BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI
Eric Kittelberger’s love affair with baseball began more than 50 years ago when he was growing up in Ohio. That Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine was running roughshod over the National League in the 1970s, winning two World Series in four Fall Classic appearances, made for the perfect introduction to the game, kicking off what has been a lifelong passion.
Kittelberger, 56, has never strayed from baseball or Ohio. He still lives in the Buckeye State and remains immersed in the sport, loving the game in the same fashion he did as a child. The only difference between now and then is that he has taken that passion and made it part of his career. Kittelberger is one of the most well-known and respected baseball artists in the country, having done extensive work for The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, The Josh Gibson Foundation and The Buck Leonard Association.
Additionally, his This Day in Baseball postings on Instagram, along with the card art and poster work he creates, are required daily must-sees for his thousands of followers and fans. Kittelberger’s intelligent and thoughtful approach to his work, combined with his extensive knowledge of baseball history, is obvious in each piece he creates, whether he is honoring Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron or simply marking an accomplishment of former Indians pitcher Dave Burba.
Kittelberger, like many other contemporary card artists, began exploring the genre during the pandemic. His work has grown since, creating and designing not only cards but exquisite packaging as well, making his work a hot commodity among collectors.
And it all came about, largely, because of what was happening at the long-gone Riverfront Stadium in southeast Ohio.
“As a kid, I watched Hank Aaron and all those guys from the early 70s,” said Kittelberger. “But it [his interest in baseball] didn’t catch fire until 75-76 when the Reds were hot. Cleveland didn’t have very good teams in the 70s so you had to look three hours south to the Reds. It was a good time to be a Reds fan. You found the team and you thought they were going to win all the time but it doesn’t ever seem to work out that way.”
Kittlelberger also had the good fortune to have many friends who played and loved the game in addition to a father who was also enamored with baseball.
“We had a little neighborhood baseball thing that we called The Neighborhood Baseball League,” said Kittelberger, who lives with Diane, his wife of 31 years. “We had an elementary school field two blocks from my house and my best friend’s house was adjacent to right field. My dad was the pitcher and we’d go up there and play every night and kids would come from all over. We had kids who were 5 and 6 and there were others in high school. We were probably between 8 and 10 at the time.
“My friend’s dad would play the outfield and it just really solidified my love for the game. I also played on some good teams growing up in organized ball and I knew it wouldn’t carry on through college. I wasn’t that good, but I loved it. Hence the name of my company [Triple Play Design Company]. Even before I started doing baseball [art] that’s what I named my company.”
Kittelberger formed his company in the mid-1990s and has worked as a freelance artist and designer since, working with companies such as Guinness & Bass Ale, Swedish Fish, Sour Patch Candies, Dentyne, Holiday Inn, Goodyear, American Heart Association, National Park Service, Groendyke Transport, Continental Resources, Callaway Gardens, Evenflo, Avery Labels, Bubblicious, BilJac, Banana Boat, Autism Speaks, Ocean Spray, Stride gum and Schick.
When the economy began to take a downturn in the late 2000s, though, some of his freelance work began to dry up. So, Kittelberger began working with his son’s little league and travel teams. He created websites for the organizations and still maintains the website for a local travel team in Canton.
It was about that time that his work and love of baseball brought him into contact with some folks that would change his career arc.
“When I was losing clients I wasn’t really worried because I was so busy,” he said. “But when the kids [he also has a daughter] went off to college, I had a few clients left and a lot of time on my hands. Previously, I had time to do one baseball illustration a year and that would usually be my Christmas card. Once the kids were in college, though, I thought I’m going to just start doing baseball stuff. That was seven or eight years ago.
“I just started doing poster art; I did some 30 Hall of Fame posters and some Cleveland Indians who were in the Hall of Fame. I went into doing some Negro Leagues players who were in the Hall of Fame. That brought me to the pandemic and the fall of 2020 when pretty much all baseball artists on Instagram were contacted by Tad Richardson, who wanted to celebrate 100 years of the Negro Leagues.”
Richardson began a campaign to raise money for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City and enlisted nearly 100 artists to create pieces that would be sold with the money being donated to the museum. Ultimately, the campaign raised about $35,000 for the museum and Kittelberger was proud to do his part.
Kittelberger had a chance to meet the families of several former Negro Leagues players while working on Richardson’s campaign, including Sean Gibson, who is the great grandson of legendary Negro Leagues catcher and Hall-of-Famer Josh Gibson.
“In talking to him, he said let’s focus our resources and time on helping the families of these players because they seem to need it even more than the museum,” Kittelberger said. “So, I did something for the Josh Gibson card campaign. It was like a March Madness kind of thing where five artists would post art every week and people would vote on Twitter. My card ended up taking second place and we raised another $20,000 for the Gibson Foundation.”
Kittelberger also began working with the Buck Leonard Association, creating Buck Leonard’s 50-year Hall-of-Fame logo in addition to designing the graphics for the Buck Leonard Association gala. The inaugural Buck Leonard 1st Baseman’s Hall of Fame induction took place last fall with Martin Dihigo, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Buck O’Neil, Tony Perez, Joe Staton and Ben Taylor comprising the first class. While Perez was not on hand for the ceremony, Kittelberger was and he got to present the award for Perez.
“Working with the Gibson and Leonard families, that’s really the best baseball work I could do,” Kittelberger said. “I feel really strongly about it, even more so than anything I could hope to get from MLB. Working with these families is really special to me and I hope to continue it. Right now, I am working on the Thunder Twins beer campaign. Leonard and Gibson are the Thunder Twins. We are trying to get breweries to brew Thunder Twins beer. Breweries can sign on and brew as many barrels of beer as they want, then sell it and donate the money back to the associations.
“I am working on graphics and marketing and all that stuff. I designed the can and all the different marketing materials; it’s a lot of fun. That will probably go on for the next year or so, maybe longer.”
In the meantime, Kittelberger continues to create cards. He figures he has done at least one a month for more than two years, including making some for special occasions. His cards retail for $40 – that includes shipping – and come with specially designed stickers and inserts. All of the cards are hand-crafted. The packaging is remarkable and extensive, so much so that some collectors joke about not even opening the packaging to get to the card.
“I really love the packaging design,” he said. “I also love the social media design I do to market the cards. Baseball cards have always been a big part of my life. The design aspect of the old cards and the nostalgia appeal to the collector in me. If I had an infinite amount of money I’d be collecting all kinds of cards but as it goes, I have to make them rather than buy them.
“I pack them in a little pack like the stores. There’s a card, a sticker and a possible insert. They go into a box and the box goes into a wrapper, you crimp it all together and mail it out. It takes a lot of time and I’m not making a lot of money, but I am learning a lot and I am getting better. And that’s just what I want to do, get better. I love it. It’s a passion.”
It’s a passion that Kittelberger first began to experience a half century ago and it hasn’t waned since.