2,500- $3,000 each (one was appraised a couple years ago on the PBS series “Antiques Roadshow” for $30,000).

The timing was perfect. Warhol’s painting was installed at the Cincinnati Art Museum Sept. 10. Rose broke Cobb’s record the next day at Riverfront Stadium. It was generally well received, although some purists grumbled the switch-hitting Rose was depicted batting right-handed. Fans were more accustomed to his left-handed stance. Solway thought Warhol would be the perfect choice for a Rose tribute, given the artist’s fascination with celebrity. But Solway also discovered Warhol had a limited knowledge of baseball. As Solway has told friends and interviewers over the years: “Pete Rose didn’t know anything about Warhol and Warhol didn’t know anything about Pete Rose.” Apparently, the two never met.

“Baseball was not a major subject for Warhol,” says Spangenberg. “But he did celebrities and this certainly fell within his very shrewd capitalization of celebrity.”

Spangenberg hopes visitors will come away with a distinct appre ciation of Warhol’s silkscreen process since the progressive proofs from the Pete Rose screen print will be on display. Spangenberg says she insisted at the time that the proofs be included in the commission Warhol delivered.

“They explain the screen print process, which is a combination of both photographic and hand-executed screens,” she says. “We show the original photograph that was the point of inspiration for Warhol. His images are iconic, so he has to find an image that makes a successful iconic composition. You will also see how he experimented with four different background colors for the Rose painting.”

Spangenberg is getting a crash course in the aesthetics of baseball cards as she selects which ones to accompany the exhibit. She says her direction was to make sure the cards she picked were “artistic,” as she worked with Dean’s Cards going over dozens of Rose, Maris and Seaver cards.

As an expert in printing, Spangenberg says she is endlessly fascinated how images considered banal in some eras become art for another, referencing an exhibit she assembled several years ago on circus posters.

“ When they are well designed, baseball cards are iconic. Obviously, their artistic quality varies over time. But different generations view visual literacy and visual history from a different perspective. Prints over time become art,” says Spangenberg.

This is a big year for Warhol exhibits. According to the New York Times, about 40 exhibitions of Warhol’s work – much of it previously unseen by the public – will flood university art museums and institutions in 2015. That is largely due to more assertive fund-raising and grant-making from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the organization established in his will to manage his work and legacy.

In hindsight, Warhol’s Pete Rose commission is a bittersweet reminder that an ending for each celebrity was near. Warhol died two years after he finished the painting. Rose was banned from baseball in 1989.

But Warhol’s work takes us back to that summer of ’85, reminding us of the joyful innocence even casual fans felt following the chase for hit No. 4,192. Warhol’s painting is of a determined, focused Rose, his iconic baseball life immortalized as pop idol. And we can still see Charlie Hustle in this “baseball card” painting, the kid from the West Side who played the game like he was 14 for his entire career.


“Up at Bat: Warhol and Baseball” runs April 11-August 2 at the Cincinnati Art Museum featuring Andy Warhol’s paintings of Pete Rose, Tom Seaver and Roger Maris. 

The Cincinnati Art Museum is located at 953 Eden Park Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45202. You can reach them at 513.639.2995 or visit their website at www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org