You’ll have to wait until Sunday’s induction ceremony to see the work in full, but rest assured that sculptor Tom Tsuchiya captured the essence of both Griffey and fellow inductee Mike Piazza. And, yes, Griffey’s hat is facing forward.
PITTSBURGH — The squat, industrial building on West Liberty Avenue is deceptively unassuming. One lifetime resident of Pittsburgh told me he had driven by it for 20 years without knowing the secrets hidden within.
Yet the magic performed in the bronze foundry at Matthews International, a loud and gloriously grimy manufacturing plant, oldest in the Steel City, is eternal — and very well may bring tears to the eyes of Ken Griffey Jr. on the Cooperstown, N.Y., stage Sunday.
This is where the plaques for the Hall of Fame are forged in a two-day process that combines old-world ingenuity and modern technology, with the spectacular backdrop of flowing molten bronze and flying sparks.
It’s where an artist’s vision comes to full realization by virtue of artisans’ skill. All sorts of items are made here, from funeral markers to Disney signs, but the Hall of Fame plaque production, the handiwork of Matthews since 1983, is one all its workers await eagerly.
“We’re all Steelers fans, Pirates fans, Penguins fans, but that’s all set aside when we’re working on the baseball Hall of Fame,’’ said Josh Rooney, Matthews’ director of sales and marketing and nephew of Steelers patriarch Art Rooney. “There’s such reverence for that here.”
And I was fortunate to watch the whole thing unfold, clay to bronze — one of a very small group of media invited by Matthews, with permission of the Hall of Fame, in late March to observe the plaques of Griffey and fellow inductee Mike Piazza being made.
The only rule: Absolutely no images of the finished version until the plaques are revealed to the world — inductees included — for the first time on the stage during Sunday’s induction ceremony.
So you’ll have to wait to see the work in full, but rest assured that first-year sculptor Tom Tsuchiya, a rookie with more pressure than Corey Seager and Byron Buxton combined, captured the essence of both Griffey and Piazza.
And, yes, Griffey’s hat is facing forward, even though Tsuchiya said with a laugh that he wished he could have done it backward — an idea nixed by Griffey and the Hall of Fame shortly after he was voted in with a record 99.3 percent of the votes in January.
Tsuchiya admitted he beat himself up during the nearly two months or so he worked on the project, aware that the stakes were so high — permanent display in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.
“I knew these have to be amazing,’’ he said, on hand at Matthews to watch — and participate in — the final stage of production.
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I was there March 29 when Tsuchiya’s 4-inch by 3-inch bas-relief images, made out of plasticine clay (preferred for its lasting pliability), was delivered to Matthews’ sculpting studio to start the multi-faceted process. That includes nearly immediate destruction of the mold upon completion, to ensure no rogue copies are revealed before the appointed day or made for private collections.
And I was there the next day when the final product was unveiled, after two hours of painstaking finishing work by master tooler and finisher Doug Wood in close consultation with Tsuchiya. That’s when Rooney said of the nearly 25-pound plaque, a product of loving craftsmanship:
“The only thing missing now is the wall behind it.”
Tsuchiya, 43, is a Cincinnati native who was chosen to be the new sculptor for the Hall of Fame plaques in 2016 and beyond. The previous artist, Mindy Ellis, had done it since 1995 — a total of 75 plaques with her creative fingerprints — but she recently had surgery on both arms to relieve carpal tunnel and cubital tunnel syndromes, so she reluctantly stepped down.
Matthews turned to the outgoing Tsuchiya (pronounced SOO-cheeya), who couldn’t believe his good fortune. Not just to land one of the most coveted gigs in the sports-sculpting business, but to have his first subject be Griffey, along with Piazza.
The son of Japanese immigrants who settled in Ohio, Tsuchiya grew up as a huge fan of the Big Red Machine, which included Ken Griffey Sr. Tsuchiya was raised in Kenwood, which is within walking distance of Moeller High School, where Griffey Jr.’s legend as a ballplayer first grew.
Tsuchiya even got to meet Griffey before a game in 2002 when he was doing some media interviews about the statues he created for Great America Ballpark, where the Reds play. He has done seven likenesses of former Reds stars, plus one in progress of baseball hit king and pariah Pete Rose.
“One of the news reporters was joking to Griffey, ‘One day this guy here is going to do a sculpture of you,’ ’’ Tsuchiya said. “I didn’t realize about 15 years later I’d be doing his Hall of Fame plaque. It’s totally amazing and exciting.”
That describes the reaction of Hall of Famers when they see their plaque for the first time during the ceremony. When Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark introduces each inductee, a short video of his career is shown. During that time, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson slips backstage to pick up the plaque, which he hands to the honoree for his first look. The new Hall of Famer gives his speech with the plaque by his side, before it is placed in its ultimate resting spot in the famous plaque gallery in the Hall of Fame (though Griffey’s plaque will be on temporary display at Safeco Field on Aug. 5-6 before returning permanently to Cooperstown).
“There are lots of different reactions,’’ Idelson said. “One of the bigger ones, and most humbling, was last year by Frank Thomas. He’s twice my size and can bench-press 10 of me, yet he was not comfortable holding the plaque because he was so overcome with emotion.”
