Sculptor Mark Lundeen can relate to an athlete failing in the clutch. His high school basketball team in Holdrege, Neb. (pop. 5,624), lost the 1976 state class B title game in the last two seconds of play. Later, as a running back for Kearney (Neb.) State, he was forced to endure three seasons that ended with losses in the NAIA championships. Shouldn't he be satisfied with simply getting as far as he did in sports? Some might think so, particularly in light of the fact that Lundeen lost half of his left foot in a hunting accident in high school. But Lundeen, like so many others who have fallen short in sports, was left not with a feeling of satisfaction but with a wistful sense of unfulfilled promise. He decided to do something about it.
"Based on my own frustrating experiences, and those of a lot of other athletes, I decided a few years ago to do a bronze statue of a sports figure who symbolized failing in the clutch, but doing it in style," says Lundeen. 30, who now lives and works in Loveland, Colo. "The poem Casey at the Bat immediately came to mind."
Lundeen is referring to Ernest L. Thayer's century-old tale of the legendary slugger for Mudville whose whiff in the bottom of the ninth with two men on base is the most celebrated strikeout in baseball lore.
The seven-foot, 600-pound statue of Mighty Casey—one of 15 that Lundeen has made, along with 30 smaller replicas—depicts the muscular, mustachioed slugger leaning on his bat. Officials at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., were so impressed with his work that they accepted one of the seven-footers—some of which have brought prices as high as $30,000—as a loan from the owners: James Cole of Knoxville and John McGivern, a contractor from Topeka, Kans. "It's been one of our biggest attractions since we put it on display last June," says William Guilfoyle, the associate director of the Hall of Fame.
Lundeen's Casey is in good company, inasmuch as the only other life-sized statuary in the Hall's museum are wooden sculptures of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and a wax version of Roberto Clemente. The two works in wood were crafted by Armand LaMontagne of North Scituate. R.I., a former Boston College football player. His recently completed lifelike statue of Celtics forward Larry Bird is on display at the New England Sports Museum in Boston, where his current project—a statue of Boston hockey great Bobby Orr—will also be displayed.
Though sports statuary is hardly a new phenomenon, it has suddenly become big, in every sense of the word. On April 19 in Philadelphia's Spectrum, a 13½-foot bronze of Julius Erving was dedicated at halftime of a 76er game during which Dr. J's jersey, No. 6, was retired. The bronzed Erving's final resting place, as it were, will be outside the Spectrum, a long three-point shot from the statue of another Philadelphia legend, Rocky Balboa (a.k.a. Sylvester Stallone), the fictitious heavyweight champion who trained for some of his memorable celluloid bouts in the city of brotherly love.
Rocky's rise to immortality was strictly an accident. "The statue was a prop in the Rocky III movie and was set on the top steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art," says Spectrum spokeswoman Nancy Marakowski of the life-sized figure sculpted by A. Thomas Schomberg of Evergreen, Colo. "The movie people offered it to the museum, but the museum didn't want it because it wasn't considered art, so we sort of adopted it six years ago."
These recent creations notwithstanding, it is surprising how few sports figures have been immortalized in sculpture. Of those who have achieved that distinction, most have been baseball players. Perhaps the biggest and oldest work is the bronze statue of Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner that greets Pirate fans as they enter Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Dedicated in 1955, the nine-foot. 1½-ton figure, atop an eight-foot concrete pedestal, was in Schenley Park, across from Forbes Field, until it was moved to Three Rivers in 1972.
Sculpted by Frank Vittor, the statue of a smiling Wagner, following through after one of his mighty swings, actually looks like its subject. That's more than can be said of the slightly larger-than-life sculpture of Stan Musial that has stood outside the entrance to Busch Stadium in St. Louis for the past 20 years. "It doesn't look like Musial at all," concedes Bob Broeg, the retired sports editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who spearheaded the fund-raising drive to commission Carl Mose to do the work. "Even the famous Musial stance isn't right. But once it was done, it was done. I guess it's more of a symbol than anything else."
