Emily W. Wolfson admits that baseball was not her first love. That was football. Her relationship with the game of baseball was more of an arranged marriage, a union brought on by opportunity, which grew into something more meaningful.
Wolfson’s love for and interest in baseball, however, has grown exponentially over the last 25 years. It’s the growth in that relationship that has coincided with her rise to prominence among a select group of artists whose primary focus is baseball. The Pennsylvania resident – she lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia – is the creator and artist behind Unforgettaballs, a unique brand of art in which baseballs are the canvas.
She estimates that she has created in the neighborhood of 850,000 pieces over the last 25 years. Wolfson’s work, particularly the pieces that are retired, is highly sought after by collectors with some of her pieces selling for several hundred dollars on the secondary market. Her pieces can be found on her website – www.unforgettaballs.com – and are also sold in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown.
That Wolfson, 54, was never much of a baseball fan prior to creating her company makes her work that much more impressive.
“I haven’t always liked baseball,” Wolfson said. “I’m from North Jersey, in Short Hills, and there were no baseball teams there. I was one of four daughters and my dad was a big sports fan who took us to a lot of football games. I grew up a Giants fan and one weekend I’d go to a Giants game and the next weekend we’d go to a Jets game. So, I knew football and didn’t know much about baseball at all.”
Oh, but she learned and the results gained from that knowledge are impressive.
YOU’VE COME A LONG WAY FROM ST. LOUIS
Wolfson left New Jersey and headed to St. Louis-based Washington University, a private research college that promotes itself as a place where you can push the boundaries of learning. She was an architecture major and early on began doing elevations of stadium fronts but quickly realized that she wanted to do something different, though she wasn’t quite sure what that would be.
Work at an architecture firm followed graduation but in the spirit of her school’s credo, she wanted to push some boundaries. Wolfson found a way to push some of those boundaries seemingly by accident when she painted an American flag on a baseball – stars on one panel, stripes on the other – as a gift for her then boyfriend who would later become her husband.
Wolfson saw the white of the baseball as a canvas, the two pieces stitched together as sort of a yin and yang. Her discovery proved to be life-changing and not long after graduating from college Unforgettaballs was born.
“I started doing baseballs in the first five years after college as a fun thing,” she said. “I just kept making them because they were so much fun and colorful and because all the baseballs were white. I just kind of kept spinning out ideas. I was hand-painting them and selling them at craft shows. It was unusual then to see someone painting on a baseball but it is a cool little canvas.
“It really appealed to me to do stadium balls. Those were my first selling designs. I would break it into two different components, do the outside of the stadium on one panel and the inside on the other. It’s an idea that has been knocked off, but my balls are official and the original idea of that.”
“I’m continually trying to come up with a new idea, sell it, retire it and then come up with something else.”
Wolfson said her idea began to truly blossom into a business around the time she did a prominent local craft show in Philadelphia. She won some awards at the show and The Philadelphia Inquirer did a story about her. At that point, she was still painting baseballs by hand and each one would take between 30 and 40 hours to produce, and as a result she would have to “sell it for a lot of money”.
“I was contacted by someone who read the article and they told me they could help my work printed on a ball,” Wolfson said. “If I could do one design and have it printed, I thought I have to do that. I have been using the same [printing company] for 20 years. Printing is much better.”
The charge for a single, printed ball, which comes in a Lucite cube, is $30. Occasionally, Wolfson will still hand-paint a ball if she gets, what she calls, an offer she can’t refuse. She received such an offer when she painted balls for former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and as a request for former President Bill Clinton.
“If I have the free time, I’ll try and do a custom requested one,” she said. “It takes a lot of hours, though, and time is the thing I don’t have.”
SHE DOESN’T WORK ALONE
Wolfson said that as her business grew, her interest in baseball deepened. She learned quickly that baseball fans, particularly memorabilia collectors, are sticklers for accuracy. So, she relies on customers who ardent collectors of her work to help out before a final print is issued.
“I am only one person and I am a lousy speller,” she said. “I have a group called Proofreaders. They are people who are customers of mine who collect my product and I email them to check it. I just did a Ty Cobb and e-mailed them. I want to make sure I don’t make a dumb mistake and send it to the printer. I did that 15 years ago.
“There is a lot of baseball lore and some facts have some interpretation to them. I can’t satisfy everybody. The baseball almanac says this, but this is how people generally think of it. So, this is a group helping me rather than me operating in a vacuum and trying to figure it out.”
