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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: April 16, 2024 6:06 am PDT
BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

Don’t you dare try and put a label on Donna Muscarella. It won’t work.

You would need too many labels and it would take too much time and even when you thought you were finished, your task would be nowhere near complete.

Paring down the ways to describe the New Jersey resident is no easy task, either. If you were to try, though, start with baseball fan. Throw in photographer, artist and historian and a true picture begins to form. Muscarella, who chronicles baseball through the prism of lifelong dedication and devotion to the game, creates exquisite pieces of art, combining her knowledge of the game with her exceptional photography and hand cut Allen & Ginter baseball cards. The results are stunning, one-of-a-kind pieces that have made her one of the more talked-about artists in the industry.

Muscarella’s series of cards on historic Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey – which hosted scores of Negro Leagues stars – are among the more well-thought out and informative pieces the burgeoning card-art genre has seen. Rather than just produce something for card enthusiasts to collect, she created something that could serve as a history lesson, allowing collectors to learn and understand a period of baseball the way Muscarella does when she looks through her lens.

Hinchliffe Stadium was an abandoned facility in disrepair for decades. It opened in 1932 and was home to stars such as Paterson resident Larry Doby in addition to hosting legends such as Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson. The facility hosted other events such as boxing, auto racing, track and field and entertainers like the legendary comedy duo Abbott and Costello [Costello, by the way, is a Paterson native].

I mean Donna is kinda cool

The building was shuttered in the late 1990s and talks of demolition began just after the turn of the century before public sentiment helped lead to the facility’s renovation. The new stadium opened this spring and is the first National Historic Landmark to honor baseball.

While Muscarella originally intended to use the cards as a way to help promote the Tip Your Cap Initiative which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, it has grown into so much more. The four-card set, which retails for $25 [with $5 from each sale donated to various organizations that promote and preserve Negro Leagues history], features Muscarella’s work on the front and a description on the back patterned after the 1933 Goudey cards since Hinchliffe played host to the Colored World Series that year.

“The way that set came about was primarily to teach people about Hinchliffe Stadium and secondarily to put my photography out there,” Muscarella, 54, said. “I could unite two of my loves – photography and baseball cards – and use it as an educational tool. Do people even know this place exists? When I started the project [about three years ago] I didn’t even know if it [the facility] would be saved. It was run down and close to being demolished. Whether it was going to be saved or not, the place was an absolute dump. It was run down, there were trees growing out of the stands.

“But there was history there. I had been parking next to the stadium for years when I would go and shoot the Great Falls in Paterson and I had no idea what I was parking next to. For someone who loves baseball and has an affinity for the Negro Leagues and its players, to not know what I was parking next to was ridiculous.”

Judge.

Muscarella began working on the set during the early days of the pandemic so there was no access to a library, forcing her to do all the research on her own from her home. She says the amount of information she has uncovered about the facility, including information discovered by other researchers, is “amazing”.

“I was only able to find 11 Negro League Hall-of-Famers that played there and now that list is at 28,” said Muscarella, who now gives lectures and presentations as one of the experts on the facility’s history. “There is a lot of information that has been made public over the last few years. Who knows what else is out there? The history of the place is impressive.”

When the Hinchliffe set turned out to be a hit, Muscarella decided it was time to take her photography one step further. It was then that she decided to combine her photos with her love of Allen & Ginter cards, creating one-of-a-kind pieces of artwork to be sold.

Most of Muscarella’s pieces are 5×7 or 8×10 and feature her original photography of a player, park, statue or “something that has a meaningful tie back to baseball”. She’s also done pieces that incorporate a player’s nickname like using a red-tailed hawk when creating an Andre Dawson piece. She cuts the Allen & Ginter cards by hand, adds it to one of her photos by digital overlay that compliments both the cut card and the chosen photo. She then has that version of the print professionally printed and dry-mounted before adding soft pastels to the cut card. She then adheres the card to the dry-mounted print. Each piece of her mixed-media artwork is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.

Muscarella estimates that she has made some 75 pieces. The unframed 5x7s retail for $60 while the unframed 8x10s are $75. Framed pieces and pieces that incorporate more than one cut card go for a bit more. Her work can be found on her Behance site, her X [Twitter account] as well as her Instagram and Threads pages. Additionally, she accepts commissions.

It’s all been part of a love affair with the game that has lasted virtually her entire life. Muscarella was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in Brooklyn, where her love of baseball took root. The Dodgers had abandoned the borough a decade before she arrived on the scene. She has been a Yankees fan since she understood what baseball is, taking part in her family’s enjoyment of the game in general and their obsession with the Bombers in particular.

She indulged her love of the game by collecting cards and autographs and spending time watching the Yankees, whether it was at home with her family or at one of the three incarnations of Yankee Stadium as well as the two seasons the club played across town at Shea Stadium during renovations to the old ballpark.

Muscarella began “dabbling” with cameras as early as age 6 but didn’t get her first “real” camera until her grandmother gave her one as a gift after graduating from grad school. The bulk of her early work was taking photos of players from the stands, printing out a pair of 8X10s of each shot and then attempting to get players to sign them. She would keep one for herself and give the other to the player.

She generally isn’t credentialed by either Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball or any affiliated team, though last month she was credentialed by the Yankees Somerset [NJ] affiliate to a Negro Leagues event honoring the New York Black Yankees.

Muscarella does have a working relationship with the Staten Island Ferry Hawks of the independent Atlantic League. SIUH Community Park was once home to the Yankees affiliate in Class-A New York-Penn League. When the Yankees moved the club to Somerset, the Ferry Hawks moved in.

“There is a 30-foot wall of my photography at the park in Staten Island,” said Muscarella, who spent nearly two decades working for the Catholic Church before changing her career arc to focus on her photography and art. “I was just sitting there capturing baseball in its purest form. I was taking pictures when Kelsie Whitmore was playing for them and it happened to be one of the themed-jersey games. They donated her jersey to the Hall-of-Fame and they ended up using one of my photos for the collection. The Hall of Fame wanted pictures and now my pictures are in the Hall of Fame.

“The Ferry Hawks give me free reign to go where I want but I sit in the stands. I don’t sit in the photo pit and I think that has given me a better relationship with the players because I am only on the field before and after the game. I don’t cross that line. I looked at how they interact with the people in the pit and they always interact with me differently.”

Muscarella was also credentialed by the Frontier League’s New Jersey Jackals this season. The Jackals moved to Hinchliffe Stadium this season from their home at Yogi Berra Stadium on the campus of Montclair State University, where they had played for nearly 25 years.

Her work with the Jackals has been equally impressive. It’s not surprising considering her love of photography, baseball and history. Just don’t try and pin her down with a label.

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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