Cincy artist behind Walker's HOF plaque

September 9th, 2021

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- SpongeBob SquarePants didn’t make Larry Walker’s Hall of Fame plaque.

Walker’s humor and wit will live on. And thanks to Tom Tsuchiya, the Cincinnati sculptor who has designed and executed Hall plaques since the 2016 class was inducted, the eyes that burned intensity when Walker plied his trade will endure forever.

Walker, the Rockies’ first honored player, has drawn laughs for wearing SpongeBob, the delightful, animated character, emblazoned on his shirt the day he was selected, and on his lapel pin during his speech. But Walker is in the Hall not for sartorial whim, but for otherworldly play, which Tsuchiya captured in bronze.

“This is not the SpongeBob SquarePants version of Larry,” Tsuchiya said as fans streamed by to admire the plaque and be pictured with it. “This is the game-face Larry. They’re two different people. When he was playing, when he was hitting, he wasn’t goofing off. I mean, he was quite serious.

“That's really what I've noticed about all these guys. These people, the elite of the elite, are just so completely like this [he held his palms beside his eyes, like horse blinders, for emphasis] -- are completely laser-focused and serious.”

Tsuchiya is quite experienced at tossing aside media personae and image applied by others and bringing out the essence of the player in his works. Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park features Tsuchiya’s larger-than-life statues of Crosley Field legends Ted Kluszewski, Ernie Lombardi, Joe Nuxhall and Frank Robinson, as well as Big Red Machine stars Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Pete Rose. The National Football League’s Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award for the league’s best offensive line is his work, also.

But the Hall plaques -- which, prior to their reveal, are seen only by what Tsuchiya calls “a small team” not including the Hall of Famer -- involve a meticulous process. This year’s depictions of Walker, Derek Jeter, Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller have been under wraps since 2020, long before last year’s ceremony was pushed back because of the pandemic.

So how did Tsuchiya capture Walker, and how does he go about making the players live in bronze? Let’s count the ways.

1. He wants to know how they looked. He needs to know how they played.
“Because these plaques are part-2D, part-3D, you can’t just use one source,” Tsuchiya said. “There might be a really good image, a two-dimensional image that I really love. Then the Hall and I work together until we say, ‘That’s the look.'

“And then I watch a lot of film footage, which really helped to create the 3D elements. Because unlike the statues that I did where I work with the players, this one is all secret.”

2. Tsuchiya felt his work secured the trait that revealed all of Walker’s attributes.
After voters argued the statistical numbers, Tsuchiya was able to see on video the speed, the power and the anticipation that all the great ones have. But Tsuchiya and the few others in the inner circle kept coming back to one feature.

“Some of us at the Hall were talking, and we thought the intense look in his eyes was something that best captures him,” Tsuchiya said. “The eyes on this one are what I really love.”

3. The Rockies’ interlocking “CR” logo is a first, and it’s not as easy to depict on bronze as one may think.
Colorado's cap has two sets of seams, purple and silver, of varying widths. Where the letters interlock, there’s not much room for the serifs -- the finishing marks at the bottom of the “C” and the top of the “R.”

“The tinier things are delicate and a little more difficult,” Tsuchiya said, smiling. “I think I got it the first time, which is good.

“The hardest one is the Mariners, with the compass -- there is a compass with the baseball -- for Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez.”

4. The reactions are worth the work.
“Chipper Jones was used to seeing the bobbleheads that don’t actually look like him,” Tsuchiya said. “He was like, ‘Ooh, this actually looks like me.’

“And I remember Trevor Hoffman. He was jumping up and down and he gave me a big hug. And then he said, ‘I don’t give hugs easily.’ That was really cool. That was really special.”

5. If you have a shot at the Hall, throw away the razor.
After playing for the Expos 1989-94, Walker signed with the Rockies and arrived with just a faint goatee and a mullet. As he became a star with Colorado, he grew a goatee that was well-grayed by the time he finished up with the Cardinals in 2004 and '05, and still lives today.

The hair that flowed toward his shoulders -- which doesn’t exist in any form today -- was a bonus for the bronze depiction. And each hair on his chinny-chin-chin delighted the sculptor.

“He got the facial hair going and the hair, which always makes it interesting,” Tsuchiya said.

Remember, Todd Helton started his career clean-shaven, but he preferred a beard or a thick goatee as his 17-year career with the Rockies continued. And he made a significant jump in Hall of Fame voting last winter.

Should Helton earn enough votes, Tsuchiya will have a blast.