During an 11-year period beginning in 1984, Ron Lewis produced some of the most enduring sports-art collectibles in the hobby. His oil paintings of baseball, basketball, football and hockey heroes were reproduced on lithographs, postcards, trading cards, collector plates, baseballs, posters and other items that are still widely sought by collectors.
He attended autograph shows on both coasts, signing his work along with Mickey Mantle, Warren Spahn, Ted Williams and dozens of other sports immortals.
"It was the golden era of collectibles," the 56-year-old artist said of the period. "There was so much work, I didn't have time to do anything else."
He hasn't produced a widely distributed set since the mid-1990s, when it became tougher to finance the card shows where he sold most of his work.
Lewis returned to his hometown of Pocatello, Idaho, where he said he was shocked to find people who collected his sports art. "I was pigeonholed for 10 years" as a sports artist in New York "because that's where the work was," he said. "Sports is only one aspect of what I do.
"But it was great, something I'd never have imagined growing up," Lewis said.
He fondly recalls visits to Ted Williams' Florida home and Mantle's New York restaurant, where autograph collectors treated him like one of the legends whose images he so faithfully painted.
In recent years he's kept busy painting everything from retiree portraits for a state agency in Idaho to images on Mylar balloons sold in supermarkets and a line of Halloween monsters. He's also produced lithographs of astronauts and jazz greats, both sold signed and in limited editions.
Lewis still occasionally paints portraits of star athletes for private collections but said his real passion is now painting vintage cars.
With interest rising in signatures from hall of famers in all sports, collectors are rediscovering Lewis' autograph-friendly work.
SCD interviewed Lewis recently about his career and popular sports art:
SCD: Like many kids, you had dreams of becoming a professional athlete. You were good enough to earn a football scholarship to Idaho State University. Who were your sports heroes growing up?
Ron Lewis: I was really into the Yankees, like most kids my age. Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, they were always in the forefront. My friend would pitch to me, I'd pitch to him ... Of course, every kid my age thought Dick Butkus was the greatest guy ever. And Muhammad Ali and Gale Sayers ...
SCD: You played football in college but a knee injury ended your dream of becoming a professional athlete. It must have been emotionally devastating at the time, but you've since called the injury a blessing in disguise. Why?
RL: I probably wasn't as good as I thought I was. The injury led me in another direction, the art world. I started in the architecture department. My father thought architecture was good. That (initially) sounded good to me. But I liked the freedom in the art department more. There was kind of a revival of illustration in the 1960s. I could see people making money at it. In my junior year, I switched my major to fine arts. My dad didn't understand it at all. But he said go for it. My mom was very concerned, too, but she was very artistic and creative herself. She gave me all her blessing.
SCD: You attended art schools in Seattle and New York, where you also worked for an advertising agency. Tell us how you made the leap to sports art.
RL: I first went to New York in 1976. A guy who went to the art school I had gone to was art director for a major advertising agency. I did a lot of work for that agency. About six months after that, my father passed away. I went back (to Idaho) to be with my mother for about seven years. I did freelance paintings, signs, just about everything you could see in the art world.
In 1982, I started getting antsy about going back to New York. There was a workshop outside of New York, with 10 to 12 of the leading illustrators of the day. Just a bunch of these really well-known illustrators. I cashed in my life insurance policy - I might have gotten $1,200 - and went to the workshop. I did get a lot of good feedback. There were 10 of us out of 150 picked to be in this book they put together to summarize that workshop. That led me to get out there to New York.
I lived with friends while trying to find an apartment to rent and a place to set up in. After about two weeks I went into this little printing shop in Irvington. They had no leads but they said once I found something I should bring my portfolio back. Soon after, I found a place, with no shower, in Tarrytown. I took my book back to these people, they called the guy who owned the business, Bill Hongach. He turned out to be my business partner for many years and we still work together.
He was producing the Baseball Hobby Card Report, dealing with all kinds of collectible cards: baseball cards, comic cards, science fiction cards. It was a slick magazine. He needed cover art, so I did several covers.
He was also doing subsets for the Topps company. He wanted to do his own set of baseball cards, of the 1927 Yankees. We did I think a 30-card set that did fairly well.
Then he decided to do the first 45 inductees in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in a postcard, deckle-edge format. He did a lot of mail order and a few things were done with the authorization of Topps, which were marketed a little more.
Hongach then started putting on little collectible shows in Brooklyn. The first piece I did was Reggie Jackson. I did an 18-by-24-inch oil painting. Then we sold lithographs of the painting at the door and Reggie signed them. That opened my eyes to the different avenues for marketing pieces of art. We'd make cards and glossy 8-by-10s, anything we could put this one image on, we'd do it. After that I was working every day doing sports items.
SCD: Did you realize before then that there were collectors interested in that stuff?
RL: I had no idea. Back in Idaho, there wasn't much of an autograph-collecting society. You very seldom saw anyone of any notoriety. Maybe a world champion bull rider might have come through here (laughed).
SCD: After the Jackson piece, was there a series of lithographs produced?
