Whatever they do, Jay and Patty Baker seem to hit out-of-the-park homeruns. Devoted philanthropists, the Bakers are well-known for their contributions in Collier County to The Baker Museum at Artis—Naples; Naples Community Hospital; The Naples Players; Gulfshore Playhouse; and many others. While it’s almost impossible to mention the arts in Naples without a nod to the Bakers, what wasn’t so transparent to all, until recently anyway, is Jay’s passion for baseball and the New York Yankees. Remarkably, the Bakers have combined Jay’s love of the game with their collecting prowess, resulting in what is likely the most impressive New York Yankees memorabilia compilation in the world: “Baseball Heroes: Works from the Jay H. Baker Collection.”
On display at The Baker Museum through May 15, the collection began with a bit of a curveball, almost by mistake. In 1995, as a gift for Jay, Patty purchased a commemorative Yankees baseball. Erroneously, two baseballs—not just one—arrived at their home, which was in Wisconsin. When Patty asked Jay which he wanted to keep, he quickly quipped, “I want both.” Although he had previously collected some sports memorabilia, including items from the New York Knicks, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, and even a few Yankees pieces, Jay explains, “Nothing really stood out; nothing was really that important.” However, when Patty gave him those two balls, it was a eureka moment: “My favorite sport is baseball, my favorite team is the Yankees, and this is what I should do: a Yankees collection.”
The world of collecting sports-related items can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to a team with as much historical heft as the Yankees. But Jay astutely started the collection by narrowing the scope right off the bat, centering it around the four best-ever Yankees: Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. “Later we added [Derek] Jeter, because he’s so great,” expounds Jay.
The items in the collection are as diverse as they are unique. Visitors will find extremely rare and valuable finds like the jersey worn by Jeter in 1995 during his first game played for the Yankees. There’s Mickey Mantle’s—not one, not two, but three—American League Most Valuable Player trophies, as well as the uniform Babe Ruth donned during the first-ever All-Star Game. And the pentagon tread upon by countless Yankee greats—the home plate used from 1923 to 1973 in Yankee Stadium—is representative of other pieces within the collection offering disparate perspectives of diamond days.
Those who share Jay’s love of the game—and even casual spectators—will find the exhibit an important demonstration of cultural relevance. “From a historical perspective,” Patty says, “this is monumental. You can witness the evolution of baseball as you walk through the exhibit.”
Says Jay: “Other than the Baseball Hall of Fame, you’ll never have an opportunity to see a collection like this. And even the Baseball Hall of Fame executive staff said that, as a Yankees collection, this is the best private collection they’ve ever seen…these five players, in their time, were superstars.”
Jay grew up in New York, playing baseball and attending games at Yankee Stadium from an early age. Because many of the collection’s objects, not just the first two balls, have been carefully selected gifts to Jay from Patty, she’s inspired and fueled his passion, too.
“He’s got a great [Yankees] library, and all of these wonderful artifacts,” says Patty. “It’s wonderful, and 25 years later, he still loves it.”
Exhibition reflects the Bakers’ devotion to art—and each other
Of work and art, Andy Warhol said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it.” When it comes to art appreciation and criticism, the Bakers have great experience and expertise. They are noteworthy connoisseurs who typically take a collaborative approach when it comes to both arts-related philanthropy and fine-art collecting.
“We both have to love it before we buy it; if one of us doesn’t like it, it’s a no,” explains Patty, a former museum docent, who has a remarkably creative mind as both an investor and producer of Broadway shows.
Many of Jay and Patty’s yeses are on display at The Baker Museum in “Love in All Forms: Selections from the Art Collection of Patty and Jay Baker” through May 15. The exhibition showcases pieces the couple cherishes. Yes, Warhol gets some love, as well as Claude Monet, Tamara de Lempicka, Fernand Léger, and Henri Matisse. Works by these and other notable artists traverse mediums, periods, movements, and subject matters. Love is the unifying theme of the collection, so the concept of love in its many forms for people, places, and pets is on display, both overtly and subliminally.
“Every work in this exhibition is an artistically significant and museum-quality work of art,” says The Baker Museum Director and Chief Curator Courtney McNeil. “The three paintings by Tamara de Lempicka are among the finest works ever painted by the artist, and this exhibition is a rare opportunity for the public to enjoy them.”
Because Jay and Patty selected all the pieces together, giving many of them as gifts to one another, they consider the collection a reflection of their feelings toward each other, too. “It stems from our love of art in all forms,” says Patty. “And our love for each other,” adds Jay.
Neapolitans know about the Bakers’ commitment to their city, whether it’s their philanthropic devotion to people, places, or animals. What is less known, however, is how this couple, now married more than 30 years, fell in love.
Jay, who grew Kohl’s into the behemoth it is today, was in the final stages of a divorce at the time, while Patty had just found out about “the other woman” in her own marriage. They met one night at a Vietnamese restaurant in Westport, Connecticut, and that’s how their enduring companionship began.
“I was looking for that soulmate,” explains Jay. “And I really found one. We get along so well. We enjoy so many things together—traveling, family, art, and even sports.”
Patty fell in love with Jay’s sense of humor and strong character. “He made me laugh,” she simply says. She admired several other traits, too. “His sincerity. His integrity. His depth. He doesn’t hold a grudge, and he’s a great problem solver.”