The 52-year-old resident of Ontario, Canada has made quite a splash in the sports art world, taking baseball gloves, from the very old to those fresh from the factory, and painting some of baseball’s greatest players and moments right on the leather. His work is fascinating and educational as he takes the well-known and not so well-known from the worlds of Minor, Major and Negro League Baseball, bringing to life many stories of players that have been largely forgotten except by the most ardent of baseball fans and historians.
So, while his pieces depicting the likes of Yogi Berra on a catcher’s mitt or Roberto Clemente on an outfielder’s glove are sure to grab the attention of fans and art aficionados, his work depicting the likes of Eddie Roush, Buzz Arlett and Cuban legend Martin Dihigo serve to educate about some of the game’s foundational players that have been dismissed by most for decades and in some cases, more than a century.
Sean Kane with Robin Yount & Crew
“When we were growing up you were always saving up for a bike, a transistor radio and a glove. Those were the three big things.”
“I used to get the gloves from an antiques dealer who specialized in sports equipment,” Kane said. “I outsource them from eBay, sometimes I get them at a show like a national convention. Two fun ways I get them are from collectors who want me to paint their favorite player on grandpa’s old glove or paint a child or a grandchild on a glove. Or I get them directly from the manufacturer. Glove companies will send them directly to me so basically they come from everywhere, new and old.”
Additionally, Kane creates what he calls portrait cards, painting pictures of ballplayers on a 2.5-inch piece of repurposed baseball glove leather. It comes in an acrylic baseball card holder with a stand and is a perfect complement to his larger pieces.
Kane’s reputation has grown, along with his business, and his work can be found in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown as well as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. He has also been commissioned to produce pieces for the Philadelphia Phillies and The Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital while creating fundraising items for several charitable organizations, including the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation and the Richie Ashburn/Harry Kalas Foundations. His creations can also be found in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Museum shop.
His work, which is part of individual private collections owned by 10 former MLB players, including several Hall-of-Fame players, has also been displayed at The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art in Oklahoma, at West Virginia University and in the visitor’s clubhouse at American Family Field in Milwaukee.
Kane figures he has created glove art on nearly 100 mitts, including many that are more than a century old. Not bad for a kid who grew up on the Southside of Chicago and spent his afternoons on his grandparents’ living room floor, watching the Cubs and drawing whatever he could.
“I’ve always been an artist,” Kane said. “When I was growing up I was always on my grandma and grandpa’s living room floor, doodling the 1974 Topps [baseball card] set and watching the Cubs. I would draw all the cars that went by, whatever I could, so I’ve always been drawing.”
Kane has been a freelance illustrator for nearly three decades. His first big client was the Chicago Tribune and that gig allowed him to walk away from the corporate world, where he had been doing corporate design work and then later adding children’s textbooks, greeting cards and the like to his portfolio. He still does some freelance work for one publisher – he estimates it’s nearly a third of his output – for whom he has worked for 20 years.
“When we were growing up you were always saving up for a bike, a transistor radio and a glove,” he said. “Those were the three big things. They provided such a literal physical connection to us as young ballplayers. I wanted to embrace that relationship for people that play the game. There is a connection they have with a glove and I try to embrace that baggage that comes with the glove. I try to enhance it with art skills or design.”
Kane and his wife, Heather, have been married for 28 years and have two children, 15, and 12. His wife is Canadian and the couple moved to Canada 19 years ago. Kane, who also has dual citizenship, has been illustrating professionally nearly as long as he has been married but it was a project he began working on in 2001 that ultimately pointed his career in the direction it currently travels.
He had lived in Seattle for a time and became a big fan of Ichiro Suzuki. Kane traveled to Phoenix for Spring Training in 2001 to watch Suzuki and the Mariners play.
“I wanted to bring something fun with me to share,” Kane said. “I had some old gloves in my studio and I decided to paint some with some goofy fun stuff. I ended up getting to meet Tony Gwynn and he laughed and signed it for me. It hung on the wall of my studio for 10 years and people kept commenting on it when they came to visit.
