Cathy O’Hara used to make her husband, Michael, keep his baseball cards in the basement, even though the collection dated back to 1953 and he knew it was valuable. She was no happier when he sat glued to the national pastime on TV. “Are you watching that junk again?” she recalls complaining five years ago. “I used to be so embarrassed that he was almost 30 [he’s 33 now] and still collected baseball cards.”
But today Michael’s 17,400 cards occupy an oak file cabinet in the library of their Independence, Mo. home, and they’re Cathy’s most important reference work. She paints pictures of ballplayers on baseballs. Despite their price tag ($50), orders for her color cowhide likenesses are winging in faster than she can handle them.
Cathy, 32, got into the game in 1980, not long after quitting her job as a police dispatcher to have a baby. Michael, a plumber, had gone into business for himself, and their income dropped from $30,000 to $4,000; to tide them over, he decided to sell his prized collection. The dealer he went to said that what he really wanted was someone who could capture players’ faces on baseballs. Cathy had studied art in high school, but she’d usually stuck to still lifes. “I’d tried doing people,” she confesses, “but they never looked like anybody.” However, her police job had included stints as a composite artist. One sketch of a rapist was so good that a detective recognized the man immediately and it led to his arrest. So she got out her fine-tipped brushes and set about copying the faces on Michael’s cards. Her first was Frank White Jr., second baseman for her hometown Kansas City Royals. “I was in awe when it was done,” she says. “I said, ‘I did that?’ ” Michael says he loved the portrait so much he “hated to see it go”—even though it was rescuing his collection.
Cathy has painted more than 300 faces since then, including Catfish Hunter, Rick Sutcliffe, Jim Rice, Cecil Cooper, Mookie Wilson and even Avron Fogelman, a co-owner of the Royals. (She’s also done a married couple on a golf ball, but that was a one-time thing.) She works at a table with the ball sitting in a ring taken from a baby-bottle nipple, and each portrait takes five to 10 hours. Reggie Jackson and George Brett are the most requested; Reggie is a five-hour job because of “the batting helmet he wears, the mustache and sunglasses.” But Brett sends her into extra innings. “There’s something about his face,” she says. “His dimples, the wad of tobacco in his mouth…I don’t know what it is about George, but he’s just not easy.”
No matter how long it takes, and even though she has a six-month backlog, she charges the same price: $50, or $60 if she provides the ball. Most customers send their own, and she’s had to hang a basket from her mailbox to hold all the little boxes. “I sometimes dread seeing the UPS man come up the street,” she says. She is planning to increase her fee to $75, but most of her customers are not players (Goose Gossage, Graig Nettles and Catfish Hunter placed orders for their portraits through dealers) but fans. “If I charge too much, they won’t be able to afford them,” she frets. “I’m not out to make a fortune.” The most she’s ever gotten was $150 for an autographed doubleheader of Reggie and Dave Winfield—unless you count the one of Stan Musial that Michael traded to a dealer for a set of 1969 cards, priced at $450, to fill a hole in his collection. Her biggest order is from a local sportswriter who commissioned 300 without a deadline. She’s finished 20.
Cathy, who goes to church three nights a week, is as modest about her talent as she is about her prices. “It’s a God-given gift,” she says simply. Michael’s business now brings in about $14,000 a year and last year she added $3,000 from the baseballs. But while she still does sketches for the police occasionally, she doesn’t plan to go back on the force. She used to patrol one night a week and once single-handedly (from behind) disarmed a burglar who had been shooting at people. The portrait business, she says, “is a lot safer.”