"I was joking with Robin and said, 'What are you going to do if Nolan plunks you?'”
If you’re a baseball fan around the age of 50, you likely remember when Upper Deck released their first baseball card set in 1989. It was a revolutionary set that was such a better quality product than what Topps, Donruss and Fleer brought to the table. Upper Deck was classy and everybody wanted a piece of it, especially that Ken Griffey Jr. rookie.
One new feature in the initial Upper Deck release was their team checklist cards. In the past, Topps had used team photos or headshots of team leaders on their team checklist cards. Upper Deck went a different route.
They featured beautiful paintings of stars like Don Mattingly, Mike Schmidt, Nolan Ryan and Paul Molitor on the front instead. Those cards are still collectible to this day.
What you may not know is that those cards were printed off of original paintings by Vernon Wells, and he’s our guest this week on Spitballin’.
Wells painted for Upper Deck baseball, hockey and football products and if you still have your cards from the 1990s, you likely have some of his work in your parents’ attic. A tremendous athlete himself, Wells starred at TCU as a wide receiver. An injury, some inspiration from his mother and teammates led Wells to become a highly accomplished fine artist and the most commissioned sports artist ever.
His work with Upper Deck was just a start and when you see some of his more current work, it’s really breathtaking. Wells has been painting athletes for over 40 years and even a recent stroke couldn’t hold him back.
Words don’t do enough justice when describing just how intricate and imaginative Wells’ artwork is, so enjoy his story and the featured paintings as we go Spitballin’ with Vernon Wells.
Vernon Wells / vwellsart.com
Before we get into your career as an artist, I wanted to talk a little about your time as an athlete, which is still going on at the age of 67! Can you talk about your experience playing sports as a kid?
I played baseball first because we didn’t have football in elementary school. But as soon as I got to junior high, I started playing football and focused more on that. When I grew up, I realized the only people that went to high school baseball games were the two teams, the umpires and parents. Football was king in Southeast Texas. My dad was a former coach and my friends were football players, so that’s what I did. Most of them weren’t playing baseball, but I was. I played basketball and ran track too, so I don’t think I ever came straight home from school.
Did you have an interest in art as a kid too?
It was a minor hobby; I didn’t spend too much time doing it. Anytime we had to do something for school, I always had the best stuff. My mom died in childbirth with me, but my stepmom was like a genius. She graduated high school at 14 and college at 16. She was the first elementary school teacher I had. She was the one who got me started in art. She went to a drawing class, charcoal on paper, and one day she came home and opened that up and it was like a light went on for me. That was the first time I ever saw shading. Everything before that was flat, like coloring books. I saw shading and was like, “Oh my God!” Anything with a ball to it at the time though, that’s what I was really into.
“My favorite card has nothing to do with the player I painted. It was a Dave Justice card and it had some people in the background doing the Tomahawk Chop. The two people who are most visible on the card are me and my son Vernon.”
How did your work start to become something more than a hobby as you got older?
I played football at TCU and there were two guys on the team who were Art majors. I wasn’t one of them; I got my degree in radio and television. One of the guys wanted to do his class project of me catching a pass and I said to go for it. There was another guy who was the guy. He was a defensive lineman that was unreal. When I went to his dorm room for the first time and saw all his art, that’s where my inspiration came from. We’re still friends to this day. The thing that really gave me confidence in my own work was when the guy who did the project on me showed me what he did. I asked him what kind of grade he got and he said he got an A. I wasn’t disrespectful, but I said, “You got an A on this?” That’s how I got started. The natural progression was taking my art into sports because that’s all I knew.
Andrew McCutchen / vwellsart.com
You played pro football for a little bit, can you take us through that?
In high school, my senior football season I went through some growing pains. I think my testosterone level was too low and my dad was on my case for not being tough enough. I went to a junior college in the middle of nowhere and they ran a wishbone offense. As a wide receiver in a wishbone offense, I didn’t have much hope. But after my second year, I was Second Team All-American. I wanted to go to a Southwest Conference school. I was from the same neighborhood as [former Oklahoma and NFL running back] Joe Washington. We had guys playing in every conference – except the Southwest Conference – and I wanted to be that guy, so I went to TCU where we ran a pro-style offense. I thought I died and went to heaven. I was going to be the second receiver behind the slot guy, Mike Renfro.
