Today it begins. The period from now until the early dark eves of October is, for many sports fans, a restoration of when things feel right. It is a time of chin music and LOOGies, where men scratch their groins and spit sunflower seeds in concrete dugouts awash in discarded Gatorade cups. It is the season where contests are interrupted at the discretion of “managers” who summon pitchers and catchers at the mound for tense mid-game summits, runners in scoring position the imminent threat. Phrases like “O-and-two, the count,” “low and outside,” “check swing,” and “foul ball” will be repeated ad infinitum. Rivers of yellow mustard, sweet relish, and, yes, ketchup (heathens!) will adorn a non-stop parade of frankfurters. It is a time when spring’s inevitable showers send both players and spectators alike to huddle under whatever protection the park offers while radio announcers ramble on in aimless filibusters to occupy the dead air. It is baseball season.
Wheel Emporium, a retail outlet and installation garage for what they used to call mag wheels, existed at the corner of Penn Avenue and 34th Street in Lawrenceville for years. The small shop was shuttered some time around 2012 (?) and plywood installed to protect the giant panes of glass in its showroom windows.
Though this blogger would sooner, uh, put ketchup on his hot dog than pay money for fancy auto parts, we always enjoyed passing the little shop with its big windows and array of shiny chrome. But what we liked even more was what came after Wheel Emporium closed: the terrific pair of elaborate street art tributes to Pittsburgh Pirate great Roberto Clemente.
A note to bloggers: always get an establishing shot! We sadly just took close-up photos of the artwork–and of course they’re now long gone*–so there’s not really a sense of how the pieces relate. For sure, though, we can say there were two nearly life-sized black-and-white enlargements of old photos wheat-pasted to Wheel Emporium’s protective plywood. In the first, Clemente is in his batting stance, left leg starting its lift in anticipation of the incoming pitch. The other–perhaps just seconds later–shows the batter watching the rocket he’s just launched sail from the park, his body twisted in the follow-through of the heavy swing. In both, the artist(s) applied shards of cut painted wood to the plywood which suggest waves of energy coming directly from Clemente.
The tale of the Clemente art took a strange turn a year later. At some point in 2014, the colored wood pieces were all removed and the rest of the exterior plywood painted over in a deep blue color. Amazingly, though, whoever did this chose to preserve the wheat pasted photos, leaving an equally-effective alternate version of the previous year’s art. In these, we see Clemente’s two-tone image really “pop” against the monochrome blue background. It would have been fantastic to re-install the wooden additions on top of the blue, which would have looked far superior to the noisy graffiti’d wood grain, but we can’t always get what we want.
Roberto Clemente is debatably the most beloved Pittsburgh Pirate for his prowess both in the batter’s box and out in right field (which helped the team win two World Series over his eighteen year tenure) and also for his charitable efforts off the field. His life ended tragically in a plane crash Clemente was on for a humanitarian relief mission to Nicaragua in 1972. For all of these reasons, he’s certainly a fitting subject for not just his bronze statue at PNC Park, but also the street art tributes that appeared in Lawrenceville. We’d love to see more of them.
That said, The Orbit would be equally enthusiastic about seeing similar street-level honors bestowed on other Pirate greats. Imagine a stenciled and spray-painted Honus Wagner or a 3-D “Pops” Stargell constructed from recycled materials. If you don’t see the opportunities in “Big Poison” and “Little Poison” (brothers/teammates Paul and Lloyd Waner), then you’re not trying very hard. Hell, why not create a new set of Greenberg Gardens in the city’s many vacant lots? I guess we need to quit yapping about it and start…planting about it.
Addendum: We were so glad to see the tradition of Clemente wheat-pasting continue on a recent ride through the Strip District. This photo was taken just last week and shows what appears to be a relatively new photo of Clemente pasted to a vacant storefront on the 2700 block of Penn Avenue. In it, Clemente’s bat is pointed directly at the camera and he displays a look that’s both steely and also posed, perhaps stifling his characteristic smile to crack serious for the photographer.
One final addition: over at The Portland Orbit, they recently ran a story called “The Beautiful People of the Bike Lane” about the terrific work of that city’s Board of Transportation to make customized, humorous bicycle lane markers. This cyclist was totally jealous and wished Pittsburgh would do something as fun and interesting. Well, it turns out that we do have at least a few these customized “bike guys.” You guessed it: they’re honoring the very same Roberto Clemente on the downtown bridge that now bears his name. It’s definitely Clemente art on the street, even if it’s not, you know, street art.
* The former Wheel Emporium was razed in 2015 and at present there’s a much larger building under construction that appears to be another combined retail/residential mixed-use space.