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Baseball in Stitches

Safe at Home: Ann McKencie Nicholson's baseball quilt takes a freeform approach to the imagery of the national pastime.

The boys of summer play forever in the quilts of memory

By Ann Elliott Sherman

TRUE FANS caught up in the alternating current of joy and pain that is a pennant race or championship series already know, but skeptics and post-strike naysayers could find no better testament to the fact that baseball is more than just a game than Grand Slam! 20th-Century Baseball Quilts at the American Museum of Quilts and Textiles.

The national pastime has inspired many an essay, song and poem, but 32 hand-stitched portraits and accompanying signatures pieced into a tribute to Clara Rothmeier's beloved 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers is passionate devotion even a Giants fan must acknowledge.

From the traditional bed coverings to contemporary forms intended only to warm the heart and wall, the show offers proof that the game of inches and the art of quilting--with patiently realized details and materials both cast off and prized contributing to the big picture--are, well, tailor-made for each other.

In the first category, Alicia M. Stokes' impeccably stitched quilt of team logos inspires awe. Each intricate detail, from the Pittsburgh Pirate's polka-dot bandanna to the tiny hole in the sole of the batting Baltimore Oriole's shoe is embroidered or appliquéd by hand.

Ann McKencie Nicholson, on the other hand, takes a free-form approach in Safe at Home, a work that approximates the shape of a chest protector. In the center, a golden outline of the umpire's "safe" hand gesture hovers over the holy grail of home plate worked in sparkling beads.

A decidedly contemporary mix of textile and text, guest curator Heather Urquhart's Talkin' Baseball alternates rows of strips rubber-stamped with insider's jargon and pieced rows of narrow rectangular cloth blocks.

Sewn over the course of the 1993 and 1994 seasons while listening to games on the radio, Claudia Clark Myers' Amish-flavored Ode to Kirby Puckett features muted, grayed hues in a bold geometry of overlapping diamonds pieced from contrasting strips of fabric and quilted with baseball-shaped stitching. The occasional odd triangle escapes the border and edge of the quilt to stand apart--classic, masterfully executed, not flashy but uncontainable, like the play of the former Twins stalwart himself.

Barbara Dannenfelser's quilt titled Welcome to the Friendly Confines (the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field, for the uninitiated) appropriately boasts a beautifully pieced "mortar-and-brick" border twined with appliquéd ivy. Her 1941 uses stitching like brush strokes in a figurative narrative to give the perspective of the field stretching away from the batter's box. A tribute to the hitting feats of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams that year, 1941 not only captures both players' characteristic stance and swings but also features a fanciful outfield wall that's half Yankee Stadium, half Fenway Park.

BUT FOR sheer out-of-here accuracy and power, Rosemary Bawn's I Remember the One-Dollar Bleachers hits a grand slam. Her rendering of the Fenway Park facade is strip-pieced photorealism. The focal point of the grandstand, worked on the image of a baseball with its red stitches fading from coral to peach to the pale blue and white of the sky overhead, includes the skyline with its familiar Citgo and Windsor Canadian billboards.

Complete with tiny tributes to favorite Red Sox players, quotes, ticket stubs, a border of faces in the "fan" pattern and a base in each corner, Bawn has crafted a visual memoir barely contained by judicious design and the rigors of quilting tradition. It is a fitting tribute to the boisterous Boston bleacher bums.

Amid this mostly female quilting talent, the "male" equivalent folk art, whittling, is well represented. A high-kicking A's pitcher, carved in Mexico, wears an "Athland" jersey--a sly cultural pun that neatly avoids copyright infringement. Equally impressive is Oklahoma oil rigger Earl Eyman's tightly contested All Girls Softball Game.

If, as sportswriter Thomas Boswell says, time begins on opening day, October proves that it contracts or expands, depending upon the relative fortunes of one's favorite team. Grand Slam! offers the perfect seventh-inning stretch beyond parochial sentiment to remind us that at its best, baseball is played with equal parts skill and pleasure.

Grand Slam! 20th-Century Baseball Quilts runs through Oct. 26 at the American Museum of Quilts and Textiles, 60 S. Market St., San Jose. Storyteller Diana Borega spins baseball tales Oct. 19, 1-3pm; free with museum admission. (408/971-0323).

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From the Oct. 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro.

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