More true to life are three statues in the concourse surrounding Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium; they depict former Braves stars Hank Aaron (swinging) and Phil Niekro (pitching) along with Georgia native Ty Cobb (sliding). To date, it is believed that only one manager has been immortalized with a life-sized likeness: Connie Mack, who lasted 50 years as the skipper of the Philadelphia Athletics, partly because of his managerial skill and partly because, as the club's owner, he couldn't find a good reason to fire himself. Wearing his trademark suit and waving his ever-present scorecard, Mack is enshrined in bronze outside Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
The good news for fans and pigeons alike is that more life-sized statues—and the scaled-down versions as well—are on the way. In the forefront of the sports statuary business is Senter Vitale Associates of Cary, N.C., which has commissioned sculptors to do bronze tributes to former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton and Aristides, the winner of the first Kentucky Derby, in addition to the sculpture of Erving.
The firm is run by Walter Council, a 29-year-old former ad man, in partnership with North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano. They describe themselves as bronze sculpture brokers. "Jim actually came up with the idea after State won the NCAA title in 1983," Council says. "He felt there should be more to commemorate such a victory than just the T-shirts, hats and other stuff that was mass-produced after State won the championship. My feeling was that some type of quality art would be appropriate, both for major sports achievements and individual athletes. With that in mind, we decided to form a company, using our mothers' maiden names for the title."
A visit by Council to Churchill Downs in Louisville in 1986 led to the company's first project. "I was struck by the absence of any major memorabilia relating to the Kentucky Derby," says Council. "So I suggested to the track's marketing director, Dave Carrico, that a statue of a Derby winner be placed at a prominent place."
Other track officials liked the idea. But there was a problem. Which Derby winner would be honored? "We finally decided that if you picked one of the all-time greats, you'd offend some people," Council says. "So we hit on the idea of erecting a statue of the first winner, in 1875, Aristides."
That proved a tough assignment for Carl Regutti, 52, an occasional horse-player who has achieved prominence as a sculptor of nature and wildlife. "There were no available photographs of Aristides and only two prints, which were not only totally different from each other but also technically wrong," says Regutti. "And many of the newspaper clippings contained terms I didn't understand. One account referred to the horse's 'neat head' and 'short cannon bones,' none of which I understood."
So Regutti decided to consult with several experts, one of whom finally came upon a photo of Clout, a racehorse from the 1970s who seemed to have characteristics similar to those of Aristides. Regutti then made a 14-inch wax model, which he passed around to his experts for approval. After making their suggested adjustments, the model became the basis for an eight-foot-high, 14-foot-long bronze statue. "I guess I know more about Aristides than anyone alive," says Regutti of the horse who won nine of 21 races and $18,325 in prize money during his four-year racing career. "He didn't have a glorious history, but he was no dog, either."
The statue, set on a granite pedestal and placed next to the paddock at Churchill Downs, was unveiled before the opening race of the fall meet last Nov. 1. Since then, almost all of the 300 bronze replicas, 16 inches high, of Aristides have been sold for $1,875 apiece, a figure derived, at least in part, from the year of that first Derby. "The replicas are good investments; some have been sold at auctions at twice the price they originally cost," says Council. "For us, Aristides definitely will be a money-maker."
So too, Council feels, will the Erving project, which also includes 300 replicas of the major work. More than half of the 15½-inch statues have already been sold, including one that will be put on display at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. "Given Dr. J's tremendous popularity, I think we'll sell out on the replicas," Council says.
The Erving statues, which depict Dr. J going up for a dunk, are the work of Louisville sculptor Barney Bright, 60, who has done statues or busts of such Kentucky luminaries as former senators John Sherman Cooper and Thruston Morton, current senator Wendell Ford, former governor John Y. Brown and Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, whose larger-than-life bronze bust is the first thing one sees upon entering the state capitol in Frankfort. Erving was the first sports figure sculpted by Bright. "When I measured him, I couldn't get over the size of his hands and his long arms," he says. "When he told me his shirt size was 16 by 39, I said, 'They don't make shirts that long.' But Julius said, 'My tailor does.' I had forgotten he was rich."
Bright, a sculptor for 41 years, found Erving cooperative but demanding. "He dictated exactly how he wanted the statue to look," says Bright, who started making figures out of his mother's leftover bread dough at the age of three. "Julius said he wanted a 'corporate look,' with the shorter hair that he's worn in recent years rather than the Afro he used to wear. And he also said he didn't want any chains or other jewelry. Overall, what he wanted was a dignified pose and not one of the flashy maneuvers he was famous for during his early days."
