Baseball and art have always been intertwined throughout Graig Kreindler’s life. While he may have drifted away from one at some point or questioned his commitment to the other, his love of the sport and his ability to depict it on canvas would come together in a way that would make his work as much of a national treasure as the game he was detailing.
Kreindler, 40, grew up in Monsey, N.Y., a small town some 30 miles north of New York City. His first experience with baseball was with the underachieving Yankee teams of the mid-to-late ‘80s while one of his first works of art was Mickey Mantle.
“The first stuff I remember drawing at that age was cartoons, G.I. Joe, He Man, that kind of stuff,” said Kreindler, who was named after former Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles. “When I was 4 or 5, though, I became conscious of my dad’s baseball card collection. He grew up collecting cards in the ‘40s and ‘50s. While my grandmother threw out a lot of them, he was able to keep a number of them. The majority of the cards in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Topps and Bowman cards, were illustrated.
“I’d like to think that subconsciously I was drawn to those cards, thinking these are drawn and painted. I thought, I can do this. I guess I put that together and started doing it. One of the cards my dad kept was a Bowman Mickey Mantle. At the time, I didn’t know that it had much intrinsic value. I knew it had a lot of sentimental value, so I drew it and showed it to him and that was a big thing for me.”
Kreindler continued to draw throughout school and kept an eye on the Yankees, but his teenage years were typical in that video games, comics and girls became more important than baseball. By the time he was in high school he was a “full blown art guy” who was headed to The School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City, where he would ultimately earn a BFA in illustration.
He admits that baseball and art were still not intertwined, at least in his mind, as graduation from college grew closer. He loved the artwork associated with science fiction and fantasy stories, particularly the work of Boris Vallejo, and thought that he would do some kind of work in that field upon graduation.
“At some point while I was there (at SVA), my heart wasn’t into it as much,” Kreindler said. “I don’t want to say the wheels fell off, but I was floundering. My senior year I was continuing to paint and develop my chops, but I wasn’t sure. I was in a portfolio class and the teacher assigned us to illustrate a relationship. He wanted us to take it and run with it and the first thing that came to my mind was the relationship between a pitcher and a batter.
“I got this idea of doing a baseball painting and eventually of painting Mickey Mantle for my dad. Baseball fans are pretty anal about stats and facts and the accuracy of how things look and feel, so I was conscious of that. I remember thinking that if I’m going to paint Mickey Mantle, it has to look like him. The right stance, the right jersey.”
Little did Kreindler know it at the time, but the groundwork was being laid for what would become a remarkable career. He set about researching Mantle, the stadiums in which he hit homers, what homer would be best depicted in a painting and how he could build off that information.
After an exhausting amount of research that included pulling together a composite group of images, Kreindler made his choice – he would paint the home run Mantle hit at Ebbets Field during the 1952 World Series.
“I had to make sure that Ebbets Field looked the way it looked and I had to get everything correct, right down to the minutia of what Mantle was wearing. He had on an undershirt, but it wasn’t long sleeve and I had to get those details right. That became a big part of it and I fell in love with the whole process. It kind of launched me back into baseball.”
Kreindler said he chose Mantle at Ebbets Field and not Yankee Stadium – he was batting right-handed when he hit the homer – because he was influenced by the angle of Ebbets Field and how it was more “pictorially dynamic.” Ultimately, he did do another painting of Mantle at Yankee Stadium for his father, but the one he did for class remains special.
“I think back to that painting a lot,” he said. “Looking back on it now, I see plenty of stuff that I would have changed or done differently. It’s still hanging in my parents’ house in Florida, though. So I always have it mind and I think about how far I have come.”
The distance between that painting of Mantle and where Kreindler finds himself now is certainly great, but the first few years after college weren’t the most productive for him in terms of his art. He had rediscovered baseball and was beginning to build a portfolio all while looking for work. He sent out countless letters and samples of his work. While he found work here and there, it wasn’t enough to make a living.
Kreindler was still living in his parents basement – he remains eternally grateful for the love and support they have always shown him but this time more so than others – and working part-time at a pizzeria. He knew something needed to happen to jumpstart his career. That something was going back to school and getting a Masters in Art Education from Lehman College.
“I got certified to teach art,” he said. “I did student teaching and was set to graduate and then there was a piece about me in the New York Times that came out around that time. I had a family friend who was a writer and pitched the story to the Times. I was 27 years old and here I am in the Sunday edition of the Times in The Arts section. It kind of opened a whole new world for me.
“I got in touch with (my agent) Dean (Lombardo) through that and he began to secure commissions for me. He helped me build a career and that’s where I’ve been the last 13 years until now. It’s crazy. Looking back on it, I still can’t believe it.”