“Around 2011, 2012, the commercial art publishing world was changing and I was getting to be 40ish. I wanted to try something new like the concept of painting on a glove and incorporating a more realistic portrayal with the lettering of the era. I wanted to mirror the era they played in and the hand they caught with so I started to create these objects where I could propel the viewer to a particular time and place. I wanted to be able to inform people of the story of the players being depicted.”
Each painted glove takes between 100 and 130 hours to complete, depending on the complexity of the subject. Glove art prices range from $3,600 to $4,500 [US] while custom commissions start at $5,000 and up. He uses professional acrylic paint as well as paint made specifically for leather, like the type that player’s use to decorate their cleats.
The idea was new and different and it took off. Some of his early work was exhibited in the NLBM after museum president Bob Kendrick discovered his work and decided to invite Kane to create some pieces for the Latin Baseball Exhibit. Ultimately he created a painting that now has a permanent home at the museum in addition to some gloves that were on display for several months. It was here that his interest in the Latin players, such as Dihigo, was sparked.
Kane’s Canadian citizenship allowed him to travel to Cuba where he explored that country’s rich baseball history in a way that few have been allowed.
“I read about a lot of players like Martin Dihigo and they were treated like royalty in Latin America,” Kane said. “They were treated very differently down there than they were in the States. When I went to Cuba, I brought along a postcard of the glove painting I did of Dihigo and on the other side was [Hall-of-Famer] Minnie Minoso. That Dihigo portrait opened so many doors for me. I got a tour of Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana and that was just based on the postcard.”
Painting the gloves, however, is only part of the challenge. Finding the gloves on which he can create such stunning likenesses is also an integral part of what Kane does. He has worked on several gloves from the 1910s but doesn’t put his hands in the gloves while he is working on them.
“It’s scary because they used to use asbestos in the padding,” he said. “They even advertised that with some of the older gloves. So, I don’t disturb them. I don’t use the ones that are ripped open in the back. Some of the linings are really bad and they are kind of gross before I clean them up. I wear a mask and gloves while I am working on them.”
Kane used these older gloves on a pair of displays honoring the poem Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888 by Ernest Thayer, more commonly referred to as simply Casey at the Bat.
“It’s very interesting,” Kane said. “I used three catchers mitts all in a row for a Casey at the Bat for a tryptic. I portrayed Casey at the Bat from the catcher’s point of view. He’s never mentioned in the story. It’s the angle from the catcher’s perspective with 100-year-old gloves. I used four gloves from a similar era for another piece on Casey at the Bat.”
While he uses older gloves, working on a glove from the 1800s is a different story. Kane uses replicas of 19th century gloves for those pieces.
“Take a player like King Kelly who played in the late 1800s,” said Kane, who attended Butler University. “Even if I found gloves from that era I don’t dare paint on them. I have a friend in the baseball maker’s world who creates replica 19th-century gloves, one with fingers and ones without fingers. They are new gloves but in the style of early gloves.
“As a lover of gloves, it started when I was little leaguer. My dad gave me his Richie Ashburn glove. I like the craftsmanship of the leather goods and they come in all shapes and conditions. I’ve become a bit of someone who can reclaim or fix it up but sometimes I have them restored or relaced.”
Kane said he views what he does as an artform and a business. He adds that he has achieved many of the early goals that he set for himself when he began this journey, but he continues to look for new ways to grow. To that end, he would love to partner up with a glove manufacturer in an effort to help them enhance their product.
Additionally, he’d like to see if there is a place for his work in stadiums around the country, in a team’s museum, hall of fame or as décor in luxury suites or clubhouses.
“I’d also like to see my work continue to be used to aid baseball foundations as they raise money for their cause,” Kane said. “Partnering with them has been very satisfying. You usually get to work with a nice, high-profile player like Cal Ripken. I also got a chance to raise money with my artwork for the Richie Ashburn-Harry Kalas Foundation.”
Based on Kane’s glove, er, love of the game, those goals don’t seem to be out of reach.