Wolfson’s husband Greg, to whom she has been married for 27 years, and the couple’s two adult sons [24 and 21] also help out when possible even though she says neither of her children are “baseball people”. She pointed out that the entrepreneurial side of the business is exciting for her children, particularly how she has grown her company over the last three decades.
“They give me ideas and feedback because when you work alone, you have to ask things like is this too red or is this too small?” said Wolfson, who created a football design earlier this month to celebrate Georgia winning the national championship. “My older son said to me last year, you should do college football. That was completely his idea so from that standpoint [their input] is really helpful. And my husband is a surprisingly good art critic which I find helpful.
“I work all day and a lot of nights. I don’t ship them out, I have a fulfillment center that does that. But I am a one-person shop and it’s a lot of work being an artist and a businessperson. I am a slow artist and wearing all the hats is definitely a full-time gig for me.”
While baseballs remain the backbone of Wolfson’s business she has also begun to branch out, creating her own style of baseball cards in addition to painting/printing bats. The cards, which sell for $25, are signed and numbered and are very low production runs, usually under 100 pieces. The bats retail for $150.
Wolfson said currently she is putting out 10 to 12 new ball designs a year and that her goal is to be able to produce 24 distinct cards annually. The cards are placed in an acrylic case that can’t be opened, preventing any potential damage. As for the bats, she does a line drawing of a ballpark, Wrigley Field for example, sends it to an engraver who then engraves it into the bat, stains and paints it so that they picture of the ballpark is clearly visible.
“So, I’m kind of slow and it still takes me a while,” said Wolfson, who said she hasn’t added basketballs to her repertoire because they are too big. “It probably takes me more like 20 hours [currently for a ball] but then I am producing 100 or 200 of them. I really want them to be perfect, but it is faster than producing them individually. The baseball cards are fun. I take some of the artwork from the balls and modify it to fit the card. I made a card of the Cubs World Series ball that is retired and added some new stuff to it but it is basically the ball on a card. Still, it took 15 hours to complete so it looks like a card and not a ball.
“Some of the bats are very time consuming but I am proud of those. And I love that they are made in America and the cards are made in America. Even the acrylic cases in which the cards come are made in America. I wish I could do baseballs, too, but no one makes balls in America anymore.”
Additionally, Wolfson has not faced any licensing issues because she is not using logos or people’s faces while her ballpark work is merely an artist’s rendering of a public place.
It is an Opening Day Series of ballparks on balls that Wolfson says is her favorite. She produced balls depicting opening days of older ballparks such as Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park in line drawings reminiscent of the architectural work she did years ago when she first got out of school. She points out that the Yankee Stadium is probably her best seller.
“Some of them have sold really fast,” Wolfson said. “The Chicago World Series ball was a huge seller. It definitely matters what the subject is. The longer it has been since something happened the better.”
While she doesn’t have a “holy grail” or “white whale” in terms of something she wants to produce, she would love her company to get to a point that when releases something, it sells out that day. Currently, she is trying to stick with lower production runs unless there is a huge demand, like the Cubs World Series, for say a run of as many as 1,000. Otherwise, she remains in the 200 to 300 range.
“Being a little company, I don’t want to be inventory heavy,” Wolfson said. “I’m continually trying to come up with a new idea, sell it, retire it and then come up with something else. I gauge the quantity by what I feel the market is.”
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Wolfson admits that from time to time she thinks about retiring. The thrill of creating a new product, particularly one in which she is so invested emotionally, chases that idea away quickly, though. She enjoys meeting new people, discussing new ideas with them and working on bringing those ideas to life too much to call it a career.
“The creativity of it I really love,” she said. “So, I don’t have an endpoint in mind. The Braves won the World Series and I know about the Braves, so I try to create a ball that’s a time capsule of this World Series and the year they had. Creating a ball like that is such a thrill.
“I couldn’t have imagined this when I started. I told my husband, then boyfriend, I could sell a million of these. I remember him saying my senior year [of college] that you have as much chance of selling a million of those as I have of being in the NBA. But I am a dreamer. I have always been a dreamer. I’ve stayed in business a long time and it has grown. This has been the vision I had since the day I started.”
The journey on which Wolfson has been seems almost too good to be true, especially when you consider she started out not knowing much about the game that has made her Unforgettaball.