BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI
There’s always another side to the story.
Consider the Miracle Mets. While New York was busy dominating the American sporting landscape in the summer of ’69, going from lovable losers to World Series champions seemingly overnight, the Mets did leave some carnage in their wake. Sure, Baltimore was devastated by the Miracle Mets but so were the Chicago Cubs and that’s where Margie Lawrence fits in.
Lawrence, 64, who has lived in and around Chicago for a large portion of her life, was entranced in the summer of 1969 by the Cubs, who appeared on the verge of finally winning something after decades of futility. Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and a black cat, however, got in the way and the Cubs spiraled back into oblivion, leaving the ’69 Mets to enjoy a baseball honeymoon in perpetuity.
The Chicago collapse, however, couldn’t change the fact that Lawrence and baseball, specifically the Cubs, began a life-long love affair that summer, one that remains passionate and strong five decades later. Lawrence, who was an actress and even played baseball for a while, ultimately combined that love of the game with her ability as an artist and the result has been impressive. She is now one of the preeminent baseball artists in the country. Her work has hung in galleries from coast to coast, including a Sandy Koufax that is part of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s digital collection.
“Baseball began to resonate with me more when we moved away from Chicago to Evanston [Ill.],” Lawrence said. “The Cubs were doing really well [in 1969]. They were in first place and of course they didn’t stay in first place, but I became involved then. Plus, I was playing baseball on the playground at the time.
“The first seven years I lived in Chicago and my school was one block from the bleacher entrance at Wrigley Field. Inevitably I, and everyone else at school, became baseball fans. I only snuck out of school once for a game because my aunt was the principal at the school. When I didn’t come back from lunch my aunt called my mom and asked if I was feeling okay. I went to a friend’s house for lunch and after lunch we decided it would be a good idea to skip school and go to the game. We told the guy at the gate that our parents were inside and he let us in. We were in first grade and it was like 1964 so we were little kids. When I got in trouble, I never did it again.”
The seed, however, had been planted. It began to take root and grow and by 1969 baseball had become an integral part of Lawrence’s world. Lawrence remembers watching Koufax pitching in the 1963 World Series and later pretended to be the Hall-of-Fame lefty, as well as Cubs hurlers Fergie Jenkins and Ken Holtzman, when she spent hours refining her pitching by tossing a baseball against a square painted on a brick wall near her house. She watched the game and she played the game, competing against boys on the playground or wherever she could get herself into a pickup game [girls weren’t officially playing in little league at the time].
Lawrence’s love of playing continued until her mid-30s when, while pitching, she took a line drive to the left shin. It provided one of the many battle scars that resulted from Lawrence playing baseball. It also spelled the end of her playing career as it resulted in a fear of the baseball.
“As far as acting, I was devoid of cheekbones and too short to be in films. You have to be tall and skinny, like a boy with tits.”
The bombastic artist, however, also saw her days of playing baseball interrupted by her acting career. She spent nearly two decades performing in Chicago and at other theaters around the country before she decided to return to her hometown in the late 1980s to attend The Art Institute of Chicago.
“I was an actress for many years so my baseball playing days were interrupted by my career,” she said. “I was more of a viewer and a fan at that point. But when I came back in ’88, I started throwing with The Ballhawks, the guys who caught the balls that went out [of Wrigley Field] onto Waveland Avenue. We would pitch against the north wall of the bleachers and bystanders would see if they could hit me. Most of them couldn’t because they were seeing double.
“As far as acting, I was devoid of cheekbones and too short to be in films. You have to be tall and skinny, like a boy with tits. I worked with Second City [in Chicago] for about four years but it was more of a workshop situation.”
Lawrence, who had also been doing graphic design to supplement her income, began drawing and painting in earnest in 1988 following her father’s death. She points out that she received her artistic genes from her parents – her father was a successful jewelry designer while her mother was an art major at UCLA. Lawrence admits that she spent most of her time at school drawing and painting current and former Cubs. The majority of her work centered around baseball, primarily the Cubs, and the rest has just come naturally.
“When I was at school, I was using baseball imagery,” she said. “And the Cubs were in first place so everyone had Cub fever, even the snooty artists. I was hanging out in the bleachers [at Wrigley] and going to about 45 games a year because the tickets were cheap back then.
“I’ve been showing for 20 years, mostly in smaller galleries, but I am [now] at Gallery Victor Armendariz [in Chicago]. I go in a lot of different directions than other artists who want to do baseball cards. These are good artists that do these cards but I’m getting $1,000 to $5,000 for a painting and I still have the rights to it and can reproduce it. I sell more prints than original paintings.”
Lawrence said that she isn’t terribly prolific when it comes to producing new pieces, largely, she says, because her work is very detailed. It takes her an average of 30 hours to complete a painting. She said once that she had to redo an entire painting when she realized, as she was close to completion, that she had gotten the uniforms wrong.
She is currently putting the finishing touches on a painting of Willie Mays with famed singer Ella Fitzgerald. Lawrence is also mapping out a project that would depict the history of Jewish baseball players, a concept inspired by Andy Warhol’s “Jews of the 20th Century”.
“Mine will be A through Z with tight portraits of their faces,” Lawrence said. “I’d look at all these old photographs but not I have the option of looking online. I collect them, file them away and then decide what’s next but if someone has a commission, they are first in line.
“I always know what I am going to do next, though. I know what they next three companion pieces are to paintings I have already done.”
Her work varies in size with some measuring as large as 4.5X5 feet while the smallest is an 8X10. The prices also vary, depending on the size but most are several thousand dollars. Her favorite subject is anything that involves Jackie Robinson. Lawrence has one with Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks. She said all of her favorite pieces have sold, including one of the Satchel Paige All-Stars that television host Bryant Gumbel purchased.
Her pieces range in subject matter from Christy Mathewson to Lou Gehrig with the Marx Brothers to Bob Feller and Koufax and right on through modern Cubs history. Her favorite all-time Cub is Banks but her favorite modern-day Cubs are Greg Maddux and Ryne Sandberg.
“I have a Mona Lisa, or what I call my Mona,” Lawrence said. “It was of Satchel Paige and it got sold at the beginning of the pandemic. It was small and great. I might do some more Negro Leaguers but I don’t really have a holy grail. I’ve done Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, tons of Cubs and Yankees.
“I do everybody, dead or alive and in between. I’ll do people in purgatory. I have no preference. Most of my ballplayers are relatively older, from the 30s on up. They have such great faces. Today the players have funny hairdos and wear pearls.”
While Lawrence paints other subjects outside of baseball, baseball remains the sport that she enjoys putting on canvas.
“Baseball is not as violent as football and I don’t know what’s going on in hockey,” she said. “I do like basketball. My brother-in-law is the PR guy for the Bulls. I haven’t been to a game in 15 years, though, but I did see Michael Jordan win a championship.”
Where it will end, Lawrence doesn’t know. She says she wants to paint as long as possible.
“I want to be like [Henri] Matisse, painting when I’m 900 years old with someone drawing for me,” she said.
When that happens, there will likely be another side to that story as well.