Kreindler’s career began to take off, but he really made his mark four years ago when he was approached by Jay Caldwell, a retired CFO and collector who lived in Seattle. Monte Sheldon, who painted baseball scenes on baseballs, introduced the two. Caldwell asked Kreindler if he would paint his favorite Negro Leaguers—small studies that captured who the players were and the stories behind them.
Caldwell grew up just outside of Cooperstown and was, as a result, naturally interested in baseball. He had always wanted to do something that would highlight an unknown aspect of baseball and that was The Negro Leagues.
“The whole idea came from my children,” Caldwell, 67, said. “They made fun of me for watching black-and-white TV shows and movies. I thought you could only see the Negro Leagues in black-and-white photos. What if I found an artist who could paint them in color (for a show) and present them in a light that had never been seen before?
“That was the genesis of the idea. We had to have the popular and well-known players, but the idea was to highlight all the other stars that most people never heard of. More than half the players on the (Negro Leagues) centennial team never had a bobble head of them made and only about a third had one made. There were a couple like Cool Papa Bell and Judy Johnson but that’s about it.”
The bobble heads were Caldwell’s brainchild and they were produced in conjunction with The Bobble Head Hall of Fame in Milwaukee. It was a project, though, on which Kreindler played an integral part. He would paint the portraits that adorn the boxes.
“It was an awesome job,” Kreindler said. “What a gig to be associated with. It was my dream to paint guys that no one had ever heard of, so I jumped at the chance and it blew up. What started as 20 paintings became 50 then 75, and I ended up doing 230 small portraits of various Negro Leaguers, Cubans and other Latin guys for this show. The whole thing took 3 1/2 years from start to finish.
“The bobble head boxes have always been Jay’s wheelhouse. I helped him do a majority of visual research on these guys, but I feel like it was all Jay. I’m just a small part of the process. It’s still kind of weird to see my work on a product. I am taken aback by that. It’s not a normal vehicle for what I do. It’s what I consider a dream project. Not only do I get paid to do something I love, but I get an education about it.”
Kreindler’s objective with the project was to bring the players back to life and remind modern fans that these were real people. They existed and were not just figures in scratchy, grainy photos. It was also important to Kreindler from a social perspective.
“I am a white male and I have privilege and have had privilege, so I can’t begin to know what it was truly like to struggle like these guys, personally, socially, economically,” Kreindler said. “It was something I could never understand. That’s why I needed to explore this and bring these guys back, to be able to better understand and depict them honestly.
“That was an important part for me. There is something to bringing these guys to life and making people remember the hardships that they faced. These people went through something and that’s not something we should ever forget. That’s the crux of it.”
Kreindler has one more Negro Leagues commission on which he is working – a painting of Josh Gibson. Once he is done, he says he has so much more he wants to paint, pictures of ballplayers whom he said, “No one knows or cares about.” He added that one modern player he really wants to paint is Barry Bonds.
Bonds will have to wait, though. Kreindler now has a backlog of commissions that will take him about three years to finish. A 12x16 portrait, under normal circumstances, takes him about six weeks to complete. He has painted, by his estimate, between 500 and 600 paintings. Caldwell has the most paintings Kreindler has produced for one client as a result of his Negro Leagues commission.
Still, he has other repeat clients, one of whom he says has 10 or so of his paintings, including a team mural of the 1927 Yankees.
Kreindler says he doesn’t have a favorite painting. Rather, all are his favorites, but the ’27 Yankees piece does hold some extra meaning for him.
“There are some that you’re kind of in trenches more that you are with others,” Kreindler said. “The painting of the ’27 Yankees was a very involved painting in that it was 31 main figures, 30 of whom were wearing pinstripes. They were sitting and standing, and the pinstripes were undulating and folding. Each one was kind of unique, and each player had their own unique face, not just (Babe) Ruth and (Lou) Gehrig. You also had all the guys you never heard of.
“The fact that they are at Yankee Stadium and you can see the stands and the architecture, the seat rails, the façade of the mid-deck, the batting net added to it. There were also maybe 50 to 100 spectators in the stands. The painting was so large you were able to discern one (fan) from the other so each had his own personality. It was a lot of work and took a long time for a very patient client. It’s still the one I am most satisfied with, the one that I really went to war with.”
Kreindler lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children so the only war he’s fighting these days is, like every other New Yorker, the pandemic that has kept his family indoors. Still, pandemic or not, he wasn’t getting to many baseball games in recent years as family life and work took up most of his time.
Most folks who see his work view him as an important part of the baseball world, though, even if he doesn’t always feel that way.
“It’s weird,” he said. “I still have the imposter syndrome that never seems to go away. I love what I do, and I take an immense amount of pride in it. I bust my butt, but I always feels like it’s not good enough.”
Spoken like a true artist.
Check out Kreindler’s work at graigkreindler.com.