Book pictures time when baseball was beautiful

June 27, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Harry Connolly brings us baseball as it's meant to be played: by children less concerned with signing a contract than with negotiating a pop fly headed their way with runners racing around the bases and a coach frantically hollering, "It's yours, Wilbur," and parents in lawn chairs putting down their newspapers and their knitting to shout encouragement and even the traveling ice cream man holding up sales for a moment to check out the action and everybody in the whole world holding their collective breath, even though the score's 23 to 4 and we're in, what, the third inning?

"Yeah," says Connolly. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

Beautiful, it is. His new book of photographs is called "Heading Home: Growing Up in Baseball," and even though it's about kids playing Little League ball in East Baltimore's Patterson Park, it's also being embraced by people all over the country who look at the pictures and see their own children.

Life magazine did a spread about a year ago, before Connolly even had a publisher. (He couldn't find one here in town, and so he went to New York, where Rizzoli International Publications Inc., fell in love with the pictures, got Cal Ripken to write a foreword and Stephen King -- yes, the scary guy -- to write an introduction, and published it.) A few weeks ago, Bill Geist, on the CBS "Sunday Morning" show, did a piece. And this week, the book is in stores everywhere.

"My love letter," Connolly calls the book. Six years in the making. Six years of weeknight games at the two William H. Schultz fields, side-by-side diamonds just off Eastern Avenue, photographing the kids at play, growing up, racing through the grass, with the coaches offering their counseling and the parents swelling with pride.

Six years of ballgames that were, as Connolly writes, "mostly close, but there are high-scoring games: 34 to 26, a four-inning game called on account of darkness, and 54 to 1, another four-inning game, called as an act of kindness."

What Connolly found wasn't just baseball, and wasn't just joy, but a community rallying around something that binds.

"It's like 600 kids," Connolly, 43, was saying yesterday. "The tie-in with the whole community is wonderful. The Highlandtown Exchange Club raising the money every year. The Knights of Columbus helping. The coaches who make sure the fields are fixed, and the parents sitting with each other on their lawn chairs night after night.

"And the games are great fun. I mean, you could go to your grave without seeing a fly ball caught. Occasionally, things would happen perfectly, and everyone would be stunned. No one could believe that the kid caught the ball, or the runner knew where he was supposed to run."

In a preface, Connolly writes, "Standing on those fields, I felt as though I was in the middle of a grand American theater piece. The playing fields and fences formed the stage; trees and rowhouses provided the backdrop.

"On these fields, Al Kaline and Reggie Jackson once played. Today the players are kids named Wilbur, Shane, Martha, Josh, Becky and Mario, with nicknames like Scooter, 'Allright' Albright, Dizzy, Daffy, Egghead, (Grass) 'Stain,' Ice Man, Short Stuff, Opie, Tweedledee, Skeeter and Homer."

The names alone ring of summer afternoons that lasted for a thousand years and still ended too soon. They echo a time we wish to remember, which is called innocence. Starting in 1989, Connolly took roughly 5,000 photos. Those that made the final cut touch those childhood moments that are universal: triumph and tragedy, cutting up, letting go, hanging out with pals.

Connolly, who grew up in Homeland and now lives in Towson, never played Little League ball. He laughs about this, but the laugh's tinged with wistfulness. "My parents never signed me up," he says. "My next-door neighbor, David Novak, played. He got to play. I didn't."

Connolly's next project: He's following three kids being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"People say, 'Oh, God, cancer.' But these kids are getting on with their lives. They're an inspiration."

So are Connolly's photos. The new book takes us back to a time when catching a pop fly was the most important thing in the world, and makes us wonder why it ever had to end.

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