While Erving was being rendered in bronze, Paul Tadlock, a 53-year-old naturalistic sculptor, was beginning work at his studio in New Braunfels, Texas, on a life-sized bronze statue of the incomparable Payton, who retired at the end of last season after setting the alltime NFL career rushing record. The statue, which is expected to be completed in March, will probably stand inside the new Chicago Sports Hall of Fame.
In the meantime, the Payton monument committee, which includes Bears coach Mike Ditka and a number of prominent Chicagoans, is marketing 350 bronze replicas for $1,975 each in conjunction with Senter Vitale. As in the case of the Erving and Aristedes statues, subscribers who buy the 14½-inch replicas will have their names engraved on the base of the major work.
As a model for Payton's pose Tadlock used a photo of the running back leaning forward to his right, with a football in his right hand. "Walter doesn't look very big or powerful," says Tadlock, "but in measuring him, I was surprised at how thick his chest, arms and thighs are. Yet his waist is only 31 inches."
Lundeen, Bright, Tadlock and Regutti all use the lost wax process, employed by sculptors for at least 3,000 years. The technique begins with a clay model of a part of the figure from which a rubber mold is made. The rubber mold is removed from the clay and filled with hot wax; when the wax cools, it is removed from the rubber mold and coated with a ceramic material. The result is then placed into an oven to melt the wax, which drains away—hence "the lost wax process"—and to harden the ceramic material into a strong shell. Molten bronze is then poured into the empty shell. After the bronze solidifies, the shell is cracked, usually with a hammer, and the resulting bronze portion of the statue is welded to the other pieces to form the finished whole.
LaMontagne, who did the statues of Ruth, Williams and Bird, sculpts his figures from a kiln-dried block of laminated basswood weighing anywhere from 2,000 to 2,500 pounds. In doing the Bird statue, LaMontagne used more than 40 tools to carve 1,525 pounds off a 2,000-pound block. It took him about 2,000 hours, roughly the same amount of time that Bright took to create the Erving statue.
"I remember Larry telling me how a lot of people would tell him that the ball looks small in his hands," says LaMontagne, who was forced to give the Bird statue a haircut after the Celtics star turned up last season shorn of his long locks. "And I said, 'No wonder; you've got huge palms and big hands.' "
While sculpting the statue of Ruth, LaMontagne was permitted to take the Bambino's uniform out of the Hall of Fame for the first time. "I was amazed to find that Ruth had a 48-inch waist," says LaMontagne. "But then he was a big guy—6'2" and 250 pounds. And contrary to popular legend, his legs weren't really thin; they just looked that way because of the huge upper body. Actually, his calf was 17 inches, which is not small."
Williams, whose statue was commissioned by Mrs. Jean Yawkey, the owner of the Red Sox, was deeply moved when his likeness was unveiled in Cooperstown. "I told Ted later that I succeeded in doing two things no one else had been able to do in the past—take the chip off his shoulder and make him break down," says LaMontagne.
Senter Vitale is planning a number of other statues of living athletes, possibly including a series depicting the greats of golf. The sculptors have their own ideas. Bright, for one, would like to portray basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "He'd be a natural," says Bright, "shooting his skyhook, with his goggles and bald head."
"I've always heard about Jim Thorpe, Red Grange and other great stars of the past," says Council, "but you only see them in old photos or old film clips. With statues, you can preserve the athlete for future generations."
But Council says Senter Vitale won't commission a statue of any athlete with feet of clay. "We only want to do genuine heroes like Erving and Payton. We aren't going to do any guys who have been busted a couple of times for drugs."
In other words, they'll only be doing statues of athletes that people can look up to—figuratively as well as literally.
Lundeen's confident Casey is a favorite of fans at the Hall of Fame.
Once the statue's placed outside the Spectrum, the Doctor's hang time will be eternal.
THE NEW ENGLAND SPORTS MUSEUM
LaMontagne's early Bird: still a blockhead, but ever ready to shoot.
The ersatz Niekro gets set to uncork a heavy knuckler outside Fulton County Stadium.
Jack Cavanaugh, a free-lancer from Wilton, Conn., has written several pieces for SI.