Rose broke it on Sept. 11, 1985, with his 4,192nd hit. It was such a momentous occurrence in baseball (and Cincinnati) history, that even the art world took notice. That year, knowing Rose would break Cobb’s seemingly enduring record, the Cincinnati Art Museum commissioned Andy Warhol to create a portrait of Rose.
One of his late-period celebrity portraits, Warhol used acrylic paint on a canvas with four silk-screen images of Rose in a right-handed batting stance. Each image has a different color and the work is notable for being in the style of a baseball card. Installed on Sept. 10, 1985, it became one of the museum’s most popular artworks. But its history is bittersweet — Warhol died prematurely just two years later and Rose was banned from baseball in 1989.
The impetus came from longtime Cincinnati art dealer Carl Solway, who recalled how it came about in a recent interview. He and his wife Lizi were returning home from her mother’s house in Circleville, Ohio, in April, listening to the Reds’ ballgame on radio.
“Joe Nuxhall was saying this will be the year Pete Rose breaks the record and it’ll probably be sometime in September because he needs 200 hits,” Solway recalls.
“And I said this town will go crazy when he gets the record. It would be so cool if the art community could do something about that, instead of just the jocks and the sports people.”
Solway called Millard Rogers, the art museum’s director, and proposed it commission a Warhol painting of Rose. (It didn’t own a Warhol at that time.) Rogers told Solway to pursue it.
“So I went to New York to see Warhol,” Solway says. “Andy had never heard of Pete Rose, but he was interested. He said, ‘You have to get Pete Rose to agree to it.’”
Solway arranged a meeting with Rose. “Pete said he had never heard of Andy Warhol,” Solway says, “so I had to show Pete that Andy painted images of Liz Taylor and Jackie Kennedy and Muhammad Ali and that this was an OK thing to do.”
Warhol wanted Rose to come to New York so he could take his photo with a Polaroid. But Rose was slow to do so and, with a deadline looming, Warhol asked Solway to look through newspaper photographs and send him some. Warhol would then pick one he liked and get permission from the photographer. (Ultimately, he chose one by Gordon Baer.)
“So Andy calls me up and says that on some pictures he’s batting on the left side, and some on the right side, and I said, ‘That’s right — he’s a switch hitter,’” Solway says. “And Andy broke up in hysterical laughing on the other end of the phone line, but his context of ‘switch hitter’ was completely different.”
Solway says the museum paid Warhol $100,000 for the original artwork plus 50 signed prints, which it quickly sold at $2,500 each and thus made a profit. (Rogers says those figures seem correct and remembers that print sales covered the portrait’s cost.)
Solway believes Warhol’s Pete Rose portrait is a major work. “It was so brilliant of Andy to make it into a baseball card,” he says. “And that’s so interesting because baseball cards are collectible and negotiable. So it was a statement about the commercialization of art, just like his soup cans are about the commercialization of branding.”
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