- Published: 12 February 2009 12 February 2009
ST. LOUIS – It’s not exactly the Sistine Chapel, but when the new Busch Stadium opened here on April 10, Gabe Drueke could rightly point with pride at his medallions embedded in the structure’s façade.
However, the success of the O’Fallon, Ill.-based WISHSTONE Chisel and Mallet’s first foray into a major commercial project owes as much to the persistence of Drueke’s brother and partner, Steve, as it does to his skill in hand-carving limestone.
Just as the two brothers compliment each other’s skills and strengths, the 13 original medallions – all but one replicated in cast concrete – seem to be a perfect match for the new home of the Cardinals baseball team.
However, neither the stadium’s designer, the Kansas City, Mo.-based HOK Sports, nor team officials, would have known about WISHSTONE and Gabe Drueke’s considerable skills as an artist if his brother hadn’t pushed to get their product in front of decision-makers.
Steve Drueke describes his brother as being the rock star (no pun intended), while he’s the manager. Although his entire family is artistic, Steve Drueke says that Gabe Drueke took the commitment to art a bit further by getting a bachelor of fine arts (BFA) degree in graphic design from the University of Illinois. Nor did he stop there.
“While he was in school, he had a professor who took him aside and asked if he’d be interested in an independent course in stone carving,” says Steve Drueke. “That really got him to where he wanted to be with his art career. Graphic design really wasn’t it.”
Still, that graphic design background has helped the company as the brothers developed brochures and a Website.
Meanwhile, Steve Drueke was working in the information-technology industry, focusing on training, sales and marketing. Very quickly the scope of Gabe’s carving projects forced him into a studio, and four years ago the brothers formed WISHSTONE Chisel and Mallet.
Steve Drueke says while the company is based primarily on his brother’s skills shaping Indiana limestone, the pair recognized that simply selling originals to a select audience would be a very slow go.
“I told him before I got involved in the business that he had to understand we were going to replicate his original work,” says Steve Drueke. “Gabe asked if it would make any money, and I said we would try.”
Since then, the company has produced both commercial and residential projects.
“One of the markets I’ve really started to push on is branding,” says Steve Drueke. “It’s the idea that we could provide a client with a decorative component – maybe a logo, maybe a design – that they’d have as a marker on all their buildings.”
He adds that he started by focusing on general contractors and homebuilders, although those are markets where personal contact is important. A big part of his pitch has been that not only would the customer have an unlimited supply of markers, but there would also be that original piece of hand-carved limestone art.
Not surprisingly, the brothers – both long-time St. Louis Cardinals baseball fans – watched plans move ahead for the third iteration of Busch Stadium with considerable interest. About the time final approval had been received for the approximately $365 million project, Gabe Drueke approached his brother with a request.
“Gabe came to me and said, ‘If we do anything with this business, I want to be a part of that stadium,’” Steve Drueke says. “My first thought was: How the hell am I going to do this? But then I thought, OK, we’ll give it a shot.”
After studying the project, the brothers realized there were areas of block-outs in the façade that appeared to be just perfect for some of Gabe Drueke’s carvings. However, as Steve Drueke began working his normal network of contractors and masonry subcontractors, he got little response.
“I was still living in Atlanta at the time, but I made a couple trips to St. Louis just to build some relationships with the masons and the trades,” Steve Drueke says. “However, it was like, ‘Call me a year from now.’”
Rather than being discouraged, Steve Drueke opted to take a different approach, contacting the office of team owner William DeWitt Jr. on a regular basis.
“After about three months, they’d take my calls now and then, but nobody would call me back,” he says. “Then, the owner’s liaison called me and said, ‘I appreciate your persistence, but you have to stop calling this office.’”
However, Drueke was given the name of Jim Chibnall, the senior project designer for Busch Stadium with HOK. Not only was Chibnall expecting the call, but he told the brothers he would get them an appointment with team officials.
Three months later, the pair had three days to prepare a presentation.
“I went in with a romantic pitch,” says Steve Drueke. “I told them that we’re fans, this is what our business does, and we could provide them with decorative components. We had three sketches – nothing more than that – but within 15 minutes we had a handshake agreement they were going to use our product.
