looking back

Looking Back: Baseball Player

By Kinen Carvala

Although the current baseball season isn’t its normal self, you can go to Golden Gate Park and visit the monument that celebrates baseball to conjure up some feelings of baseball nostalgia. The statue has been known by many names, such as Our National Pastime, the Ball Player, the Ball Thrower and the Baseball Player.

At the base of the statue of the baseball player near the eastern entrance to Golden Gate Park is the inscription “Douglas Tilden, Paris 1889.” It refers to the sculptor with the location and year that he submitted the statue for review at the Exposition Universelle. It was the same world’s fair that introduced the Eiffel Tower. Photos by Michael Durand.

The sculptor, Douglas Tilden, was born in 1860 in Chico, California. Deafened by scarlet fever at 5 years old, Tilden was enrolled in a school for the Deaf in Berkeley. According to the California Art Project, he focused on expressing himself through writing before becoming a teacher at the School for the Deaf he once attended, and publishing articles on deaf education. At 23, Tilden was entranced by a sculpture his brother made, so he began to study under his brother’s teacher. Douglas Tilden’s first sculpture so impressed the school trustees that they gave him a scholarship to study sculpture in New York and later in Paris. Tilden’s teacher in Paris, Paul Chopin, was also deaf.

After the Civil War, sports in general and baseball in particular became a part of American culture, according to author Melissa Dabakis, who argued that with increasing urbanization and the closing of the American frontier, men could use the competitive and physical nature of sports to echo the rugged American past. 

More than 10,000 people were showing up to baseball games in San Francisco’s Haight Street Grounds. Tilden wrote in 1891: “It will always be my intention to perpetuate young California manhood in bronze and marble.”

Tilden submitted his baseball player statue for review to the American section of the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris (the same world’s fair that presented the Eiffel Tower), thinking that American judges would appreciate it. Instead, those Americans rejected it. However, the French association Salon de Artistes Français at the Exposition accepted it, according to Robert Elias’ book “Baseball and the American Dream: Race, Class, Gender and the National Pastime.”

After Paris, the winning baseball player sculpture was exhibited in New York before railroad businessman William E. Brown purchased it and had it brought to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. 

“A few gentlemen” were present at the unveiling on July 7, 1891, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Noteworthy attendees along with Tilden included Park Commissioners William W. Stow and Alexander Austin. Professor Wilkinson from Tilden’s school for the Deaf was also present.

The six-foot-tall bronze statue stands on a five-foot-tall granite base. An inscription on the base reads: “Presented to the Golden Gate Park By a Friend of the Sculptor As a Tribute to His Energy, Industry and Ability.”

Golden Gate Park’s first commissioner, William Hammond Hall, acknowledged that more than a dozen previous proposals for monuments in the park were rejected, but Tilden’s work won despite his limited training.

After a bright start, Tilden had a career producing multiple Bay Area monuments with San Francisco Mayor James Phelan as his supporter. Starting in 1894, Tilden taught sculpture in San Francisco at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art (now called the San Francisco Art Institute) using a pad to write. Tilden even became a jury member of the 1904 St. Louis Exposition.

As part of a City Beautiful Movement, Phelan wanted to stimulate civic pride among locals, and Tilden participated by sculpting the Mechanics Fountain and the Admission Day Monument, both on Market Street.

Things didn’t go smoothly for Tilden later on. Tilden wasn’t able to return to teaching later in life at a School for the Deaf partially due to oralism, the idea that education for the deaf should emphasize speech. Tilden’s difficulties in getting along with others also negatively impacted his work as he thought himself above submitting entries to get artistic work opportunities, author Ken Stein wrote. Tilden’s work was planned to be in the 1916 Panama-Pacific Exposition until a “dispute with the directors,” according to the California Art Project biography. His marriage also fell apart.

Tilden was found dead at 75 in his Berkeley studio on Aug. 6, 1935 and was thought to have died two days earlier. Douglas Tilden was not related to Charles Lee Tilden of Tilden Park.

The monument is located about 700 feet southeast of the Conservatory of Flowers. From the intersection of JFK and Nancy Pelosi drives, go east 200 feet on JFK Drive. The monument is on the south side of the street.

To read more columns by Kinen Carvala on the history of the monuments in Golden Gate Park, click HERE.


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