Jackie Robinson returns to Philly

Ashburn Alley had a special guest yesterday afternoon.

No. 42.

In honor of the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, a life-sized wood statue was on display in the center-field concourse at Citizens Bank Park. The monument was sculpted by (gulp) a former Mets fan.

“Used to be,” sculptor Brian Birrer, 45, said. “I don’t root for any team now. My kids are wearing Phillies hats.”

The artist from northern New Jersey spent almost 800 hours carving Jackie Robinson, completing him in 2009. The statue weighs 250 pounds, stands at 5 feet 11 inches and is composed of 80 to 100 pieces of wood. It comes apart at the waist, so it can easily be transported in an SUV. Jackie is wearing his 1953 home Dodgers uniform. This is the second year in a row he’s displayed it at the Bank.

“The Phillies have been great,” Birrer said. “My idea is that if you can get into the ballpark and the fans like it, maybe put it in plexiglass, maybe someone makes an offer.”

The idea for Jackie Robinson began when an acquaintance informed Birrer that movie producer Spike Lee might be interested in buying such an item. However, that deal fell apart and Birrer took his show on the road.

“He [Lee] wanted Jackie to be sliding,” Birrer said. “But I felt like sliding is almost a stereotype. I wanted him to look comfortable and relaxed, like a photographer just stopped him and asked for a photo.”

Birrer took up woodcarving during a break from college and parlayed it into a part-time hobby. He works full-time as a computer programmer.

“It’s a nice check when you can get it, but when you consider all the time and overhead, it’s tough to make it a career,” Birrer said.

Still a business

Despite the fun of traveling around to different ballparks, ideally, Birrer would like to sell his artwork, which is valued between $20,000 and $25,000. He has sold four wooden statues in his lifetime, including a Joe DiMaggio to the Yankees.

“It’s crazy to think this stuff was a pile of lumber in my shop,” he said.

Birrer has also sold two Babe Ruth statues and has a Mickey Mantle in inventory. He plans to start working on a Mordecai Brown in the near future. The best part for him is the reaction from the fans. “Nothing like it,” he said. “I can’t put it into words.”