New York art dealer pitches lithographs of baseball's most beloved old ballparks

October 13, 1991|By Jack Cavanaugh | Jack Cavanaugh,New York Times News Service

On the face of it, Bill Goff seemed to be the quintessential New Yorker, an art dealer who had operated studios in Manhattan for years. But Goff loves the country and has a passion for baseball, especially if the games are played in old stadiums like Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago.

That passion has evolved into a successful business: selling lithographs of major-league ballparks, past and present. Since 1986, Goff has offered 40 different ballpark lithographs and sold thousands of them. All the lithographs are on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Goff moved his unusual ballpark lithograph business in July to Kent, in northwestern Connecticut, which is about as far removed, figuratively, from mid-Manhattan as Fenway Park is from the Houston Astrodome. The move has given Goff, 45, and his wife, Betsy, a lawyer, ample time to indulge their love for the countryside.

For Mrs. Goff, the move meant giving up a job as a lawyer for ABC Sports. She had been with the network for 6 years after spending 11 years with the International Management Group, a sports marketing company that represents many well-known sports figures.

"Betsy and I both love the country and, since our son, Kenny, is now 7, we decided it would be a good time to leave the city," Goff said in an interview.

By the beginning of November, part of Goff's new building will be converted into a gallery displaying his ballpark lithographs. Like the Rose Gallery, which lies in the old Kent train depot on Main Street, Goff's business will also be notable for its site -- in a building on Bridge Street, near Kent's main intersection, that previously housed a branch of the New Milford Savings Bank.

Though Bill Goff Inc. has been there since July, the building still looks like a bank. From time to time people appear in cars at the drive-in window, which is still intact and sit patiently awaiting a teller. "Eventually, we tell them the bank has moved," Mr. Goff said.

Apart from the ballpark lithographs that adorn the walls, the building still has the trappings of a bank, including an empty vault. But Goff has been too busy to worry about interior decorating, particularly since his latest lithograph, the fourth of Fenway Park, went on sale Sept. 30.

Titled "Classic Fenway Clout," it shows Carlton Fisk, the former Boston Red Sox catcher, standing at home plate and trying to will his long drive to left field to stay fair for a home run. (It did, and won the sixth game of the 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.) Far and away the fastest seller of the 40 lithographs that have gone on sale, "Classic Fenway Clout" -- priced at $190 in a limited edition of 600 -- sold out in four days.

Many of these orders came by phone, which kept Goff and his right-hand man, Steve Wilder, extremely busy on the phone and at their computers, processing orders. Business has been so good that Goff recently added a third employee. Mrs. Goff also helps out in the office from time to time, besides handling any legal matters.

Wilder, who was a sportswriter for The New York Post for 11 years, writes a column, "Painting the Corners," for a newsletter that is sent to thousands of people who are on Goff's mailing list. They also receive postcard-size copies of the forthcoming lithographs, most of which are about 15 by 33 inches.

"I love all ballparks, and as a kid used to build multi-tiered baseball stadiums out of toy Lego blocks," Wilder said. I was looking to make a career change, and when the opportunity to join Bill came along, I jumped at it."

After starting out as a dealer in modern art, Goff switched to sports paintings in 1977. But he did not hit on the idea of baseball park lithographs until 1986.

"There was this tremendous interest in baseball nostalgia that was reflected in old baseball cards, and I saw the old ball parks as an extension of that phenomenon," he said.

The most popular of the early lithographs depicted Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. They quickly sold out at prices ranging from $95 to $150.

The original Fenway Park lithograph has sold for as much as $1,600, Goff said, while many of the others have also soared in value. The original paintings are worth far more; for instance, "Fenway Park Triptych," which Goff commissioned for his first lithograph of the ballpark, was bought by Henry Coelho, the owner of a Hartford dental laboratory, for $25,000 after he saw it on display in Mickey Mantle's restaurant in Manhattan.

Goff, who grew up as a Phillies fan in the Philadelphia suburbs, uses three artists, all of them rabid baseball fans and all with their own distinctive styles. They are William Feldman, a former art librarian for the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and the Brooklyn Museum; and Andy Jurinko and Bill Purom, both veteran commercial artists.

For the most part, Goff has focused on old ballparks, like the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Yankee Stadium, Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., and Shibe Park in Philadelphia, where Goff and Jurinko saw their first big league games.

But in the spring, in a departure from his regular business routine, he commissioned Feldman to paint the new Comiskey Park in Chicago. And next spring Purdom will do a painting of the new stadium that will open in April in Baltimore.

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