Good Sport

When he was 14, James Fiorentino’s parents took him to see Joe DiMaggio at an autograph show. Fiorentino brought along a prized possession—a painting he had done of the Yankee great from an old photograph.

A portrait of Eli Manning by James Fiorentino.
Courtesy of James Fiorentino.

“He was always tough at these things and usually didn’t sign artwork, but he seemed to like it and autographed it for me,” says Fiorentino.

Seventeen years later, Fiorentino still has that signed DiMaggio painting, but dozens of his other original sports portraits have seen commercial light. Fiorentino’s painting of Roberto Clemente is in the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. His work has appeared on several sets of baseball cards. It has been on display at the National Basketball Hall of Fame, the Cycling Hall of Fame, and the Roberto Clemente Museum. It has adorned the programs for the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies and Don Mattingly Day at Yankee Stadium.

“When I was young, an art-contest judge told me, ‘Don’t do sports. Stick with landscapes,’” says Fiorentino, 32, whose studio is in Flemington, not far from where he grew up in Middlesex.  “I never took his advice.”
Soon after the DiMaggio meeting, the Baseball Hall of Fame selected Fiorentino’s portrait of Reggie Jackson to be displayed during Jackson’s induction weekend. By then, Fiorentino was a star shortstop for Middlesex High School. Some encouraged him to quit baseball and concentrate on art, but he felt being an athlete enhanced his sports paintings.

Fiorentino moved on to Drew University, where he played baseball and majored in art. In 1999, the year he graduated, Topps selected him to do paintings for ten retro-looking baseball cards—among them, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Mike Piazza. Since then, Fiorentino has done baseball cards for Upper Deck, commissions for Ted Williams and Cal Ripken, and numerous portraits available for purchase at jamesfiorentino.com. He does some wildlife painting, too, but ballplayers are his main calling.

His favorite subject: Montclair’s Yogi Berra. “He was the first player who actually made a reproduction of my artwork. He had me to his house when I was 15 and signed pieces for me,” says Fiorentino, who had an exhibition last year at the Yogi Berra Museum. “He’s a Jersey guy who just loves baseball—like me, I guess.”

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