BALL ART: Artist's painted baseballs are popular
among well-heeled collectors.

(By Jim Szymanski, Tacoma News Tribune,November 4,2000
Business Page 1)

As a boy living on an isolated Ohio farm, Monty Sheldon worshipped the Cincinnati Reds and discovered drawing as his favorite form of expression.

Over the years, he honed his art at a graphics arts school and working as a cartoonist in Portland.

Then, three years ago, while attending a sports card show in the Tacoma Dome, Sheldon spawned his growing legend as one of the nation's premier baseball artists.

At the show, Sheldon saw the work of a California artist who painted the faces of famous ballplayers on baseballs.

"At the time, I was looking for an outlet to do something different from cartooning," Sheldon said Friday at the Dome. "I knew right away that baseball art might be that outlet."

As one of his first subjects, Sheldon selected Eddie Gaedel - who stood 3 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 65 pounds - who once was recruited to bat in a major league game as a public relations ploy. Sheldon took the trouble to use a smaller-than-regulation baseball in Gaadel's honor.

In three years, Sheldon, who's 34, has assembled a collection of 217 painted baseballs for which well-heeled collectors have paid as much as $1,475 apiece.

"What I do is turn baseballs into baseball cards," Sheldon said.

He makes it sound simple. But Sheldon does only commissioned works and uses a reference library of more than 170 books to include biographies of his subjects with intricate likenesses that combine acrylics on a curved canvas of tanned cowhide.

Each work takes about 20 hours to complete.

"It's true folk art," said Mark Macrae, Sheldon's agent.

Macrae manages Sheldon's showings because of a 14-month backlog of orders.

Sheldon's work is a refreshing though pricey niche in a sports memorabilia market so glutted that the values of many collectibles have been depressed over the years.

"He's tapped into the yuppie, baby-boomer market," said Dennis Purdy, promoter of this weekend's Tacoma Dome sports card show, where Sheldon is displaying some of his work.

Unlike similar artists, who typically paint on only one panel of a baseball, Sheldon covers the entire sphere with portraits, game action, statistics and biographical information. He paints each stitch on the ball and coordinates the hues with the uniform colors of the featured player.

He's done gifts for baseball greats Stan Musial and Carl Yastrzemski, and he hopes to arrange a corporate sponsorship to paint for The Baseball Hall Of Fame.

One unidentified Seattle-area customer owns several of Sheldon's works with which he has built a living-room shrine to his favorite players, the artist said.

One of Sheldon's four-paneled works shows pitching great Nolan Ryan throwing in each of the uniforms he wore - the Mets, Angels, Astros and Rangers.

Before last season, when the Seattle Mariners traded Ken Griffey Jr. to the Reds, Sheldon dedicated a ball to Griffey wearing a Reds uniform. Griffey surprised Sheldon by switching his uniform number from 24 to 30 in Cincinnati. The 24 was reserved for Reds Hall of Famer Tony Perez.

"I goofed when I painted that ball, because I forgot about Tony Perez's number," Sheldon said.

Another of his four-paneled creations shows the entire swing of Mark McGwire, the single-season home run king.

"You could put that ball on a lazy Susan and when you spun it around, you could see McGwire's swing unfold in front of you," Sheldon said.

As Sheldon's reputation has spread - mostly by word of mouth - prices for his works have shot from $275 to $975 for a ball with two images and biographical information. One of his works included 16 dime-sized portraits of a team, and sold for $2500.

Sheldon admits that many showgoers are taken aback by the prices his works fetch. He's planning to arrange for copies to be printed that would sell for less than $80. He expects the first replicas to be of baseball immortal Babe Ruth.

Sheldon can't forsee how much longer he'll capture baseball and its players as his works of art. But he thinks of Saduharu Oh, the Japanese slugger who retired with an all-time record of 868 home runs.

"So far," he said, "I've done 217 baseballs. It would be nice to break Saduharu's record."

For more information about Monty Sheldon's work: Email his agent Mark Macrae, or call 510-538-6245.

* Reach staff writer Jim Szymanski at 253-597-8653 or