Hall of Famer Walter Johnson, arguably the best pitcher in baseball history, fanned 3,509 batters while winning 417 games with the Washington Senators from 1907 to 1927. Yet Johnson’s grandson and biographer, Henry Thomas, is more concerned these days with another strikeout.
He thinks the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and sculptor Omri Amrany whiffed completely with the Johnson statue that was unveiled last week in the center field plaza at Nationals Park. Or perhaps hit a foul ball.
Thomas’ one-word description of the towering, bronze sculpture, as posted on the Nats’ Web site: “hideous.”
His biggest objection is to what Amrany calls the “repetitive motion” aspect that features several right arms depicting the flight of a Johnson fastball. Viewed from some angles, the effect makes Johnson appear somewhat like a human octopus.
“It just doesn’t work,” Thomas said from his home in Arlington. “Those big pieces of matter coming out of Walter’s shoulder look like driftwood. But I don’t like any part of the statue. I really object to it. It’s ridiculous, not even close [to accurately portraying Johnson]. He looks awkward. His delivery point is all wrong. His legs are too stiff. The ‘W’ on his uniform is too big. And the inscription is on the back [of the base]. It doesn’t even face the plaza.”
Johnson’s statue stands alongside ones of fellow D.C. baseball legends Frank Howard and Josh Gibson that also reflect Amrany’s motion technique. At the unveiling, Howard and Gibson’s great-grandson, Sean Gibson, were appreciative of the honor. However, Thomas and his mother, Carolyn, skipped the ceremony to indicate their displeasure.
“I thought most people would be more accepting of the statue than I am,” Henry Thomas said, “but the reactions I’ve gotten are running almost 10-1 against it. There has been almost universal disapproval. Something is really wrong. The purpose is not to make art; it’s to show real people as they really were.”
Thomas said he signed away the rights to final approval because he was assured by former arts commission head Tony Gittens that he would be consulted during the project, which was awarded to Amrany’s suburban Chicago studio in 2007 after an open competition attracted dozens of applicants.
“I went out there last September to see the finished clay model, and I expressed to Omri in no uncertain terms that I was appalled,” Thomas said. “He said nothing at all, and other people at the studio were shocked that I found anything wrong. I felt like, ‘Am I crazy?’
“I don’t blame the artist. Omri was very polite and very patient with me. You can’t blame a crocodile if it eats somebody - that’s what crocodiles do. And artists do things the way they visualize them. I blame the arts commission for giving its OK to the statue.”
When a reporter relayed these comments to Amrany, the sculptor reacted as you might expect, taking a figurative chisel to Thomas’ arguments.
“When he came out here, he admired the [facial] likeness, and he liked the position,” Amrany said. “The repetitive arms were the only thing he disliked - that’s all he told us. Now he’s telling a different story. He should know better. He should know much, much better. [The statue] is not some frozen figure. This is not just about sports; it’s about art. He never learned that, or he forgot it.
“Everybody can criticize art because there are a lot of elements. But the fans always have the final judgments.”
Gloria Nauden, executive director of the arts commission, said she has no regrets over the selection of Amrany or the final products.
“I empathize with Mr. Thomas,” Nauden added. “But the important thing is that the statues are here. I’m a first-generation Washingtonian, and I never heard of these three players. Now fans will be able to come into the ballpark for 100 years and see them. I’m glad they were built [at a cost of $427,500 from the arts commission’s capital budget].”
Thomas, who was born a few months before Johnson’s death from a malignant brain tumor in 1946, sounds like he’s willing to rest his case with those fans.
“If I were just a fan myself, I’d probably look at Walter’s statue and say, ‘What were they thinking?’ and go get a hot dog,” he said. “I don’t expect everybody else to be as upset as I am. But the guy was my grandfather, for heaven’s sake, and this absolutely negates the whole thing.”
Thomas paused. “I will have a difficult time going to ballgames now and seeing the statue,” he said. “And it will be there as long as the ballpark is.”
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