Best of Highlandtown baseball captured in snapshots

DAN RODRICKS

April 29, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

I call it the Bazooka face because it reminds me of this kid I knew, a Little League pitcher named Charlie who used to blow a bubble with his Bazooka chaw in the middle of his windup. Charlie was round. So were the bubbles. He blew a bubble and snapped it just before delivering the pitch. It was beautiful.

That it happens to remind me of a kid I knew is not the limit of the appeal of Harry Connolly's portrait of Wilbur Cox. There's a grander reason why most everyone who has seen it calls it superb, or at least pretty neat.

Oriole management would not have purchased a 40-inch-by-40-inch print of it from Connolly if his portrait of Wilbur Cox did not epitomize the simple splendor, either real or imagined, of the national pastime. The Orioles might have put it on display in the reception area of the posh club level at Oriole Park because, in that setting especially, it reminds visitors that baseball still begins innocently, as a game played by boys, and a few girls, in places like Patterson Park.

I disagree with the man who said Harry Connolly's photograph of Wilbur Cox and all the other portraits in his study of Highlandtown Exchange Baseball could have been taken "anywhere." Harry Connolly's photographs are distinctly Baltimore -- distinctly that old Baltimore of middle-class rowhouse neighborhoods that, however anachronistic outsiders might think they are, survive, even thrive, and provide spiritual continuity for the people who live in them.

Wilbur and his pals -- the nicknames include Skeeter, All-Right, Spike, Peanut, Butch and Homer -- play neighborhood baseball, pure and simple. As has been tradition for 38 years now, knobby-kneed, gum-snapping kids race across Eastern Avenue to the park every weeknight from April till July. Nowadays they wear T-shirts that bear the names of major league teams. Last night, starting shortly after 5 o'clock, the Mets, sponsored by Ditch, Bowers & Taylor Inc., played the Orioles, sponsored by Louis J. Smith Inc. And, on the adjoining field, the Dodgers, sponsored by Lord Baltimore Press, played the Giants, sponsored by Ben Neil & Associates.

Each team had a manager and at least one coach, and one of the coaches came directly from work in uniform -- blue chino pants and jacket, with the name of a plumbing-and-heating company on the breast pocket.

Parents stood behind team benches or sat on lawn chairs or blankets. Little brothers and sisters ran around and giggled and wrestled on the grass. A league official asked for signatures on a petition to get the city to fix the nearby water fountains.

There were fat kids and skinny kids. A couple of kids with earrings. A lot of kids with New Age crew cuts. They played against the backdrop of a purplish dusk in Patterson Park, where the trees have started to thicken with leaves. And at times like that, with all this human energy about, you feel reassured about Baltimore, as if there is really hope for its survival. Neighborhoods live. Traditions endure. Many of Connolly's photographs, especially his signature portrait of Wilbur Cox, look as though they were taken in the 1950s.

They were actually taken over the last three baseball seasons as Connolly, a Homeland boy who now lives in Towson, set out to examine neighborhood baseball in Patterson Park. It gave him a taste of a life he'd never known, and right in his own city. He was no interloper, from what I can see. He's worked hard to win the confidence of the kids and their parents. He made them feel special.

Wilbur Cox is now a legend around Patterson Park and Canton Middle School. His face, frozen at the moment his team won a league championship in 1989, has become a symbol for Patterson Park baseball. It has been published here and there, most notably, for Highlandtowners anyway, in the East Baltimore Guide. And now, of course, Wilbur's face adorns Oriole Park. There's talk about Marty Bass featuring Wilbur in one of his morning reports on WJZ-TV.

The boy's mother, Mary Cox, is quite excited about all this. She works as an office manager in the records department at Mercy Medical Center. She's heard "oohs" and "ahs" from doctors and their wives who've seen Wilbur's portrait on the exclusive club level at Oriole Park.

Someday, she hopes to visit that shrine herself.

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