“It was the coolest thing I’ve done in my career.”
Both Chibnall and William DeWitt III, the team’s senior vice president for business development, say what the Druekes offered was unexpected, but the right thing at the right time.
“We had had some thoughts about how we wanted to add artistic elements to the exterior of the building,” says DeWitt. “It was just good timing when they called. We’d had a couple other inquiries, but they seemed like good candidates for doing the work.”
From the three original ideas submitted by the Druekes, the project grew first to 11 original designs, and later 13.
Three of them incorporate the standard logos the Cardinals use today. For the others, the Cardinals opened their team archives to Gabe Drueke, who created the designs utilizing historic jersey logos dating back to 1927.
“All of them are variations of the Bird-on-Bat,” says Steve Drueke, referring to the team’s uniform insignia. “You have tails up, tails down, tails behind the bat and tails in front of the bat. It’s really fascinating. One of Gabe’s highlights was pulling a logo from an actual Stan Musial jersey.”
Working from those designs, Gabe Drueke then put in more than 700 hours hand-carving the images for the club, working in basically three different sizes.
The largest, 32” X 32”, are on the upper reaches of the stadium’s exterior, or what’s referred to as the Tower. A second set of designs, all 24” X 24”, is on the Upper Barrel. A third group, measuring 16” X 18”, goes around the Lower Barrel – or the exterior of the stadium at eye level – and in the Field Wall.
Then, there is the cornerstone, which measures 16” X 40”, and shows the facility’s name, Busch Stadium, and the year. To tie it more closely to its setting, Gabe Drueke framed that information in a border that features images of popcorn, pretzels, peanuts, hot dogs, ice-cream and bottle caps.
“The cornerstone is the one original piece we didn’t replicate,” says Steve Drueke. “That was set the day the stadium opened, and it’s unique.”
Ultimately, the stadium designers included space for more than 90 replicas of Gabe Drueke’s works. The brothers have a relationship with a Tallahassee, Fla.-based manufacturer of cast stone, and – after each carving was finished – a mold was made and shipped to Florida for casting.
“Gabe makes his own molds,” says his brother. “That’s part of our quality control. When he makes that mold, it picks up every little chisel mark. The people in Tallahassee were a big help with different cast mixtures and with colorizing. The stones on the building are a terracotta look.”
However, the cast-stone replicas aren’t the only ones WISHSTONE has made of the Busch Stadium medallions. The brothers also have a relationship with a Charleston, S.C.-based manufacture who does resin casting, and the Cardinals’ historic images – considerably lighter than limestone or concrete – are also for sale.
“We realize the Cardinal fan base is one of the top five in the country,” says Steve Drueke. “Major League Baseball gave us a national license, and we started selling them through the Cardinal Clubhouse, which has three theme-based stores in the St. Louis area, and also through the stadium store.”
The resins are also available through a Website: www.BirdonBat.com.
The Cardinals’ DeWitt says the resins are a fun byproduct of the original idea, rather than something that was planned in advance.
“We never set out to do this as a money-making venture from the team side with a retail product, but it’s just a natural with these guys,” he says. “They think the fans will be interested in it and we’re happy to accommodate that approach.
“It also gives the fans the opportunity to see first-hand the expertise that went into these images,” DeWitt adds.
Not surprisingly, the Druekes feel their work on Busch Stadium gives them an excellent opportunity to take WISHSTONE to a higher level of business, starting with expanding the retail market for their Cardinals’ resin replicas. However, Steve Drueke sees the resins fitting in with the company’s other branding efforts for clients.
“We can create an original for a customer and then they can take that design into a resin and use it as an award or an employee incentive,” he says.
And, he says the pair is also looking at other stadium opportunities. They’re already talking with the athletic director of a university refurbishing its stadium, and Steve Drueke says he likes working with people from the top down. However, he isn’t giving up on baseball, either.
“There are six or seven minor-league stadiums in the works, and it would be great for their communities if we could replicate things for them,” he says. “If it has any licensing attached, more money will go directly back to those organizations. That’s where my marketing focus is going to be.”
This article first appeared in the May 2006 print edition of Stone Business. ©2006 Western Business Media Inc.