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Mudville: May 27, 2023 2:45 pm PDT

Championship Art

BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

James Ferrara grew up in the northern New Jersey town of Ridgefield Park, a working-class suburb of New York City at a time when the Yankees were, well, not quite the Bronx Bombers. It was the late 60s and the Horace Clarke era was in full bloom. Yet, Ferrara’s love for the game and the team were cemented by the presence of Mickey Mantle.

Sure, by the time Ferrara, 64, was fully invested in the game, Mantle was a shell of his former self; no longer the dominant player he was while the Yankees were running roughshod over the baseball world. It was Mantle, though, that brought out Ferrara’s love of the game. That affection for the sport, particularly its past, can be seen in the stunning artwork that he creates; lifelike portraits of not only Yankee legends, but of great figures from throughout baseball and sports history.

Ferrara is a digitally and traditionally trained illustrator whose work adorns the walls of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center as well as of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, in addition to the personal collection of legendary quarterback Bart Starr. He has also created officially licensed artwork for the Super Bowl, NFC and AFC Championship Games, the University of Notre Dame, and the NCAA Division I College World Series – in addition to both the men’s and women’s basketball Final Four and the NCAA Division I Lacrosse Championship.

It’s baseball, though, with which Ferrara has a love affair; one that he expresses through his work. So, while he will still create a design for the occasional Green Bay Packer legend – the Packers are his other passion – he has begun focusing primarily on baseball. It’s a relationship that can trace its roots to the late 1960s.

“I grew up a Yankee fan,” Ferrara said. “My dad took my brothers and me to the stadium as kids and I was a Mickey Mantle fan. I caught the end of his career. I was there Aug. 9, 1969 for Mickey Mantle’s first old-timer’s game. It was great to see him but it was also sad. When I was growing up, everyone wanted to be number seven.

“I grew up a Yankee fan,” Ferrara said. “My dad took my brothers and me to the stadium as kids and I was a Mickey Mantle fan. I caught the end of his career. I was there Aug. 9, 1969 for Mickey Mantle’s first old-timer’s game. It was great to see him but it was also sad. When I was growing up, everyone wanted to be number seven.”

“So, these days I am primarily focused on baseball and baseball history. People often ask me why I do old-time players rather than today’s players. I remember when I first met my wife [Kathy], she couldn’t understand my infatuation with the Green Bay Packers and the New York Yankees. I told her that every year when the Packers take the field or the Yankees run out onto the diamond, I’m nine years old again.”

It’s that connection to the past that makes Ferrara’s work so appealing. He brings players to life in such a way that you feel as if you’re actually looking at a 22-year-old Mantle or a young Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio or Joe Namath or Bobby Orr. His work can be found on his website, ChampionshipArt.com.

Ferrara has created several Mantle pieces, including a few that are set to be released later this year. He recently created a reimagined a 1954 Topps Mantle baseball card. Topps didn’t have Mantle in its set that year or in 1955 because they didn’t have the licensing rights.

“I always feel the need to be emotionally connected to what I’m creating,” he said. “I am so pleased with the ’54 card. I researched what Topps did with other players. I recently created Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb T206 cards. What I love to do is look at old cards and bring them to life, reimagine them.”

Ferrara is also having an actual baseball card included with the purchase of the print. Additionally, he has created a Mickey Mantle T206; though no release date has yet been set for that.

“One of the things with me, is that I have to separate myself from the rest of the pack so people will say, okay, that’s a Ferrara,” he said. “One of the things I did recently was create a series called ‘The Subway Series.’ It’s usually the Mets and Yankees when you think about the Subway Series, but I took Mantle’s ’52 rookie card and created a scene down in the subway [on the platform] of Mantle and he is coming out of the card so it’s lifelike. It also has a quote from him. The size of the artwork is 3X5 feet and is printed through the process of dye-sublimation on metal.

“I did Babe Ruth, too. I took his 1933 Goudey card. What I did was a portrait from the photo that they used for that card and used it as a reference. I also did a 1952 Topps Mantle and a 1953, when artists did the cards. I made my own version.”

