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Dick Perez & the Diamond Kings

By Patrick Mondout

Dick Perez is perhaps the best-known baseball artist of our times. His work has appeared on the covers of programs, on Baseball Hall of Fame postcards, and on hundreds of baseball cards. In 1979 he teamed with Frank Steele to create the Perez-Steele Galleries in Philadelphia. But he is best known to baseball card fans for his yearly work on the Donruss Diamond Kings throughout the Awesome80s and well into the 1990s.

Mr. Perez was kind enough to share some of his experiences with us and I believe it would be best to let him tell us how he got started:

"As a kid who was an avid fan and baseball card enthusiast in the early fifties, I was particularly fond of the cards that used some art form to depict the player images, i.e., the Bowmans and '53 Topps. Art treatments were used in early baseball cards beginning with the Allen & Ginter cards of the 1800s. Alas, after those early '50s cards, paintings of players on cards, to my recollection, never appeared again. The premise that sparked my relationship with Frank Steele and the creation of Perez-Steele Galleries in 1979 was my desire to bring art back to baseball cards. By that time I had become an accomplished illustrator and Frank was a marketing genius that possessed baseball hobby sensitivities as a collector of baseball memorabilia. Thus began my association with the Baseball Hall of Fame and the publication of the Baseball Hall of Fame Art Post Cards."

Not long after the first anniversary of his partnership, Fleer won the first round of a legal battle with Topps, allowing it (and other companies) to produce baseball cards with their gum products. Donruss of Memphis, Tennessee actually became the first company to score a deal with the Major League Baseball Player's Association, and put together an inaugural set in 1981 that, despite some concerns that were address in following years, was above expectations.

Not content to merely compete with Fleer and Topps, Donruss looked for something that would set it apart. Dick Perez tell us what happened next, "Bill Madden, the New York Daily News columnist, was commissioned by the Donruss Company as consultant when the company entered the baseball card business in 1981. Madden was also a collector of our cards. When he was asked by Donruss how the company could separate itself from the other card companies, Madden thought of Perez-Steele Galleries and bringing art back to baseball cards. The rest is history. It was a dream that was realized."

A late 1981 appeals court ruling that only Topps could ship retail baseball cards with gum or with nothing at all left both Donruss and Fleer scrambling. Fleer decided to ship their cards with team logo stickers, a product they had been producing for years. Donruss decided to include three thick-cardboard puzzle pieces in each pack (part of a 63 piece jigsaw puzzle). So began the yearly Donruss puzzles featuring a Hall of Famer painted by Dick Perez.

The 1982 Donruss baseball card set featured 26 of Perez's watercolor "Diamond Kings," one for each Major League team. They proved popular enough that Donruss produced a 44 card set of retired superstars in 1983 called the Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes. Other special sets featuring his artwork were produced, including 5"x7" versions of the Diamond Kings.

The Diamond Kings were painted the summer before they were to appear. This meant that they were selected in the spring of one year but did not appear on cardboard until early in the next year. If you have ever worked with watercolors, you know what a difficult medium they are to create with. That they were watercolors leaves me more impressed with his work as an adult than I was even as a kid.

Dick Perez continued to produce more than 25 new Diamond Kings each year for Donruss until the mid-1990s. He explains, "When the baseball card industry suffered its down turn in the mid to late 1990s the Donruss of that era closed down. That coincided with my desire to move on. I had painted well over 400 Diamond Kings in 15 years, plus a variety of other products, such as, puzzles, special card sets, prints and posters. Boy, was I tired, but I had a great sense of satisfaction knowing that I had played a part in bringing art back to baseball cards."

Like the sport he paints, Dick Perez's work is timeless. You can go through a thousand photographs of your favorite player and not find one that really captures his essence (believe me, I have!). Or you can look at one Perez painting. Five hundred years from now, a book on 20th Century baseball (or website, or whatever they'll find convenient then) will be published. I am certain that Mr. Perez's watercolors will be used profusely by the editor.

His work on the Diamond Kings certainly suited Donruss, who kept him under contract long to make the series the longest lasting subset in baseball card history1, but it also benefited the artist beyond whatever compensation he was given. "My association with the Donruss Company was a life highlight. I had the freedom to explore new techniques and art treatments. To this day I get a bunch of email and regular mail from kids who are now grown up and collected Diamond Kings," says Perez.

As one child of the Awesome80s who looked forward to each year's Diamond Kings and later learned to appreciate what an accomplishment in watercolor they were, here's to Dick Perez - a true off-the-field Diamond King if there ever was one!

You can visit his website here. You will find examples of his work, including the prized Perez-Steele Baseball Hall of Fame Art Postcards, the 1985 "Great Moments" set, the Masterworks cards, and the 1989 Celebration set, produced on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Perez-Steele.

Dick Perez at a Glance
HOF Heroes '79 Phillies Program '95 'Wal-Mart' Ruth
'87 Clemente Puzzle HOF Postcard '82 DK Garvey
1. Donruss likes to claim that this streak is unbroken, but they did not produce cards in 1999 or 2000 and the Diamond Kings, in any case, were no longer painted by Dick Perez. Joe DiMaggio started a 16-game hitting streak immediately after the one for which he is famous. But it was a 56 game hitting streak, not a 72 game hitting streak, and so the Diamond Kings record stands at 15 years.




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Image courtesy of Donruss

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