Jim Sprankle has carved out quite a unique life
“Yeah, there’s Joe DiMaggio’s signature and over there is Lou Gehrig’s.” It’s a sunny afternoon on Sanibel and Jim Sprankle proudly points out some of the most famous signatures in the history of baseball, which is shown prominently inside his house, which he shares with his wife, Patty.
Sprankle owns one of the biggest signed baseball collections by Hall of Famers in the nation, but it’s his hands in which he uses to point to names such as Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson – which makes him known worldwide.
Those same hands have created wood carvings of wildfowl which are recognized on just about every continent in the world and are heavily sought after by collectors from all over the United States to China.
Sprankle’s life of baseball and wood carving have intertwined and what has resulted since 1968, are some of the most lifelike and beautiful wood sculptures of birds an individual will ever see.
The secret to being successful in both?
“If you want something badly enough, you can do it,” Sprankle said.
That statement alone has carried Sprankle through a professional baseball career, which netted him 11 years of playing in just about every major league park from 1952 to 1963 and earning a World Series ring.
His professional baseball career, in which he spent time with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds, is very evident when he wears his 1955 Dodger World Series ring.
But it’s Sprankle’s time as a pro which helped fuel his passion for carving wildfowl.
“When I was in high school, I was told I couldn’t play baseball professionally,” Sprankle said. “When I signed my first pro contract on July 22, 1952, I called that person up and thanked him for telling me I can’t do something, because that just motivated me to do it.”
With that inner-fire still burning after he retired from baseball as an overhand curveball pitcher, his next love would eventually become his life – woodcarving.
“My grandpa, who grew up in Germany, was a cabinet maker, so I grew up around wood,” Sprankle said of the start to his carving career. “When I was 16 or 17, I was also doing taxidermy on ducks only. I didn’t realize how important that would be in my future.”
In fact, learning the anatomy of a duck – and later other waterfowl and birds – by literally seeing and feeling at the tip of fingers the structure and colors these specimen bring, was rolled over into Sprankle’s carvings.
To get a sculpture looking as realistic as possible, Sprankle knew he would need to know every inch of the animal, which transitions into his pieces.
“When you see something everyday, you know what they can do anatomically,” Sprankle said. “For years I had a federal permit to have anything in my possession, except for a bald eagle. I couldn’t harvest (the wildfowl), either.”
Sprankle goes into heavy detail measuring the bird and taking notes and samples of its coloring.
“I can reduce everything to scale,” Sprankle said. “When I make a spoonbill, I can make it half size or one third size, but everything will be anatomically correct. That has helped tremendously.”
Sprankle’s wood carving beginnings started on duck heads while he was a kid growing up in Lafayette, Ind., to improve his hunting and the ability to attract ducks.
“What prompted me, was I wanted decoys with their heads in different positions and not just one looking straight ahead,” he said. “So I just decided to change some heads and make them more realistic.”
During his time living in New York and Maryland, he owned large aviaries which contained many species of marsh ducks and divers. Watching how these birds flew, walked, interacted and plumed in color, started to inspire his carvings.
He started to perfect his craft after entering worldwide competitions, which criteria is creating lifelike birds.
“That’s what really started me to focus on the detail,” Sprankle added.
But as Sprankle soon found out, the challenge of changing a block of Tupelo wood into a masterpiece didn’t just involved his carving tools, but learning intricate painting techniques.
“Painting is 80-percent of the end result, it’s what makes it,” Sprankle said. “If it’s not painted well, it isn’t anything. I need to capture the colors and I won’t paint or carve anything if I don’t have that bird in front of me. I won’t use pictures, because you get different colors and they will be wrong.”
Up to 1994, Sprankle only carved waterfowl which was mainly found on the east coast. But that changed when he and Patty moved to Sanibel and he started taking commissions on different species of birds.
That in itself opened up an entire new woodcarving world for Sprankle, who started in on Roseate Spoonbills, egrets, ospreys and what can be considered one of his most famous pieces – the bald eagle.
“People buy what they see or relate to in what part of the country they are in,” Sprankle said. “So when we moved here in 1994, it was a new challenge to me to carve all the new species.”
Moving to Sanibel with Patty and their son, James, also led to another passion of his life of volunteering at “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, which allowed him to be in nature, donate his time and be around some of the best what the island has to offer.
By then, Sprankle was a world-renowned wood carver, while being one of the most famous woodcarving teachers in the world, a position he retired from two years ago.
One of his finest pieces now resides in one of the U.S. President’s libraries, and it’s all thanks to his volunteering at “Ding” Darling Refuge.
In 2003, then Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, who served under President George W. Bush from 2001-2006, saw Sprankle’s bald eagle wood sculpture which was at FGCU. She instantly admired it and eventually Sprankle received a call from a White House assistant who commissioned a bald eagle piece for President Bush.
“She said they are not allowed to pay for it, but I said ‘I was more than honored to do it,'” Sprankle said.
Sprankle worked on the piece and used a stuffed bald eagle from “Ding” Darling as a reference, and he entitled it “The Freedom Fighter”. It was appraised at $70,000, in which residents of Sanibel helped raise the money to pay for it.
Sprankle, along with former CIA Director and Sanibel resident Porter Goss, then were off to Washington D.C.
“That’s the kind of people who are on Sanibel,” Sprankle said of the gesture. “It was just great.”
Goss, Sprankle and President Bush met in the Oval Office, where “The Freedom Fighter” was going to reside. They ended up talking about Sprankle’s two biggest passions in life.
“President Bush talked about the bird, but 90-percent of the time, we talked about baseball,” Sprankle said.
But even carving a piece for the President of the United States doesn’t rank the highest. That’s because every one of his pieces is his favorite.
“The one that I am working on, is always my favorite,” Sprankle included.
Sprankle’s pieces go anywhere from $3,500 to $45,000. He has had some famous commissions, such as to Charles Schwaub, but no matter the customer, they have to wait on Sprankle’s timetable.
“I don’t set deadlines, because I don’t rush it,” Sprankle said.
The other half of Sprankle’s customers are the many charities he donates pieces to. It includes “Ding” Darling Refuge and the Children’s Hospital of Sanibel Captiva Cares group.
Sprankle has donated carvings in which have gone on charity auctions and has raised over a quarter of a million dollars for the Children’s Hospital.
But as Sprankle puts it, it’s time well invested to help give back to the community and other worthwhile charity organizations.
“It makes me feel good that I can do this,” Sprankle said.
No matter if his hands are throwing an overhand curveball in professional baseball, or carefully carving and painting one of his highly sought after wildfowl woodcarvings, Sprankle has done things his way with precision and desire.
It has been a perfect way to navigate through life for Sprankle, as he has his famous carvings and a World Series ring on his finger to prove it.