PITTSBURGH — Visitors to Matthews International are asked to wear steel-toe shoes, safety glasses, and earplugs prior to stepping out on the main factory floor.
“Please don’t touch anything and watch where you walk,” said Paul Storino, a project manager.
It’s advice well-taken when making your way through a foundry. Molten bronze is about 2,000 degrees, and the workers who handle it are wrapped in safety gear and wear helmets that seem suited for a spacewalk. Even from a distance, the heat shimmers off the golden liquid metal.
Don’t get too close? No problem.
But this soot-covered, noisy, and oppressively hot place produces treasured pieces of baseball history that will be admired for decades to come.
This is where the plaques are made for the Hall of Fame.
Matthews, a company that specializes in grave markers and bronze signs of all shapes and sizes, has worked with the Hall of Fame since 1983, manufacturing the plaques commemorating the feats of 160 legends.
You wouldn’t know something special is happening inside just looking at the place. The foundry is in a nondescript brick building alongside a busy road about 4 miles from PNC Park.
As the Hall of Fame plaques were being manufactured in late June, so was a large round sign that would be set into a plaza outside a bank, along with a small statue of a recently deceased man with his beloved dog.
The Hall of Fame plaques are a tiny piece of their business and as plant manager Trevor Dunthorne was careful to note, Matthews puts the same care into all its products.
“But the people here love doing the plaques,” Dunthorne said. “We take a lot of pride in them.”
From making the initial mold to pouring the bronze and then finishing the plaques to make sure every detail stands out once it takes its place on the oak wall of the Plaque Gallery in Cooperstown, many Matthews employees have a role in the process.
It starts when Tom Tsuchiya, a Cincinnati-based sculptor, creates the image of the player. He works off photographs provided by the Hall of Fame so the player is shown at a particular era of his career.
The plaque is not a reproduction of any one image. It’s three-dimensional original artwork.
Jon Shestakofsky, a Belmont native, is the Hall’s vice president of communications and education. He shepherds the process and works closely with Matthews to make sure everything comes out right.
If not, they start over again.
The final approval comes from Hall of Fame president Josh Rawitch.
For a player like David Ortiz there are thousands of images to choose from. Tsuchiya looks for different angles of a Hall of Famer’s face and found one Globe photograph from Ortiz’s final game in 2016 particularly helpful.
Others are a much greater challenge. One of the inductees this year, Negro Leagues pioneer Bud Fowler, died in 1913 and only two photographs of him were available.
“I can look at a grainy photo and use my knowledge of what humans look like and fill in blanks,” Tsuchiya said. “It’s a team effort with the Hall.”
Tsuchiya, 49, started working for Matthews in 2016. His first two creations were Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza.
“This is a dream come true for me,” said Tsuchiya, a baseball fan who also has created statues for the Cincinnati Reds that are displayed outside of Great American Park. “It’s the most special thing I do.”
The Hall of Famers do not play any role in creating their plaques. The first time they see it is when it’s unveiled at the induction ceremony.
The wording on the plaque is something Shestakofsky and others on the Hall of Fame staff sweat over.
“A labor of love but also something we have to make sure is 100 percent correct,” said Shestakofsky, who worked in media relations with the Red Sox before joining the Hall. “It’s something people will be reading for years to come.”
Ortiz’s plaque reads:
Minnesota, A.L. 1997-2002; Boston, A.L. 2003-16. Powerhouse left-handed slugger who was at his best in the clutch with legendary postseason performances that took the Red Sox from championship drought to three World Series titles in a 10-year stretch. Eight times named top designated hitter while earning 10 All-Star selections. Drove in 100-or-more runs in 10 seasons, leading American League three times. His 541 home runs, 632 doubles and 1,768 RBI are all-time highs among designated hitters. Extra innings walk-off hits in Games 4 and 5 of 2004 A.L.C.S, netted series M.V.P. honors. Set A.L. record for batting average (.688) en route to 2013 World Series M.V.P.
Ortiz visited Cooperstown in June and at the request of the Hall, signed the spot on the wall where his plaque will be. Ortiz also took time to walk through the gallery and look closely at the plaques, particularly of those players he played against.
“This is an amazing place,” Ortiz said. “That plaque means you accomplished something special. That’s when you know you made it.”
Read more about David Ortiz’s induction
- ‘He’s the player who changed everything’: David Ortiz’s entry into Hall immortality has finally arrived
- A giant in Red Sox history, David Ortiz remains a huge figure in sports and life after baseball
- Long drives to Cooperstown: Explore every one of Ortiz’s home runs with our interactive