“The Ball Thrower,” a bronze statue on the south side of JFK Drive across from the Conservatory of Flowers, is one of my favorites among the many sculptures scattered throughout Golden Gate Park. Not only is it a delightful character study of a young, sinewy, mustached, super-confident, nineteenth-century baseball player, but it has such an interesting backstory. The California-born sculptor, Douglas Tilden, created it while studying in Paris in the years leading up to the 1889 International Exposition commemorating the French revolution. He originally entitled the sculpture “The National Game,” and submitted it to the American section of the 1889 Exposition, assuming it would appeal particularly to Americans. Surprised but apparently undaunted when it was rejected by that jury, he resubmitted it to the more prestigious Salon des Artistes Francais, where to his delight it was accepted, launching his career as a sculptor of public monuments.
How the statue came to reside in Golden Gate Park is another story. It seems that Douglas Tilden was deaf and mute as a result of having scarlet fever at age five. Educated at the Asylum for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind in Berkeley, he took up sculpture and showed much early promise. His studies in Paris were sponsored by William E. Brown, the Southern Pacific railroad magnate and a family friend, who was impressed by his talent. When the statue was selected for the Salon at the Exposition, from a field of 2,460 competitors, and awarded first prize in its class, Brown realized that he had backed a winner. He funded Tilden to cast the sculpture in bronze and after the Exposition in Paris it traveled to New York, where it was shown at the National Academy of Design and won more praise. Tilden’s American career was launched and meanwhile he had created another large sculpture, “The Tired Boxer.” He requested funding from Brown to cast that in bronze as well. At this point Brown proposed to the San Francisco Board of Park Commissioners that they acquire “The Ball Thrower” for Golden Gate Park. The commission had been routinely refusing proposals for statuary in the park for a number of years, but Tilden’s personal story of talent and hard work overcoming hardship, recounted in a letter by Brown, apparently moved them to make an exception to the no-statues rule.
Baseball grew into an American passion in the 1880s and 1890s, with amateur teams springing up in every town and the major leagues becoming firmly established. Tilden’s original title for the sculpture reflects his belief that baseball encapsulated something of the American spirit in the 1890s: passion, youth, vigor, athleticism. We’ve come a long way since then.
Sources: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015104/1891-04-10/ed-1/seq-6/ and Baseball and the American Dream: Race, Class, and Gender and the National Pastime, “Prologue” by Rachel Ward