Bird-drawing Jim Hartzell cast a spell over friends

April 05, 2003|By Jacques Kelly

MY FRIEND Jim Hartzell will be buried this afternoon, a spring 44 years after the first time I encountered this highly original character.

I am now trusting my memory. It was May 1959. I was 9 years old, in the third grade, and it was a breezy Sunday at Memorial Stadium. My father, Joe Kelly, had taken me alone, without my brother and sisters. It was a big day, father and son together. The Orioles (Gus Triandos, Jerry Walker) were playing the Yankees (Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and manager Casey Stengel).

My father was never one to oversell an event. He merely told me he had acquired some seats; they just happened to be in a fantastic box right off first base. I can still see the Yankees' away uniforms and the names that day. The galaxy on the field made my head spin. I felt I could reach out and touch Mickey Mantle.

Sometime during the game, a man popped up in our seats. It was Jim Hartzell. Before I knew it, he pulled from his pocket the kind of thick-leaded pencil then used around newspaper offices to mark up copy. He then took hold of my popcorn container. A second later, he had drawn me my own Oriole bird. To me, this was the biggest event of the spring, maybe the year, all the more important because it would be several more years before the bird began appearing on Page 1 of this paper.

My father told me Jim could draw anything in about two seconds flat. Speed was important to a newspaper. Just this week, my father told me how his desk in The Sun's sports department - the old Sun at Charles and Baltimore streets, on the site of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre - was near Jim's drawing board, where he retouched photos and drew maps for the paper. The two talked sports, horse racing and baseball.

I look back on the Baltimore of this era and recall just how much we fell under Jim's spell. He just had the knack of catching the spirit of the moment, seemingly effortlessly. There was nothing belabored about his drawings. I loved the way he squiggled his last name under his birds.

His work was light and humorous and as unpretentious as a native Baltimorean. I think of one of his drawings, when he had the bird on the end of a pier, ready to drown himself in the harbor. Long before the neighborhood was fashionable, or most people even knew where it was, Jim's dock had Fells Point written on the side. On another day, after a big win against the Yankees, Jim's triumphant Oriole was flying over the Statue of Liberty.

And there were days when you unfolded the paper and just couldn't get into some long-winded story out of Moscow or the Geneva talks. The first thing you looked at was the Hartzell bird, and you never thought again about Russia or Switzerland.

Or what about the time, years later, when I was flat on my back at Mercy Hospital, all hooked up to drip bottles and tubes, and a big homemade "get well" card arrives from Jim? He depicts me listening to 78 rpm records.

I like to think back on Jim maybe eight or nine years ago, in my own kitchen. A group of us from the paper were over, telling Baltimore stories over a table of ham sandwiches and a Berger's bakery orange cake. It was like the years had not flown by. Jim appeared, ever the enthusiastic kid at the ballpark, no different, making the rounds that day. There wasn't much in life he didn't enjoy.

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