The Shortstop Turned Show-Stopping Artist
There comes a time in every ballplayer's life when the spikes are hung up for the final time. Whether that event occurs after a little league game or Game 7 of a World Series actually matters very little. There is a last time for everyone. Most former ballplayers try to stay connected to the game in one way or another. Some go into coaching, while others are content with a comfortable recliner, the MLB package and a high-definition television. Joining fantasy leagues, studying statistics and collecting baseball cards are tried-and-true substitutes as well.
James Fiorentino already had his connection to the game secure when he wrapped up his senior season on the Drew University baseball team in Madison, NJ. In addition to being a slick-fielding collegiate shortstop and four-year letterman, Fiorentino liked to paint pictures of ballplayers in his spare time.
Actually, that is not quite right. In fact, it is somewhat of an understatement. It would be akin to simply saying that Cal Ripken, Jr. played in a lot of baseball games. Standing at the easel, Fiorentino draws comparisons to Babe Ruth at the plate, Rickey Henderson on the base paths and Sandy Koufax on the mound. As a result, the Baseball Hall of Fame now exhibits Ruth's bats, Henderson's cleats, Koufax's gloves and Fiorentino's paintings.
Fiorentino has been creating art for as long as he can remember. "I've had a love of drawing from the age of three or four," he said recently. "Of course, you begin by drawing and painting the things you have a passion for, so I was doing a lot of baseball pieces." It soon became obvious that the young boy had a gift for art, and so by the age of eight, his parents enrolled him in private lessons. He was learning many different mediums but took an instant liking to watercolors mainly because of the influence of his teachers. And while he mostly entered paintings of nature and wildlife into art competitions, baseball players remained his favorite subject.
"Since I was a child, I have always had a passion for the history of baseball, so I had an interest in painting older ballplayers. I think that my passion for the game, understanding its history and being a card collector played a big role in my desire to continually improve my ability to represent these players through my art.
"From a collecting standpoint, I came to the hobby much like most kids. My parents bought me packs at different times. By the time I was playing little league, I was getting packs at the field and that became a fun thing to do. I was 10 years old in 1987 and I remember things really starting to take off when Upper Deck cards came out two years later. Then, when I was 14, I thought it would be really cool to get players to autograph some of my art at shows. The first player that I was able to do that with was Joe DiMaggio, and I still have the painting that he autographed for me."
His introduction to the hobby may have been standard, but the meteoric development and recognition of his talent was anything but normal. In fact, you might say that Fiorentino's artwork and the accolades he received had a trajectory similar to a towering Babe Ruth home run. Consider the following:
- By the age of 15, he was already a noted painter and a piece he did of Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson was prominently displayed at the Baseball Hall of Fame. This made Fiorentino the youngest artist ever to be featured at the museum.
- At the age of 17, Red Sox Hall of Fame legend Ted Williams commissioned Fiorentino for a portrait of the 20 greatest hitters in baseball history to be reproduced as a limited-edition lithograph.
- At 18 he became Major League Baseball's official artist for projects pertaining to Cal Ripken's record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game.
- Fiorentino was just 19 years old when he joined the prestigious New York Society of Illustrators, the youngest person to do so.
- He was first tasked with creating images for trading cards at age 21 when Topps commissioned Fiorentino to provide paintings for the 1999 Topps Gallery Heritage set, a series of contemporary players presented in a 1953 Topps style.
Oh yes, the trading cards... Along his path to becoming one of the world's premier sports artists, James Fiorentino produced artwork for numerous baseball and multi-sport trading card sets for Topps, Upper Deck and Kellogg's over the past 20 years.
"That was a huge thrill," he recalled. "I was a collector and I was just obsessed with baseball cards. Any chance I got, birthdays or holidays, I was asking for boxes of cards. I loved going to shows when I was a kid and seeing all of the vintage cards, though I couldn't afford most of them. When Topps wanted to use my artwork in the 1999 Gallery subset, I was just ecstatic. They look like the 1953 Topps set and I contributed Hank Aaron, Tony Gwynn, Mike Piazza and some other guys. Ten of the 20 cards in the set feature my art. It was also the first time in many years that Topps began using art on their baseball cards again."
