Former MLB player turned artist pays tribute to Negro Leagues legend with Topps card set

The Negro Leagues came into the spotlight after their statistics were included in Major League Baseball's official records. Now, Fanatics Collectibles/Topps and Fox Sports are further highlighting the Negro Leagues legend with a special set of Rickwood Field artistically rendered cards and a six-city experiential tour that includes an 8,000-pound, 24-foot by 16-foot card. . Cards depicting players on Mount Rushmore.

The artist for this scene is Micah Johnson, who stole 84 bases in three minor leagues the following year in the 2014 Futures game. Johnson played for the Chicago White Sox (2015), Los Angeles Dodgers (2016) and Atlanta Braves (2017) before retiring.

He mainly uses his pinky finger, a charcoal stick, an eraser and a paint roller to paint portraits on canvas. Johnson, who is African American, learned about the Negro Leagues from relatives as a child while also collecting baseball cards, mostly of Cubs players. Johnson's father grew up playing baseball in Arkansas in the 1960s and became a Dodger fan through Jackie Robinson.

Johnson is part of a tour that begins at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., then travels to St. Louis and Philadelphia before arriving at New York City's Fox Plaza this week. It will stay there until June 12 before heading to Camden Yards in Baltimore on June 14 and to Rickwood Fields, America's oldest ballpark, in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 20. The St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants will play a game on the same day at Rickwood to honor the Negro Leagues.

Fanatics/Topps has released cards for Satchel Paige and new MLB batting average leader Josh Gibson. The Robinson card was released this week, with Willie Mays not far behind. All four players appear on the Tour's £8,000 card. Along with the Rickwood game, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin cards will also be sold in six-packs.

Johnson painted each player's likeness on canvas, then digitally scanned the canvas and added background. He said he once worked for 30 hours straight to complete the work before launch.

Johnson and Competitor About this project.

Micah Johnson talks about his art project at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

You were once a major leaguer and now a published artist. How did these passions come together?

It wasn’t until 2016 that I really tried art. During spring training, Dave Roberts brought us freshmen to the front of the room and asked us what we liked to do, and I said painting because I had taken a painting class in the offseason and enjoyed it. I played piano growing up, but I didn’t want to play for the team. He said, “Well, let's paint a picture of (former Dodgers MVP) Maury Wells.”

You combine your art and baseball in this project. What does this mean to you?

For the last five years after I retired, I made a conscious effort not to do anything baseball-related because I wanted to establish myself as an artist. I want my work to stand on its own. I feel like I've done that in my career.

I love the game (but) this opportunity came up at a time when I felt I was ready to do it well. To do that for a Negro Leagues card, to bring the world together, is a dream come true. I’m excited to be back playing and competing.

What is it about this theme that resonates with you the most?

How good (the players) are. They are really good. It's great to see these statistics now included in all MLB content. I think that's what really impressed me: through all the adversity, being in the military, dealing with the issues they faced from a racist perspective, they still put up these incredible numbers.

Over time, cards are viewed over and over again. Does this fact have an impact on the art you create?

There are hidden messages in my work that you have to squint to see. Hopefully this will keep people watching the pieces longer and then inspire them to learn more about these players. That's my main goal because I think once you get to know these players and what they do outside of the game, you'll find that they are incredibly impressive people. For example, Monte Irvin's card has the word “saxophone” on it because I read in his autobiography how he got into baseball when he went to buy a saxophone and instead bought a baseball glove. It's a really cool story because a lot of these players were immersed in the culture of society, like jazz at the time.

Topps' Rickwood Field series, including Satchel Paige, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson.

This resonates with you because you have a musical background, are an artist, and are an athlete.

Yes. I listen to jazz and other music while I paint. For example, one of the things I have on when I work is a Louis Armstrong radio. My biggest thing is that baseball has always been synonymous with culture, black or white, whatever the culture was at the time.

What was it like to see your work amplified on this giant card for this tour?

There's a lot of planning going on here. Obviously it has to run on a small card, but it will also be 24 feet by 16 feet. I paint on smaller canvases because I need to scan them to get a high enough resolution so that when they are enlarged they will look good. Working on a small canvas is actually more difficult because my pinky finger can only be so small, so when I get into eyes and stuff, it's hard to get it right.

Why paint with your pinky finger when it seems harder than using a paintbrush?

You need to apply pressure to keep the charcoal on the canvas. By using my fingers, I can do this by feel rather than using a brush. Get the correct black look for shadow areas. It's challenging. Charcoal is a very fickle medium. You never know how it will react on canvas.

So your personal style really shines through in this work.

For me, painting as I do is a more personal thing. Considering I've spent my entire life hitting baseballs with my hands, I can always reach into the glove blindfolded, grab the four-seam, and throw it away in an emotional moment. Baseball gives me a really good understanding of the feel of my fingers, so I can control it better than I can with a brush.

(Photo courtesy of Topps)

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