Emily M. Wolfson remembers painting her first Unforgettaball like it was yesterday, although it was 22 years and 875,000 Unforgettaballs ago.
“I started back when baseballs were all-white, and were used either for playing or for autographs,” she said. “You couldn’t find souvenir baseballs with images on them anywhere. I painted an American flag on a baseball. I thought, ‘Wow! This is like a cool, Andy Warhol kind of pop art.’ I saw the ying and yang of it all. The ball was a gift for my boyfriend, Greg, now my husband, who really liked flags.”
Wolfson was an architect back then but discovered in the mid-1990s that she didn’t really like being one. She did, however, like working in the minute detail that architectural drawings demand.
“I was hand-painting pop art baseballs -- a $1 bill, an American flag, a billiard table -- and putting each one on a little shot glass so you could spin it around,” she said. “It took me 40 hours to hand-paint an image directly onto a ball. I sold them at craft shows, like the one in Manayunk, but I discovered it was hard to find people interested in buying $600 baseballs. I thought, ‘There’s got to be some way to print my designs on there.’ ”
At the same time that her architectural mind-set was leading her away from Warhol and into painting ballparks on baseballs, Wolfson discovered China -- specifically a Chinese factory that, through a proprietary process, could faithfully reproduce her hand-painted designs on thousands of Unforgettaballs, allowing her to drop the price to $25 to $30.
Wolfson, 50, has designed 150 Unforgettaballs and sells 10,000 every year through her website. She creates her motifs -- "to scale, very small, very detailed" -- at a table in her Bala Cynwyd home. She cuts two peanut-shape pieces of thin illustration board that mirror the cowhide construction of a baseball’s covering, then paints them flat, “seeing where everything’s going to land and what’s going to touch where when the pieces are put together on a baseball.”
Nationally, her top five best sellers are Yankee Stadium, the 2016 Cubs World Series, Jackie Robinson, and two throwbacks to her Warhol era -- the anniversary ball (champagne on ice, the word forever, and a space to fill in “opening day,” the wedding date), and the “I love you” ball (covered with black and white hearts, and a single red one inscribed, “Love you”).
A local best seller is the Phillies 2008 World Championship ball depicting the joyous team mobbing Brad Lidge and Carlos Ruiz on the mound, and a Game 5 ticket torn in two, representing the two nights it took to play the deciding game due to a stormy-weather delay.
Other Philly favorites are her Connie Mack Stadium ball -- including a Ballantine Beer scoreboard and an Alpo ad on the outfield fence -- and her Veterans Stadium ball, which captures an afternoon game down to the scattering of empty blue seats.
“If you spent your whole life watching the Phillies at the Vet, that’s the ball you want,” Wolfson said, “even though Citizens Bank Park is more beautiful.”
Although Wolfson has painted balls honoring such baseball greats as Jackie Robinson (with the inscription "Maybe tomorrow, we'll all wear 42"), Pete "Charlie Hustle" Rose ("Let him in: 4256 hits"), and the movie Wild Thing ("I think I love you"), she doesn't do their portraits, just architecture and bits of memorabilia.
Wolfson has painted 29 of the 30 existing ballparks, except Marlins Park in Miami, and several classic stadiums that no longer exist. In the process, she has gathered a national following of collectors. When she ventures far from the Philadelphia area to paint stadium and championship balls, she relies on social media for the intimate details.
“When the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series, I started talking with people from that city about the songs they were singing in the stands and the quotes they were writing on their posters,” she said. “In a sense, these balls are created by the fans, so they’re more like the immersive experience of being there at the series in that moment in time.”
Her Cubs championship ball depicts a “Bryzo” tribute to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the slugging best pals who were the heart of the Cubs’ ending a 108-year championship drought, and includes their motto, “We put the ding in dinger.”
Wolfson creates 10 to 15 Unforgettaballs a year in her ballpark series, her championship series, her great player series, her upcoming branches of the military series, and her evergreen personal occasion series.
"I have your wedding through your wedding anniversary Unforgettaballs, and a when-you’re-pregnant through a baby’s first Unforgettaball,” she said. “I can go through your whole life with Unforgettaballs.”
Yet, to this day, Wolfson said, “I meet people who say, ‘This is strange. Why would you do that to a baseball when you could paint plates? Or canvas?’ And I’m like, ‘No. I found my niche.’ I equate this to the Lego guy, Nathan Sawaya, who took a medium and made it into incredible sculptures. I feel like I’m an artist who has taken on a medium and created a whole world. The scope of my world is on baseballs.”