Baseball Player Show Figure
Baseball, stated poet Walt Whitman, is “our game . . . America’s game.” To some it is perfect metaphor for America itself: there are strict rules to govern conduct, and success is dependent on people working together, but there are many opportunities for individual achievement. Baseball evolved from earlier games such as the British rounders. By the mid-1840s, the rules were codified and the game was being played publically by formal teams. It was not until later in the nineteenth century, however, that baseball took on national dimensions and individual players were celebrated. For one thing, in the early decades most people did not know what the players looked like. As their likenesses began to appear on commercial products such as cigarette premiums, the cult of celebrity grew.
This carving may depict Michael J. “King” Kelly, the most popular player of the 1880s. Kelly was one of the first baseball players to negotiate the use of his image into his contract with the Boston Beaneaters. The figure was made by Samuel Anderson Robb in his New York City woodcarving shop. Robb had located at 114 Centre Street in 1888 and remained at this address until 1903. He is credited with contributing to what came to be known as the “New York style” of show figure, life-size carvings used to advertise tobacco and other goods that were often based on well-known figures or caricatures of familiar stereotypes.
Stacy C. Hollander, “Baseball Player Show Figure,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.