Tsuchiya was similarly emotional when he got the Hall of Fame call from Rooney telling him he had been selected to replace Ellis. The two had met a few years ago doing various projects together (including a Jamie Moyer plaque for the Mariners Hall of Fame). Meanwhile, around the same time, Idelson had invited Tsuchiya to the Hall of Fame to discuss various aesthetic issues. The connections helped forge the way to his selection as the new artist.
“When Josh called me at home and said, ‘Congratulations, Tom,’ I was blown away,’’ Tsuchiya said. “But unlike the players, who did all their hard work and achievement to get into the Hall, and they’re like, ‘It’s party time’ when they get the call from the Hall of Fame, for me, ‘Ohh, now the pressure sets in. I have to do some quality work, and deliver.’ ”
The work started shortly after the Hall of Fame announcement in January, when Idelson and others at the Hall selected a primary photograph from the players’ formative years and three auxiliary photos of each inductee for Tsuchiya to work off. He also studied various videos and other likenesses of Griffey and Piazza to capture their essence. With Griffey, he said, he definitely had a goal.
“Griffey is probably the greatest player of his generation,’’ he said. “But it’s his amazing, bright, brilliant smile that’s one of the greatest legacies Griffey will ever have. Aside from all the home runs, aside from all the amazing plays … the smile. Just capture that smile. That’s one of the challenging things and something I was going for from the very beginning.”
The process began with computer modeling on a 3D design program to create something of a template before Tsuchiya went to work on the clay. A perfectionist whose work includes a life-size bronze of D’Artagnan for Xavier University and a 50-foot statue of Jesus, he pored over the smallest details. Each night, he would lock the work-in-progress in a safe at his home office.
“It’s weird — the littlest, tiny things can all of a sudden bring it together,’’ Tsuchiya said. “It’s magical, some of this stuff.”
Periodically, he would show his work to Hall of Fame officials, who provided feedback and suggested small revisions — “nuances,” in Idelson’s words. “Making sure the lines are right, the shape of the face, and some of the smaller features.”
Finally, Tsuchiya’s version was ready to deliver to Matthews’ plant, where the first stop was with sculpting coordinator Jason Herniak, who made sure it conformed to the Hall’s specification.
Then came the most dramatic, and visually stunning, part of the process — the pouring of 2,150-degree molten bronze. That came after the clay busts were taken to the foundry and buried face up in fine, whitish “virgin” sand as the molds began to take shape. Here’s where you get one of those old-world touches — one of the Matthews workers climbs on top and, with his work boots, stomps on the sand to pack it down and ensure it is spread even and firm.
“There are still things humans do better than machines,’’ project manager Paul Storino said.
“There’s an art to it, for sure,’’ added Bernie Kuhn, the production manager at Matthews.
The pouring of the orange-glowing molten bronze from the furnace into a crucible, to be poured into flasks containing the molds, is a sight to behold. When the metal hardens, and then cools, they are broken out of the flasks — nearly but not quite a plaque — and ready to be finished.
That is province of Wood, who has a ZZ Top beard and camouflage do-rag. He’s a character, with a dry sense of humor but mastery of a craft that he has honed for a quarter century. His job is to take a rough piece of bronze and make it a spotless, shining, flawless piece of art, which he does by sand blasting, painting, highlighting, buffing — whatever it takes to get the plaque just so.
You talk about old-world touches — Wood did some touch-up work using paint out of a Dixie cup. And Tsuchiya fussed with some last-minute finite chipping while using tools that he toted in a model-airplane box.
Wood’s experienced hand is the perfect foil for Tsuchiya’s exuberance. Wood figures he has done nearly 100 of these Hall of Fame plaques, and though each one gets his utmost attention, he has a relaxed confidence that the finished product will match the artist’s vision. Wood spent one year in the foundry before moving to finishing work, where he found a permanent home.
He learned by watching the older workers, and then by trial and error. Now he has it down to a science, though the process, Wood says, hasn’t changed much in 25 years.
“Better equipment and materials, but it’s still the same,’’ he said.
The man who has put the finishing touches on nearly a third of the plaques in the Hall of Fame isn’t much of a baseball fan, it turns out.
“I’ll catch a Pirates game here or there, but I’m not crazy about it,’’ Wood said. “I’d rather watch a Steelers game.’’
And he has never been to Cooperstown to see his handiwork.
“I’ve seen pictures, but I’ve not had a chance,’’ he said. “If I’m that way, I’ll stop in. I don’t know if I’ll make a trip just for it, because I’ve already seen most of them.”
And the final step for this latest Wood master work is the application of lacquer, which makes the whole thing pop — and brings an exultation from Tsuchiya.
“Awesome!” he says, and flashes a thumbs up.
The two newest plaques, which will bring the Hall of Fame total to 312, eventually were shipped via FedEx to Cooperstown, where they have been stored in the museum’s collection area.
Until Sunday, when both will be brought into the light of day at the Clark Sports Center, and Griffey will smile upon the eternal bronze image of his smile.
“I hope he loves it,” said Tsuchiya, flashing a Hall of Fame smile of his own.