Examples of Ferrara’s love of the Yankees can also be found through his work, which is part of two displays in the Berra Museum in Little Ferry, N.J. His portrait of Derek Jeter, entitled “Captain, Champion, Sportsman,” is part of the exhibit that honors Jeter becoming the Yankees’ all-time hits leader and Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year.” Ferrara also created a 25X9 foot mural that chronicles the original Yankee Stadium from when it opened in 1923 through when it shut down following the 2008 season.

“It [the mural] welcomes every visitor into the museum,” Ferrara said. “It’s a visual history of Yankee Stadium across the years, including program covers, photographs, baseball cards, and memorabilia.”

Smaller reprints of the mural will soon be available on ChampionshipArt.com.

While the Berra Museum mural is extraordinarily large, most of Ferrara’s work is more conventional. Ultimately, a piece can take or week or two to complete but that includes him doing extensive research into his subject, including finding enough photographic references to ensure his work truly looks like the person he is depicting.

Portrait of Roberto Clemente

“If I were doing a [Sandy] Koufax, that would take a minimum of a week and that’s working every day,” he said. “I’m a perfectionist. I’ll walk away and come back. When an artist is happy with himself, he is creatively dead. You always want more. I’m never happy – so it’s hard to finally let a piece go and say it’s done.”

Ferrara, who has two children [Christian, 21, and Jess, 33], has retired from teaching and focuses solely on Championship Art. He worked in two North Jersey Schools for 30 years – Bergen County Academies and Dwight Morrow High School – where he taught multi-media, web design, computer graphics, and digital imaging. He began working at BCA as tech support before going back to school to get certified to teach.

“It was one of the best things I ever did,” said Ferrara, who attended St. Cecilia’s High School, the same institution where his beloved Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi worked two decades prior. “Being a teacher is so rewarding in how you can affect someone’s life.”

While he is clearly proficient in digital imaging, Ferrara is also trained as a classic artist, having studied at William Paterson University and Ramapo College in New Jersey. His love of art was fostered by his paternal grandfather, who Ferrara said, “would doodle all the time.” Ferrara’s twin brother, John, is also an artist and was also influenced by his grandfather.

“I went to William Paterson for two years and then I dropped out,” Ferrara said. “I studied jazz guitar and was very much into music at the time. I was in a rock band and thought I was going to be the next Bon Jovi. My mom always said for me to go back and get my degree. After I was six years out, a friend of mine was going to Ramapo to see the registrar and asked me to take a ride. I went up there, he handed me an application, and that night I filled it out – and before you knew it, I was back in college.

“Which leads me to my next point, which I have to mention because it is an important part of my development. When I returned to college in ’84, the PC was just starting to make its presence needed. I needed to take an elective so I took statistics on the computer. It was a Saturday morning class from 8-11 and when I got there, I asked another student about the teacher and he said ‘terrible.’ I was thinking I made the wrong move, but this other guy walks in and says so- and-so can’t make this class so I will be here as the teacher. He was the best teacher I ever had and we talked all the time. This guy inspired me so much.”

When Ferrara first left William Paterson, he did so as a traditionally trained artist. The Apple MacIntosh was becoming popular by the end of the ‘80s and in 1987 Ferrara decided to purchase a state-of-the-art color version of the Mac for $7,000. The investment paid off because he learned Adobe Illustrator and then Photoshop when it became available.

“I took the [Adobe] manual and learned it from cover to cover and never looked back,” he said. “I’ve been using Photoshop and Illustrator ever since. The piece I did of Derek Jeter that’s on my website was created digitally. When I first showed the artwork, someone asked ‘How much of that did you do and how much did the computer do?’. That question bothered me because even to this day there are some that are under the misconception that the computer does the work, and not the artist.

“No one has ever looked at great guitarists like Keith Richards and George Harrison and asks, ‘How much is the electric guitar doing and how much is you?’. It’s the same thing. The computer is just another medium for artists to express themselves. In college I worked with watercolors and acrylics; today I work with a computer.”

Art and baseball, baseball and art. It’s been a part of Ferrara’s life for more than six decades and his love of the game is obvious in his work. Keith Richards and George Harrison would be proud.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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