Author’s note: This is the second post in a series highlighting “common players” with stories far richer than the value of their trading cards. The first post in the series profiled Dave Hoskins and can be found here.
The common understanding of the term “Renaissance Man” is of someone with many talents or areas of knowledge. Ernie Barnes fits this description. Less correct but truer to the origin of the word renaissance would be a man reborn. Ernie Barnes fits this description too.
Raised in segregated Durham, North Carolina, Barnes was chubby, nonathletic, and bullied by his Hillside High School classmates. He mainly kept to himself and drew in his sketchbook to pass the time. Tommy Tucker, a teacher at the school, noticed the drawings and took an interest in Barnes. A bodybuilder, Tucker sold Barnes on the positive impact weightlifting could have on his life. By the time he graduated, Barnes was state champion in the shotput and captain of the football team. He also had scholarship offers to 26 colleges.
At North Carolina College, Ernie Barnes played tackle and center on the football team while majoring in art. As a kid, despite his interest, Barnes was never able to visit the North Carolina Museum of Art. Blacks were not allowed. In college, however, Barnes made a trip to the recently desegregated museum with one of his art classes. The answer when Barnes asked where he could find paintings by Negro artists? “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”
Twenty-three years the work of Ernie Barnes would fill this same museum, and today his work hangs in Halls of Fame, top galleries, art museums, and the homes of the art world’s top collectors. If you love Motown and grew before everything was digital, there’s a good chance you even have an Ernie Barnes sitting in your music collection.
You might even have several!
That’s great, Jason, but what does all this have to do with baseball cards? Well, let me at least bring it back to sports.
Barnes was selected in the 8th round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, but his Redskins career lasted only a few minutes. Then the team found out Barnes was black. Two rounds later, the Baltimore Colts called his name but ultimately cut Barnes at the end of training camp. In 1960 Barnes played five games with the Titans of New York, who later became the Jets.
Barnes spent the 1961 and 1962 seasons as a San Diego Charger and the following two seasons with the Denver Broncos. Barnes never approached All-Pro status or even started a game, though he picked up the nickname “Big Rembrandt” for the sketches he did during games, including in huddles.
I suspect when you think of football players turned actors, Barnes is not the first to come to mind.
Nonetheless, Barnes acted in numerous television shows and movies, highlighted by his portrayal of Josh Gibson in the 1981 Satchel Paige biopic “Don’t Look Back.”
There is another connection Ernie Barnes has to baseball, one shared with me by Lawrence “Dan” D’Antignac, owner of Chicago’s historic Woodshop, longtime institution and early commercial epicenter of African American art.
As Dan tells it, his wife had made a trip to Los Angeles to meet with Ernie Barnes and discuss the selling of his work when the meeting was interrupted by a woman hoping to show off the work of her teenage son who 100% lived up to the hype.
Perhaps you’ve tasted the back of some of his artwork…
Or been greeted by it at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City…
There’s also a very good chance you’ve run across his book.
Of course, you didn’t come here to read about Kadir Nelson or even art! You want CARDS! Well, luckily I aim to please.
While an Ernie Barnes painting would easily set you back five figures if not six, it turns out any motivated collector can add an Ernie Barnes to his or her collection for the price of a bad ham sandwich.
As the title to this post suggests, Ernie Barnes, one of the great artists of the 20th century and an absolute icon in the African American art world, is a mere “common player, starting at around $2 on COMC and eBay.
Common though he is in the price guides, Ernie Barnes is the only man on the set’s 176-card checklist certain to remain relevant not just decades but centuries from now. Somewhere in a museum a young visitor will ask the docent where the works by African Americans are kept. And then, long, long after all 11 Hall of Famers in the 1964 Topps set have faded from memory, the visitor will happen upon an Ernie Barnes and neglect the rest of the day’s plans for a brush with greatness.