Scouts started coming through and I thought I had a shot at the NFL. I didn’t get drafted, but signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. I saw early what a scam it is. There are so many people who don’t make it in the NFL who are as good as the guys who did. I went to the Canadian Football League and played for the Calgary Stampeders. My wife was actually carrying Vernon at the time. My first game was a preseason game against Edmonton and they had Warren Moon playing quarterback. I got hurt and came back to become a grad assistant at TCU.
Was there a time when you decided to move on from football and focus more on art?
The first thing I ever got paid for was the media guide cover for Calgary when I was there. My uncle was a politician in Louisiana. He was a State Representative and he wanted to start an ad agency in Shreveport, and he wanted me to be his art director. That’s how I started getting paid for my work. I was able to get in with the pro teams in Dallas-Fort Worth. I started showing my work to players and they would order paintings. Word got out to the baseball card collectors and one of them took a liking to me. He got me to be the first artist with the Upper Deck company.
Portrait of Andy Pettitte and family / vwellsart.com
I thought that was so cool when I found out all these years later that you were the artist who did those paintings. I still have so many of those cards. Can you talk about your experience with Upper Deck?
That was my biggest break. I look back at those cards and it was cool that I did them, but they look nothing like the work I do now. I get asked to sign those cards and I just look at them thinking what I would do completely different. But I am thankful for the opportunity at Upper Deck because that got my name out there.
Do you have any favorite cards that you did?
My favorite card has nothing to do with the player I painted. It was a Dave Justice card and it had some people in the background doing the Tomahawk Chop. The two people who are most visible on the card are me and my son Vernon. They had just won the AABC World Series. It’s a select baseball World Series that blew Little League out of the water. They had stealing and all of that. I painted him and I in the corner of the card doing the chop. I just sold a limited edition of ten of those cards with his signature and mine on the card. That’s the only card that was sentimental to me. But I got to meet so many people through that experience and I have so many stories from that experience.
I also did football for one year and even hockey for one year. There were quite a few cards that I did. I lasted five years with them, then they started ruining the industry and oversaturating the market. The value of the cards went down and they went out of business, but I ended up with a lot of stories.
Vernon Wells / vwellsart.com
The floor is yours to share any of those stories that you want!
You remember when Nolan Ryan fought Robin Ventura, right? That day, I was going to meet with one of the players to do a photo shoot for a painting. There was tension going on between the two teams so I was joking with Robin and said, “What are you going to do if Nolan plunks you?” He said, “There’s no way I want to charge the mound on him.” I said, “Yeah, but if you don’t, you can’t come back here and show your face in the clubhouse.” He thought about it and said, “Yeah, you’re right.”
If you watch the video, when he got hit, he didn’t take off running to the mound. He started off slowly hoping that Pudge Rodriguez would stop him. Pudge wasn’t stopping it though. He went out there and Nolan pounded him on the head. Next time I saw him I said, “I guess you couldn’t come up with a Plan B, huh?”
That’s amazing! Aside from the cards, I wanted to ask about the larger, individual pieces I have seen you paint for players. They’re incredible. Can you talk about that experience?
It actually started with the NFL. I went back to the Chiefs and there were some people I knew there, so I was able to ask if anyone was interested and I would go back and paint the orders. After I did one or two and publicized it, it was easier to get in with others. That was before Upper Deck. After Upper Deck, I had enough of a name to get into Major League clubhouses and there were so many people I got to meet or even go to their houses.
Do you have any favorite commissioned works that you have done?
There have been so many that I even forget some of them. I actually had a stroke two years ago, and my memory was impaired a little bit. I did so many of them because it didn’t take me long to complete. The best parts were the stories I got from being in the clubhouse talking to guys that most people only see on television. Going to Ken Griffey’s house with his family was great.
