Pasadena artist Ben Sakoguchi, 77, has spent the past two decades creating a series of small paintings, done in his unique twist on vintage orange-crate labels. Rather than quaint celebrations of Olde California, with Spanish-style haciendas and idyllic groves of fruit trees, the pictures and text tell alternative histories, such as his family’s internment during World War II and of race barriers in Major League Baseball. Some 150 of his works are being featured at an upcoming exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, The Unauthorized History of Baseball in 100-Odd Paintings: The Art of Ben Sakoguchi, which opens April 7 and runs through Sept. 4.
The show is intriguingly paired with a touring exhibition at the Skirball: Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American, organized by the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, tells the story of American Jews and other minorities who embraced the all-American sport and, in the process, helped make it more inclusive. “It argues that baseball reflects our American dreams and our American trials,” says Cate Thurston, the Skirball’s curator of the Sakoguchi show. “Baseball is a mirror into American society, it reflects both our best and the worst.”
Born in 1938 in San Bernardino, Ben Sakoguchi was only five when his family was sent to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. The U.S. government had established the camps after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, regarding all Japanese in the country as a threat — even the 62 percent who were American citizens. In 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt issued the now-notorious Executive Order 9066, which called for people of Japanese descent to report to relocation centers on the West Coast. From there, some 120,000 Japanese-Americans were moved to 10 internment camps located inland. Ben’s parents, George and Mary Sakoguchi, had owned a small but thriving grocery store in San Bernardino. When the order came, they had to give up their business and pack up the family to spend three years in a remote camp until the war ended.
Ben’s father, George, might have turned bitter, or even returned to Japan — unlike his wife, Mary, he was not an American citizen — but after the war the couple took their four children back to San Bernardino. While many Japanese-Americans had nothing to return to, Mary Sakoguchi had had the foresight to sew $1,000 in cash into a money belt before leaving home. When they returned, that money helped them restart their grocery store and their lives. Ben would later commemorate those difficult years in a series of paintings called Postcards from Camp (1999–2001).
Sakoguchi still remembers the store and, in an interview for the Skirball Cultural Center, he says, “One of the things I liked was looking at the orange crates stacked up in the back of the store.” He liked their colorful labels and all the product details they conveyed in pictures and text. He later attended UCLA, earning BA and MFA degrees. After receiving his MFA in 1964, he took a job teaching art at Pasadena City College and remained there until his retirement in 1997.
By 1994, he had already started his The Unauthorized History of Baseball series. These small acrylic-on-canvas paintings are based on the format of those orange-crate labels, but they wryly and pointedly express Sakoguchi’s own perspectives on personal history, inequalities and inequities, and American popular culture. “When I paint with these labels,” he said in an interview for Sports Illustrated magazine, which showcased his work in 2006, “it’s disarming, no matter the subject. People don’t want to be lectured about politics or race, so I use images and colors that soften the blow.”
Each image in the series includes certain standard elements found in orange-crate labels, such as a brand name, a location name and an orange. There are also, says curator Thurston, “tropes that come up again and again in these orange-crate labels from California in the 1930s and ’40s — pastoral scenes, padres, beautiful women.”
The Unauthorized History paintings are divided into several sections. “The Pop Series” tells the story of George Sakoguchi, Thurston says. “It’s a deeply personal story that explains Ben’s connection to baseball, which is that his father loved the game,” she says. In the painting American Oranges Pop Brand, the left panel depicts a young man in a cap who has stepped off the ship behind him, a suitcase in one hand, a tied bundle in the other. The words across his legs provide his name: “Hideo Soguchi a.k.a. ‘George.’” With his Western clothes and new name, the young man was already assimilating into his new environment. The right panel contains text providing his early history and begins, “MY POP CAME TO AMERICA WITH HIS FATHER, 2 YEARS BEFORE THE EXCLUSION ACT…” and ends with “MY POP CHOSE AMERICA AS HIS HOME.” In the painting Pop’s California Dreamin’ Brand, George holds a baseball bat and wears a big smile. The text continues the story of his parents opening a grocery store during the Great Depression and describes his father’s love of baseball.
In the section called “All Time Greats,” there is a salute to Satchel Paige in the painting Satch Navels Brand. Paige stands in the center of the painting, casually tossing an orange up in the air, rather than a baseball. Some consider him the greatest pitcher of all time, but because he was African-American, he was relegated to the Negro leagues much of his professional life, and proper records of his accomplishments were not kept. In Rookies Brand, Paige stands on the left, next to the words “42 yrs” — the age at which he was finally signed to the Cleveland Indians. On the right is a white player, Joe Nuxhall, who was recruited into the majors when he was 15, indicating the disparity in opportunities offered players of different races. Clearly, Paige should have been signed into the majors much, much sooner.
“I’m trying to look at baseball at a little different angle,” Sakoguchi has said. “No one dictates what I do on these canvases. I want to paint what I want to paint, they’re fun. I’m basically an optimistic person, but I’m a realist.”
The Unauthorized History of Baseball in 100-Odd Paintings: The Art of Ben Sakoguchi is on view from April 7 through Sept. 4 at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Museum hours are noon to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Admission costs $12, $9 for seniors, full-time students with I.D. and children over 12 and $7 for children two to 12; members and children under two are admitted free. Call (310) 440-4500 or visit skirball.org.