Baseball Stars in Bronze

American Artisans, Americana, People, Traditions
on July 5, 2011
Greg Blackman Mindy Ellis sculpts portraits of baseball’s greatest players in her home studio in Bethel Park, Pa.

Surrounded by photographs of the newest members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Mindy Ellis runs her calloused fingertips across a mound of stiff brown clay that she’s molding into a portrait of a major league star inside her home studio in Bethel Park, Pa.

“Right now, it just looks like a bunch of bumpy clay that a preschooler did. However, to me, I already have a sense of the beginnings of a face,” says Ellis, 53, smoothing small lumps that will become the chin, shoulders and cap of 12-time All-Star infielder Roberto Alomar.

The sculpture, completed earlier this year, since has been cast into a bronze plaque that will be hung this month in the famed gallery in Cooperstown, N.Y. (pop. 1,852).

“It takes me about a week to finish each portrait, but the whole process usually takes months. It’s a high-profile job,” Ellis says of her work for Matthews International, the Pittsburgh-based company that produces the plaques.

As the artist who has modeled 60 of the 295 two-dimensional portraits that hang in the Hall of Fame, Ellis shapes sculptures that are among the most widely viewed art in America, albeit the most anonymously created. A baseball fan herself, Ellis says her reward is knowing that the portraits she creates will “live on and on for posterity.”

“It’s an honor to be part of the experience of honoring baseball’s greatest careers,” she says.

A glimpse inside the Baseball Hall of Fame plaque gallery

Ellis sculpted her first Hall of Fame portrait—of Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt—in 1995. Other players she’s captured in clay include Carlton Fisk (2000), Kirby Puckett (2001), Ozzie Smith (2002), Gary Carter (2003), Wade Boggs (2005), Cal Ripken Jr. (2007), Tony Gwynn (2007) and Rickey Henderson (2009).

She’s also sculpted portraits of former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and Effa Manley, the only woman inducted into the Hall of Fame, who from 1936 to 1948 was business manager of the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles.

Ellis’ fans praise her innate eye and attention to detail.

“Mindy brings to life the character of these people,” says Brad Horn, 35, Hall of Fame spokesman. “When you view all the plaques beginning with Ty Cobb in 1936 through today, you can see the level of detail contained within each plaque from the mid-’90s forward.”

The daughter of a master carpenter, Ellis studied wood furniture construction and design at Edinboro (Pa.) University and was sculpting wood for a cabinet-making shop in Pittsburgh when she was invited to shape a few pieces in clay for Matthews International. Her work was so lifelike that hundreds more projects followed. Portrait work became her signature.

“[Mindy has] the ability to transfer from her vision to her hand and the clay the human form and the essence of the image she’s trying to capture,” says Michael Karenbauer, 50, who hired Ellis at Matthews International. “It’s a rare talent.”

To sculpt the Hall of Fame portraits, Ellis studies photographs, and occasionally video, supplied by the Hall of Fame, which also provides the 80- to 100-word text that graces the finished plaques. “I try to get the essence of the person, what’s behind their eyes, their features,” Ellis says. “I look at the attitude of their head. I study their character lines.”

One photograph selected by Hall of Fame officials becomes the final model, although they occasionally direct Ellis to mix and match uniforms or other attributes from additional photos to best represent the overall career of the player.

Glancing frequently at the photos, Ellis shapes the clay using sculpting tools that range from sewing utensils and dental instruments to the edge of a credit card. Her canvas is an oil-based clay that she shapes and refines over months, if necessary.

 “The clay is a lot more forgiving than wood, but if you bump it, you can lose a nostril,” she says.

Ellis has been to Cooperstown only once, in 1998, when she and her family were invited to watch the induction of five members into the Hall of Fame.

“It was unbelievable to see them unveil the plaques and show them on a huge JumboTron,” Ellis recalls. “I felt grateful and humbled to be a small part of it.”