Memorabilia memories: Painting of Mr. Padre is ‘priceless’ in mind of longtime Padres/Aztecs fan

Solana Beach resident Craig Nelson acquired this oil painting of Tony Gwynn in a garage-sale trade 35 years ago.
(Courtesy Craig Nelson)

Solana Beach resident Craig Nelson’s garage sale 35 years ago led to trade for one of his prized possessions


Garage sales are supposed to be about clearing clutter and making a few bucks in the process.

But, as Craig Nelson says, sometimes it’s just “so we can swap stuff from my closet for stuff from your closet.”

That’s exactly how it worked out for Nelson about 35 years ago when he held a garage sale at the home he then owned in San Carlos. And it is when Nelson came to own one of his most prized possessions — an oil painting of Tony Gwynn.

“I had collected a fairly large stash of memorabilia, including game uniforms, bats and several hundred thousand baseball cards,” Nelson said. “Picking through the old lamps and miscellaneous junk, a neighbor said, ‘I see you are a collector — would you be interested in a Tony Gwynn painting?’ ”

Nelson, who earned a degree in finance from San Diego State in 1984, became an avid Gwynn fan while watching him play basketball and baseball at SDSU. Nelson also came to know Gwynn quite well through Nelson’s ongoing association with the university’s alumni and booster groups.

Anything Gwynn, and Nelson was in.

Nelson’s collection of sports memorabilia spilled into the garage in those days, which is what gave one of his neighbors, a man Nelson did not even know, the idea he might be interested in the painting.

“I was absolutely interested in it,” Nelson said.

“I see you’ve got a used vacuum cleaner,” the neighbor said. “Would you trade?”

“I said, ‘Done,’ ” Nelson responded, without even seeing the artwork before completing the swap.

“I don’t think he was a fan,” Nelson said. “Apparently, this painting had been stuffed in a closet somewhere at their house.

“He probably just thought, ‘That thing’s just sitting in my closet. I’m not getting anything out of it. This guy would probably enjoy it a lot more than I am.’ ”

Added Nelson: “I don’t know how they got it. They may have bought it at some kind of charity auction or something like that, but I don’t exactly recall.”

Nelson was immediately impressed with the artwork.

“The painting is quite colorful,” said Nelson, now a Solana Beach resident. “Take any identifying marks (Padres logos) off there and you still know instantly that it’s Tony. It’s just classic him hitting the ball and running out of the batter’s box.”

The piece measures nearly 3 feet by 4 feet. Nelson paired it on a wall in his home alongside a Gwynn SDSU baseball jersey.

With a little research, Nelson determined the painting was done in 1985, four years into Gwynn’s 20-year career with the Padres.

At that point, Gwynn had collected but 559 of his 3,141 hits and earned only one of his eight National League batting titles (for hitting .351 in 1984).

The painting is signed by Gwynn as well as the artist, Gene Locklear.

“It wasn’t until later that I did some research and realized who it was and his whole history,” Nelson said of Locklear. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is even cooler.’ ”

Locklear is a former outfielder whose five-year major league career included parts of four seasons (1973-76) with the Padres. Locklear, who is a full-blooded member of the Lumbee Indian Nation, is one of about two dozen Native Americans to reach the majors.

He favors sports-themed and Native American subjects for his artwork, which has been displayed in the White House and Pentagon, along with several sports venues across the nation.

Locklear has been commissioned by golfers Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, along with former Padres pitchers and Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Trevor Hoffman, among others.

According to Locklear’s website, his work has sold for as much as $30,000.

Nelson calls his piece “priceless, to me.”

“I told Tony I had the painting but I never told him I got it for a used vacuum cleaner,” Nelson said. “I was afraid he might be insulted.

“I wish I could tell him that story (now) because I know he wouldn’t be insulted. ... Nope, he would laugh that Tony Gwynn laugh, that infectious, unmistakable cackle. I miss it, but I can still hear it clear as day.”

— Kirk Kenney is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune