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George Bellows, American Artist and Shortstop

August 14, 2012
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George Bellows,
“Sweeney, Idol of the Fans, Had Hit a Home Run”

The National Gallery in Washington D.C. currently has a wonderful retrospective of George Bellows in its main wing.

That sentence has nothing to do with baseball. Yet. Bellows is a favorite artist of mine, his explorations and character studies of early 20th-century New York, the underclasses, the boxing matches in seedy bars, the tenements, as well as his later works on the sea and Woodstock.

I went to the exhibit today and found out that Bellows, one of the main figures of the Ashcan School of Art, one of the major artists of turn of the century America, could very easily have become a famous baseball player. And now I have a new favorite artist.Bellows was a two-sport athlete at Ohio State, playing for three years on both the basketball and baseball teams. Not only the Buckeyes’ star shortstop (Edward M. Barrows in the North American Review — reprinted in the Portsmouth Times on Feb. 11th, 1937 — called him “Ohio’s greatest shortstop. Nothing got past him that was under 10 feet high or within 20 feet range”), Bellows played semi-pro baseball during his summers off from college. In 1904, the multi-talented 22-year-old was recruited by the Cincinnati Reds, the storied franchise itself. Bellows declined the offer to move to New York and attend the New York School of Art.

After moving to the city, Bellows needed to find employment to help pay rent and his art school tuition…so naturally, he played semipro ball for the Brooklyn Howards. Yes, as a fledgling artist, he paid his way by playing baseball.

In Marianne Doezema’s book, George Bellows and Urban America, the author places Bellows’ masculine interests in the historic era, along with the  idea of manhood that pervaded a number of artists and writers (indeed, a lot of American men in the late-19th/early-20th centuries). She writes that on the Ohio State campus, Bellows “conformed to the pressure of activist ideals…was swaggering, loud, and bossy; he tried desperately to excel in team sports.”

Later in NYC while at Robert Henri’s art class, Doezema writes that Bellows was

“trying to conform to an unwritten but clearly defined gender role ideal…in Henri’s class there was a definite and reassuring emphasis placed on their maleness…It was in the male-oriented atmosphere of the New York School, and with the support of Robert Henri, that Bellows found a way to reconcile the two seemingly disconnected worlds of his life, the world of artistic sensibility and the world of hard-driving, aggressive action.”

(Doezema, p. 74 -75)

Indeed, Bellows may have “reconciled” the different halves of his life, but it also seems that his love for baseball went beyond any kind of character composition in the form of Teddy Roosevelt’s muscular Christianity. Bellows actually just enjoyed playing baseball. He starred for the New York Art School’s baseball team (alongside Rockwell Kent, but sadly, classmate Edward Hopper opted out), and continued to play baseball for semi-pro teams in Brooklyn, Manhattan, New Jersey, and upstate New York.

The Newark Sunday Call of 4 Jun 1916 published an article on the Montclair Athletic Club of New Jersey with an accompanying photograph, writing that “one of the leading members of the Montclair team is George Bellows, an artist, who is a member of the National Academy, and who, if his paintings did not sell well, might easily keep the wolf from the door as a professional baseball player.”

Bellows died of appendicitis in 1925; the summer before his death, while playing for (most likely) the Woodstock team in upstate New York, where he starred as a first and third baseman, he experienced pains that would ‘foreshadow his death’ the following year, according to Diamonds in the Rough: The Untold History of Baseball (Joel Zoss, John Bowman).

In Charles Morgan’s 1965 biography of Bellows, the author opined that “If George Bellows at the age of twenty-two had elected a career as shortstop, he would, in 1925, have left behind him a bust in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.”

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George Bellows,
“Kill the Umpire”

Well, possibly an exaggeration. As it is, he’s the most successful artist-baseball player. Unless Miguel Batista has another artistic talent he’s not telling anybody about. Ultimately, Bellows’ works on boxing are a lot more well known than his simple sketches on baseball, but two of his national pastime works are pictured here, one at top, and one at left.

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