The Boys of Patterson Park

May 01, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Five summers ago, photographer Harry Connelly decided to take a look at Baltimore's Little Leagues. Camera in hand, he went from park to park, searching for a place that struck him as special. He found it in Patterson Park, the expanse of green that draws together so many varied strands of life in East Baltimore.

Five years and 5,000 photos later, his ''Patterson Park Portfolio'' is more than a chronicle of Little Leaguers and their faithful fans. Harry Connelly's camera has befriended a neighborhood; in turn, the neighborhood has given him the riches only a patient photographer can mine.

After a championship game at the end of Mr. Connelly's first summer at the park, he snapped a picture of Wilbur Glenn Cox Jr., then a pudgy 8-year-old wearing an Orioles shirt, his hat on backward, a baseball in his hand and a happy grin lighting up his chubby face.

The photo seems to touch something in people, evoking deep-seated feelings not just about baseball but about boyhood itself. It has become the best-known of these photos and has made Wilbur something of a celebrity. Last year the photograph adorned the reception area on the club level at Oriole Park.

Wilbur's victory grin is among the eight Patterson Park photographs featured in the current issue of Life magazine, accompanied by a Stephen King essay extolling the joys of youth baseball, ''fields where little sisters are still tolerated and where excellence is hoped for but never expected.''

Wilbur is now an eighth-grader at Canton Middle School and still plays baseball -- catcher, pitcher and first base. He, along with Dennis Skelton Jr., the freckle-faced boy with smudgy glare proofing under his eyes, and some of the other boys of Patterson Park gathered at the Gomez Gallery in Federal Hill this week to sign copies of the magazine at a reception for Harry Connelly.

It was clear that if Mr. Connelly began his project as an outsider to these Highlandtown families, he has been welcomed into their confidence and, in many cases, into their homes.

Mr. Connelly recalls his first trips to the park, when he felt self-conscious about intruding with his camera -- and felt also the keen eyes of wary parents closely watching a stranger. To

introduce himself and his project, he returned with small prints of his photos and gave them to the kids. Soon they were trading them like baseball cards.

As the photos multiplied, parents began collecting them too. One day, Mr. Connelly stopped by to deliver a copy of a new photo to a boy's mother and was taken aback when she pulled out a ribbon-tied album in which she had carefully preserved every picture he had given her over the years.

Time brings an added dimension to the portfolio. It's hard to forget the picture of the 3-year-old Dominic in an Our Lady of Pompei school tee-shirt, captured on film swinging a plastic bat against a background of row houses. And there he is four summers later, a 7-year-old in an Orioles uniform, photographed against the same backdrop, this time swinging the real thing.

Five years is long enough to see a lot of ups and downs, to become a trusted insider in a close-knit community. On Opening Day this year, Mr. Connelly was introduced to the crowd as Patterson Park's local celebrity.

Baseball was the pretext for these photos, but it's not the balls and bats and gloves that captivate the viewer. It's the faces and the emotions, which seem so much more immediate in black and white.

Many of the best photos are family shots: mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. Intent, joyful, mischievous, even fearful, the faces of the children are open, the emotions unabashed.

Their parents' faces may be more guarded, but life's toll is also evident. Look carefully at a photo of a woman holding her niece and there's a bruise under one eye. Other faces look tired and worn.

Through it all shines pride, especially pride in their offspring and joy in a game that symbolizes so much about American life.

The drama, the details, the drudgery, the joys and sorrows -- it's all there in baseball. And it's all there on the fields of Patterson Park, where dreams are still alive.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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