TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Dressed in a fire-retardant tan leather jacket and chaps, Craig Wedderspoon, a University of Alabama professor of sculpture, used a pair of long iron tongs to drop a 25-pound bronze ingot into a glowing fiery pit in the campus’s foundry.
Molten bronze splashed up, licking at the tongs. An upward-rolling ball of flames followed, lighting up the dark corners of the foundry and dispersing floating embers in the air.
Shortly afterward, a silicon carbide crucible – a specialized pot – was lifted from inside the pit, and its liquefied bronze contents were poured into a mold of arms – the arms of an American baseball legend.
The recently completed life-sized bronze statue of National Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays will be officially unveiled at the home of the Birmingham Barons minor league baseball team at Regions Field Wednesday at 4 p.m. on the 14th Street side of the stadium.
Mays is a Birmingham native who got his start in professional baseball with the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro League in the late 1940s. He later played for the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets in the MLB, leading the league in home runs four times, finishing with 660 — then the second most ever, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The sculpture was designed and created by painter and sculptor Caleb O’Connor – formerly of Chicago, now of Tuscaloosa – and was cast in bronze by Wedderspoon and recent UA art graduate Eric Nubbe. O’Connor was commissioned to immortalize Mays in bronze by the Alabama-Mississippi chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Every year, the Alabama-Mississippi chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society holds a Legacy of Leadership campaign to honor someone who’s made a significant impact on the Birmingham community, and, in the process, raise money to fund its mission of ending MS, a disabling disease that affects the central nervous system.
Eighty percent of the funds raised in the campaign go toward the mission of the MS Society and 20 percent go to the creation of an original work of art that becomes part of Birmingham’s public art scene.
Though from Birmingham, Mays was not the honoree of this year’s 17th Legacy of Leadership campaign. That honor belongs to Birmingham Barons owner Don Logan, who is also the former CEO of Time Inc.
“Don Logan is the honoree, and because of his connection to the Barons and baseball in the community, he chose to honor Willie Mays,” said Andrew Bell, president of the Alabama-Mississippi chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“Throughout the history of the campaign, the honoree has never chosen another individual to be the feature of the artwork. We have done statues in the past, but they have been of the honorees themselves. Don wanted to honor Willie Mays because of his contributions to the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948-1949. In one of those two years, they won the Negro League.”
The statue depicts Mays, who played center field, jumping high into the air performing a mid-air catch, something for which he was well known.
O’Connor, who painted the murals depicting the history of West Alabama in the Tuscaloosa Federal Building and Courthouse from 2009 though 2011, designed and sculpted the full-size clay sculpture of Mays leaping in the air. After O’Connor made the rubber molds of the clay sculpture, Wedderspoon and Nubbe reproduced the sculpture, casting it in bronze.
“I wanted to show him as an athlete in a fleeting moment in sculpture,” O’Connor said. “He’ll be suspended by a plate by his feet. He’ll cast a cool shadow of himself. Wedderspoon designed the wall supporting the sculpture, which adds to the illusion of this heavy bronze being suspended in mid-air.”
Wedderspoon said it was an honor to cast a statue of one of baseball’s greatest.
“I didn’t realize that he was from Birmingham,” Wedderspoon said. “I remember as a kid watching Willie. It’s really exciting to be a part of this.”
Bell said the final sculpture looks amazing, and said they’re enthused about its unveiling at Regions Field.
“I think it’s something the public will be very excited about,” he said. “It’s a win, win, win. It’s a win for the honoree because of the recognition he receives. It’s a win for multiple sclerosis as the society is able to advance groundbreaking research, and it’s a win for the city because they will receive a beautiful piece of public art.”
UA’s art and art history department is part of the College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes and Goldwater scholarships.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.