RL: We did all kinds of shows. For every one we'd spin off another piece. The first big lithograph series I did was of leading ballplayers in the major leagues, in 1984. Nice head shots and a little vignette of fielding or batting. We did them to sell in our booth at different shows. There were no problems then with licensing, they were all easy to work with. During this time I also did work for Sports Impressions, on collectors' plates. And other people were having me do the concepts for their shows. Our big one was the 500 Home Run Club show, in 1988 I believe it was, in Atlantic City. That was in conjunction with Pete Rose, before he ran into trouble, and my partner.
We showed up to this show and we couldn't believe it. There were so many people, we couldn't attend to them all. All the living members of the 500 Home Run Club were there.
We got a lot of publicity for that and a lot of different contacts came to me from that show.
SCD: That first set was produced more than 20 years ago. How many similar sets and series have you produced since? Which are your favorites?
RL: Probably about 12 series, total. I like the first series of active ballplayers. They were full color, really detailed pieces. The Negro League Series was perfect for me. I am into vintage things. I have old cars.
I could bring all my interests into the Negro League set. The advertising in the background and old cars and buses helped bring an historic feel to this thing. Plus, I enjoyed the players. They were great guys.
SCD: Do you typically work from photos? How long does a typical portrait take to complete?
RL: Everything is done with photographs. I might use two or three different pictures. For the simplest one, with no background, it takes about three days. That's drawing it, the oil painting and then tidying up. For something a thing I did called "Spahn and Sain, Pray for Rain," there's a dugout and people in stands. That took a week. Something like the 3,000 Hit Club and the 500 Home Run Club can take a month.
SCD: The Center Court set of basketball HOFers you did is very popular with autograph collectors, even though some of the Hall's biggest names, including Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Wilt Chamberlain, aren't included. Are you involved in the decisions about who will be included in such sets? Were there plans for more series that fell through?
RL: I have nothing to do with who they pick for the sets. They sign the people they can deal with. There were plans to do the whole Hall of Fame. We were working with the Hall, but there got to be some business problem. I was hoping we could just keep going. The set just didn't do much at that point. You couldn't give basketball stuff away. Then Jordan started getting big and basketball collectibles took off. I did do some Larry Bird pieces for private collections and still have people who send me pieces already signed for me to paint portraits on.
SCD: Much of your work is produced in limited editions geared to autograph collectors. Why have you focused on autograph-friendly collectibles?
RL: My partner, Bill, was a batboy for the Yankees for two years. He'd work the opposing team's dugout. He got so many cards signed, he started selling through mail order. He would come from Irvington to the big hotels in New York and he'd wait for the ballplayers to come out.
SCD: Do you collect sports autographs or memorabilia?
RL: I did start getting interested in vintage stuff. Sports advertising, baseballs, old equipment, puzzles.
I have some autographs, personalized, on the stuff I do, like Mickey Mantle, from the Living Legends Series, and Warren Spahn.
SCD: Are there any sports collectible items you are currently working on or would like to do in the future?
RL: We are trying to work a deal with Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, for a montage painting of both with vignettes, on postcard-size cards and different products for each guy. I'd like to do vintage auto racing. Cars are my real passion. I'd also like to do old football and baseball from the 1890s.
SCD: You've appeared at autograph shows and met some of your childhood sports heroes. Have you ever thought about how far you've come from Pocatello's Highland High School?
RL: There was one pivotal moment when I was working for Sports Impressions. They wanted to do a collector's plate of Mark McGwire, in 1987. He was coming to New York and they gave me a field pass and box seats. I got to go on the field in Yankee Stadium and take pictures. Just being on the infield at Yankee Stadium was pretty heady stuff. I was standing there with my brand-new camera, which I could hardly work.
All the Yankees came out for batting practice, I'm clicking away. Before I knew it, the A's came out. When I met McGwire I was out of film and had to reload. Then I dropped the canister ... McGwire ended up rejecting the plate. I was doing one of Jose Canseco at the same time. He rejected his, too! (laughed)
Major Sets and Series produced by Lewis
1) Baseball Hall of Fame Deckle-Edge Art Series, 1984 (Renata Galasso)
2) 1927 New York Yankees Baseball Card Set, 1984 (Renata Galasso)
3) Baseball Current Stars of the 1980s (8-by-10), 1984-87 (Capital Cards)
4) Baseball Living Legends (8-by-10), four series, 1989-90 (Capital Cards)
5) Football Living Legends (8-by-10), 1991 (Capital)
6) Center Court Basketball Hall of Fame Postcard Set, two series, 1991-92 (Capital Cards, Forgotten Heroes)
7) 1961 Yankees Postcard Set, 1992 (Capital Cards)
8) Miracle of 1969 New York Mets Postcard Set, 1994 (Capital Cards)
9) Negro League Baseball Card Set, two series, 1994-95 (Negro League Baseball Players' Association, Capital Cards and Big Apple Collector)
10) Negro League Postcard Set, two series, 1994-95 (Negro League Baseball Players' Association, Capital Cards and Big Apple Collector)
For more information, contact Lewis at 648 North Garfield, Pocatello, ID 83204)