The people have spoken and a photo portrait of the late rightfielder Roberto Clemente will be featured at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, starting Tuesday.
The honored image could have been that of Babe Ruth or Sandy Koufax, but neither was a match for Clemente in an online vote conducted at Smithsonianmag.com. Clemente got 2,034 votes; Koufax, 225; and the Babe, 190.
The source of Clemente’s overwhelming appeal with voters? Unclear. There are no immediate signs of an organized campaign, according to Smithsonian officials. Not that there’s anything wrong with a campaign. In the first such contest staged by the gallery late last year, pitting painter Georgia O’Keeffe against civil rights activist James Meredith and singer-actress Bette Midler, O’Keeffe partisans tweeted encouragement, and the desert modernist prevailed.
Clemente is more than worthy of course — a gifted athlete and humanitarian, born in Puerto Rico. He made his 3,000th career hit in his last regular-season at-bat in September 1972. Three months later, during the off-season, he was killed in a plane crash while on a mission to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was 38.
The point of the contest is to get people thinking, talking and arguing about great figures and their images. Not incidentally, it’s also about finding new channels for the gallery to reach the public, says Rebecca Kasemeyer, associate director for education and visitor experience.
“This was a way for us to think about really engaging an audience in a way that we hadn’t before,” she says of the “Recognize” series that invites the public to pick winners for the curators.
People are asked to vote on specific portraits of the subjects, but it’s unclear how they weigh the power of the portrait against their own emotion for the real person portrayed. In the end, when it comes to judging portraits, are the two values separable?
Clemente is the third in the series, to be featured through Nov. 1. After O’Keeffe was highlighted late last year, a second round was held early this year asking the public to choose among comedians George Carlin, Ellen DeGeneres and Groucho Marx. Carlin had the last laugh.
The portrait of Clemente was made in 1960 by Charles “Teenie” Harris, when Clemente was in his mid-20s. Harris had played semipro ball and co-founded the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the Negro Leagues before he became a photographer documenting African American history and culture in Pittsburgh. He worked for the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper.
The “Recognize” portraits are hung off the gallery’s lobby to the left, where a corridor leads to the gallery’s recent acquisitions.
“It’s a wonderful introduction to the museum and the idea of portraiture,” Kasemeyer says.