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A tribute as pretty as a pitcher Add to ...

Some artists find inspiration in the ripeness of a bowl of fruit, or the sensuous curves of the human figure, or the awesome spectacle of Mother Nature.

Vancouver offers all in abundance, from a cornucopia of produce to a backdrop of snow-capped mountains to a bevy of beauties of both sexes.

Yet when Jennifer Ettinger puts brush to canvas, she does so to capture long-dead baseball players in their wool flannel glory.

The 46-year-old Vancouver artist finds in baseball a connection to her deceased father, as well as a reminder of her own joy in the game.

She still plays games of catch and pepper with her lawyer husband.

But these days, she is more likely to be found in the studio than on the sandlot, wielding a paintbrush instead of a bat.

"I am so inspired by the athletes, who seem to be pure about the sport," she said. "They love the sport for the game."

Her squinty-eyed models are tobacco-spittin' heroes of a game far removed from the chest-thumping millionaires of today.

She portrays in acrylic the likes of turn-of-the-century pitcher Doc White midway through his high-stepping windup, and Honus Wagner, known in his playing days as The Flying Dutchman, squeezing a thick club as he nonchalantly awaits a pitch.

Her current project is a proposal for a B.C. Lions Society fundraising program, in which sponsors pay for works for public display which are later auctioned for charity. In the past, Vancouver has had displays of model orcas, while Chicago sported cows and Toronto streets were filled with colourful moose.

For the orca project, Ms. Ettinger designed a popular creature known as "Tourorca." It had raccoon markings and wore a tacky, floral-print shirt. The artwork was displayed indoors at the Vancouver Aquarium, protected from the street vandalism of cruel youth, selfish drunks and cowardly art critics.

Now, starting in May, Vancouver's downtown core will be dotted with artists' renditions of spirit bears, the rare Kermode bears known for their white coat. The project encourages artists to treat two-metre-tall fibreglass bears as blank canvases.

Ms. Ettinger had been contemplating ursas both minor and major, and was struck by inspiration as she considered the various types of bruins. Polar bear. Grizzly bear. Black bear. Brown bear . . .

Brown bear reminded her of Bob Brown, a long-time team owner and promoter whose 50-year career made him Vancouver's Mr. Baseball. After he died in 1962, Vancouver newspapers predicted he would never be forgotten. More than four decades later, however, few know the name of the man who nurtured baseball on the West Coast, keeping the professional game alive through the Depression and two world wars.

So Ms. Ettinger chose to depict her bear in the high-collared, steel-blue uniform of the 1911 Vancouver Beavers, with a white initial V over the heart and a baseball screwed to an uplifted right paw. The bear also wears the old team's pinstriped cap. Organizers are now shopping her proposal for a Bob Brown Bear to possible sponsors.

Mr. Brown was born in Pennsylvania. While attending Notre Dame University, he interrupted his studies to volunteer for the cavalry during the Spanish-American War. He contracted malaria and recuperated in Montana, where he returned after graduation to play pro ball at the lowest levels of the minor leagues.

He later moved to Washington State and, in 1910, bought the Beavers, for whom he would also play and manage.

Knowing he could never profit while operating in a ballpark on land owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, Mr. Brown decided to build his own. On a cliff on the south shore of False Creek, he built a wooden grandstand. He cut down trees himself, patrolling the land with dynamite sticks in his back pocket for use in uprooting stumps.

By 1913, he had completed Athletic Park at the corner of Fifth and Hemlock, which he would twice rebuild after it was destroyed by fire.

The stadium was home to the Beavers and, later, the Capilanos, as well as the semi-professional industrial teams that kept baseball alive during the Depression.

It also was the site of the first night baseball game in Western Canada. In 1934, a barnstorming team of major-league all-stars on their way to Japan stopped by to play an exhibition game in pouring rain. Among their members were such greats as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

His old park, which became obsolete with the construction in 1951 of what is now known as Nat Bailey Stadium, was torn down to make way for an entrance ramp to the Granville Street Bridge.

Ms. Ettinger would love to see her Bob Brown Bear in Yaletown, where Recreation Park once stood at Homer and Smythe.

"I want to promote baseball and the old Vancouver Beavers," she said. "We don't have a lot of people who know the history of baseball."

The artist, who was born in Digby, N.S., learned baseball from her father, Alvin (Abe) Ettinger, a popular senior men's pitcher who was a hometown hero.

He once pitched a perfect game, allowing no hits, walks or base runners. Twenty-seven men up, 27 men retired. The feat has been recognized by a display at the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame at Halifax.

After he died in 1989, Ms. Ettinger began painting old players as a way to honour him. One was placed in the front window of a bookstore specializing in sports titles. The painting sold and she has since completed a full lineup of such stars of yore as Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson and Sam (Toothpick) Jones. One client commissioned her to paint eight of the most valuable baseball cards in his collection.

She has also done a portrait of Cal Ripken Jr., the modest iron man of the Baltimore Orioles, but generally avoids contemporary stars.

"I have more difficulty painting today's ballplayers. There isn't the nostalgia attached to them. The ones that I paint, there is a bit of romanticism about them. People like my dad learned to play baseball based on the characteristics of these ballplayers. He admired them and became a good ballplayer."

Ms. Ettinger is not immune to the inspirations that move other artists, however. One of her pieces is a still life. Nestled together in a cracked wooden bowl are two oranges -- and a baseball. The red-stitched horsehide looks almost good enough to eat.

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