Since making his trading card debut with the 1999 Topps Gallery subset, Fiorentino's work can be found in the following sets:
- 2001 Upper Deck Legends: The Fiorentino Collection – This series contains athletes from Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and Professional Golf Association, each represented in Fiorentino's black-and-white imagery.
- 2003 Upper Deck Play Ball – A 104-card series designed to replicate the 1941 Play Ball baseball set that includes 15-card subsets entitled Summer of '41 and Ted Williams Tribute. Fiorentino's art is used on more than 40 cards, including the complete Ted Williams Tribute set.
- 2006 Kellogg's All-Stars – This seven-card, multi-sport autographed card set features top retired athletes from auto racing, baseball, basketball, figure skating, football and golf. Cards use black-and-white images of Fiorentino's work and were randomly inserted into various Kellogg's products.
Fiorentino is now embarking upon a new project with Topps that is scheduled to be released during the 2021 baseball season. He's not at liberty to provide details but suffice it to say that his excitement level about this latest hobby contribution is sky high and he is sure that collectors will enjoy it immensely.
His personal hobby preferences, as you might imagine, lean towards card sets that feature painted images. "I have always been a fan of the old cards, T206, the early Bowmans and 1953 Topps, which I am putting together now. I have a nice affiliation with that set not only because the 1999 Topps Gallery cards are done in similar style, but one of the original Topps artists, Gerry Dvorak, who painted the Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Eddie Mathews images, was a mentor to me growing up. He was also an artist from New Jersey and a friend of mine, so I just love that set.
"I've been collecting it for a few years now and I'm about halfway through my '53 set. I love going to shows and picking up some cards. To me, every card in the set is awesome. It doesn't matter who the player is, the fact that they are all painted is really special to me. I just feel so fortunate that I was able to spend time with a number of those guys, talk with them, share my art with them and have them sign something for me. Those guys are only around for so long and we have lost a number of them recently."
As popular as his work has become, there is always opportunity to reveal his art to a new audience and at the same time help share the richness of baseball history. "I think that things like what I am doing now with Topps and the opportunity to paint covers for SMR, are great ways to connect with fans and collectors, which is exciting to me. I would love to paint an entire set at some point and hope that I get the chance to do that one day. I also like the way that card companies are finding new ways to bring art into the hobby. I think what Topps has been doing with their Project 2020 program is just fantastic. There is a lot of opportunity because it helps bring artists to the forefront, and it also broadens the perspective of collectors by exposing them to these different artistic representations of a sport they love."
This, perhaps more than anything, really helps to define Fiorentino and the perspective he tries to maintain regarding his artistic gifts. Even in our current situation which challenges the idea of gathering in person to interact and share ideas, Fiorentino does his best to remain connected to fans and aspiring artists across the country. He is active on social media, Facebook and Instagram in particular, and responds promptly to emails from fans and collectors. Show appearances did not happen this year, but he enjoys opportunities to interact with fans and collectors, talk baseball history and look at trading cards.
Who would have thought that this college shortstop's life in baseball would truly begin once he stopped playing? His love for the game is stronger than ever, and though he is no longer turning 4-6-3 double plays and stretching long singles into doubles, Fiorentino relies on the same competitive spirit that helped him to excel in baseball as a driving force behind his growth in the art world. "I am always trying to be the best at what I can do. Even now, when I have been painting professionally for more than 25 years, I am still trying to get better. I am trying to do my best work and get a painting into this gallery or secure that commission. Those same competitive feelings factor into being both an athlete and an artist."
• • •
To view more of James Fiorentino's artwork, visit www.JamesFiorentino.com or follow him on Facebook @JamesFiorentinoArt or Instagram @fiorentinojames. If you are interested in a custom painting, he can be reached at [email protected]
Please feel free to contact Todd Tobias at [email protected] if you have any questions or comments. A special thank you to James Fiorentino for providing the images for this article.