David Wells was great to work with too. I was talking to Roger Clemens at the time, so I was in their clubhouse. Roger was pitching that day and he knew I was coming to see him. I went down there like I was supposed to but he said he was pitching that day and wanted to talk tomorrow instead. David saw me and said, “I thought we were supposed to get together?” I said I was there that day to talk to Roger, but he just shut me down because he was pitching. David said, “[Blank] Roger! You and I can talk tomorrow and I’m pitching!” I ended up playing golf with him the next spring training and it was great.
Ken Griffey, Jr / vwellsart.com
Do you have any works that you found particularly challenging?
Yes, there were some. I was never professionally trained. Whatever I know, I know from trial and error. I might not be as fast as getting the product out as some people. I am doing one right now that has 40 faces in it. The last time the Phillies won the World Series, I did something similar. I did a lot of fun things and some not so fun, but you do what you gotta do!
What were some of the fun ones you did?
All of them were fun in some aspect. If I get to present it in person, that’s really cool. I really enjoy seeing their reaction. There’s a small part of you that tells you that they may not like it. I took that out of the equation by working with them on the design. I would do a mock up on the computer in terms of composition. This way they weren’t surprised when I presented it to them. That was an upgrade for me because that helped my confidence.
Sometimes I paint their families and whenever wives or little girls are involved, they’re more picky than anyone about how they look. I discourage players from including their girlfriends because most of the ones who did that before they get married, ended up not getting married. Sometimes people let their paintings go. I would get phone calls verifying that they’re really my paintings. That’s sad when that happens.
Personally, I really love the ones you do of older guys in their younger days. Like Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige and guys like that.
I got to meet Willie Mays actually. That was one of my favorite experiences. He was very old and it wasn’t that long ago. I met him in Spring Training in the clubhouse with the Giants. Whenever he’s in Spring Training, he has a driver and that guy plays in the same Arizona adult baseball league as me. He said the next time Willie comes around, he would let me know and I could talk to him and he did. Willie didn’t hold a conversation well, but it was a great experience. They introduced me to him and he looked at me funny when they said my name. He said, “Vernon Wells?” I said, “Yes, you may have heard that name. That’s my son who plays for Toronto.” He said, “Yea! I like him, I like the way he plays.” To me, that was the highlight of my whole trip. I told him he was partially responsible for that because Vernon wasn’t allowed to play anything but centerfield growing up because that’s where I wanted to play. That was a great meeting.
Vernon Wells / vwellsart.com
Speaking of Vernon, he was actually a very good football player like yourself. How did he choose baseball over football?
Vernon was always a prospect. People always asked what I did to train him, but I didn’t do any of that. I helped him be in the right place at the right time with the right coaches and the rest was on him. I don’t take credit for anything he achieved. It came down to a situation where he was going to have to choose between baseball and football out of high school. I said, “If you’re going to be a first round pick in baseball, you ain’t playing football.” I was getting phone calls his senior year and his coach was getting phone calls. I finally thought we had to put an end to it.
I said that we’d have one workout and send an invitation to every Major League team and someone from every team showed up, including four or five GMs. Vernon was the only one there with his coach, who threw BP. We ran the 60-yard dash. They went on the track and marked it off. Vernon went out there and I started three yards ahead of him and was going to be his rabbit. I said, “I’m gonna take off and then he’s gonna try to catch me. Time him, not me.” We took off and Vernon never caught me. He was gaining on me, but he didn’t get me. Vernon looked more like a football player than baseball, so they didn’t think he could run like that. That made his stock go up higher.
The Blue Jays took him fifth overall and he was the first high school player drafted. Did you see that coming?
The Blue Jays called and said they wanted to come over the night before the draft. Vernon hadn’t signed with an agent yet, but they had been advising me. They gave me the numbers of what I should accept from the Blue Jays if they drafted him. They told me what the player in that spot got the year before and said Vernon should get 30% more because that’s the progression. Gord Ash was the GM and he came to our house. He said he wanted to draft Vernon and went in his brief case and took out an envelope with a piece of paper that had number on it. It was the same number as the guy drafted fifth the year before. I told him that it didn’t show any progress from last year. Gord said, “You’ve been doing your homework a little bit!” The next envelope he pulled out had a higher amount that was the number the agency said we should take and the rest is history.
Vernon Wells is the most commissioned sports artist ever and his work can be found on his website, www.vwellsart.com.