Teenie Harris' eye on the world of baseball

'Teenie Harris Photographs: Baseball in Pittsburgh' at the Carnegie Museum of Art captures a love for the game


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On an overcast day in September 1944, Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris got Homestead Grays slugger Josh Gibson to do something he did rarely before a big game:

Smile.

Even better, Harris captured him and other Negro League players on 16-millimeter film at Forbes Field in Oakland, where the Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords sometimes drew more fans than the Pittsburgh Pirates. A few minutes of that rare footage and 26 still images are the stars of "Teenie Harris Photographs: Baseball in Pittsburgh," an exhibition that opened Saturday and runs through Sept. 22 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland.

The black-and-white images were taken from 1938 to 1966 and ranged in subject from major leaguers such as Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays to Little Leaguers and softball players. The common thread is a ball and bat, of course, but also the casual grins on nearly every face. It was Harris' gift, said his son, Charles A. Harris of Silver Spring, Md.

"He had a smile that was contagious. People felt at ease when he was photographing them."

That was partly because his subjects -- even famous ballplayers, musicians and politicians -- knew him well. Charlene Foggie-Barnett, who helps to identify people pictured in the museum's Teenie Harris Archive, said the Courier's chief photographer was a family friend and frequent visitor to her childhood home in the Hill District.

"We didn't say 'Oh my God, Teenie's here!' We were surprised when he didn't show up," she said.

From the 1930s to the mid-'70s, Harris shot thousands of photographs of people and Pittsburgh -- in that order. In 2001, his undated negatives, prints and nine reels of movies were acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art with the Heinz Family Fund. Since then, 56,000 images have been posted on the website, www.cmoa.org, each with captions, dates and other information gathered by Ms. Foggie-Barnett, archivist Kerin Shellenbarger and Louise Lippincott, curator of fine art. About 15,000 have yet to be digitized plus hundreds of color images, most taken after Harris left the Courier in 1975 and continuing almost til his death at age 89 in June 1998.

"We keep chipping away at it," Ms. Lippincott said.

When she and other museum officials decided to present a show focusing on Harris' love of baseball, they turned to an expert: Sean Gibson, director of the Josh Gibson Foundation and the catcher's great-grandson. They emailed him 667 Harris images with "baseball" in the caption and asked him to choose the 50 most important baseball pictures. From the same group, Ms. Shellenbarger was asked to pick the 50 most beautiful images. The three women and Mr. Gibson then voted, reaching a consensus fairly quickly on 14 photos. But the other 12 took two weeks to decide.

The photos in the exhibition include lots of well-known ballplayers at Forbes Field but very few action shots (Harris was not the Courier's sports photographer). There's Jackie Robinson in 1947, Curt Roberts, the Pirates first black player, in 1954, Ted Williams and Minnie Minosa in the 1959 All-Star Game, Roberto Clemente with Willie McCovey in 1960 and Willie Stargell and Donn Clendenon in 1966.

The Grays and Crawfords are well-represented, but not always on the field. Retired Negro Leaguers Judy Johnson, Ralph Mellix, Clarence Bruce, Vic Harris, Willis Moody and Jasper "Jap" Washington are shown at Ted Page's bowling alley in 1958.

Other than the movie footage taken at Forbes Field, Josh Gibson appears in just one image: a 1944 group picture at the Harris Hotel and Grill in the Hill District. Asa C. "Pop" Harris and Gibson are the only ones not smiling.

The diminutive photographer (he was 5-foot-6) also gloried in other sides of the game -- the fans and ballplayers who would never be famous. In one 1940s photo, Harris focused on the well-dressed crowd at a Grays game. In the lower right corner, next to backup catcher Robert "Rab Roy" Gaston, Sean Gibson was delighted to discover his grandfather, Josh Gibson Jr., in the dugout. Young Gibson was a batboy for the Grays and later played briefly for the team, after his father had died and Robinson had broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

Harris' son, known to the family as "Little Teenie," recalled the day he was a batboy for the Grays at Greenlee Field, the Crawfords' home field in the Hill District. He stepped in when his cousin William, son of William "Woogie" Harris, got sick.

"I was so happy to have that uniform on. It was a little big on me," Mr. Harris, 86, recalled like it was yesterday.

Two Little Leaguers pose proudly in their uniforms in a 1950s photo. One, identified as Gary Henderson, wears an Amvets Post 96 jersey. The other unidentified boy has Whiteside Road on his chest, indicating one of the city's first public housing projects.

Two children also appear in an image of a sandlot field taken in the early 1940s, but the photo's real subject is a typical Pittsburgh landscape. Small houses perch atop a wooded hillside. A twisted chainlink backstop stands like a fortress in the center.

"The ballfield is a landscape -- that's his artistry," Ms. Lippincott said. "His landscapes are breathtaking."

Even family photos become something special when seen through Harris' lens. Mark Harris, Teenie's grandson, poses in a diaper with a baseball bat in a 1961 picture taken at Charles A. Harris' house in Butler. Behind him is Steve Lehnerd, a neighbor, and his older brothers, Charles and Scott. The bat was no prop, said their father. Teenie instilled in his son and grandsons a deep love for baseball. When he was 8, Scott Harris shoveled snow from the base paths in the backyard in hopes of playing a game.

Before he became a photographer, Teenie Harris helped start the Crawfords as a sandlot team in the Hill District. He didn't brag much, but he was proud of his fielding skills as -- what else? -- a shortstop.

"He said if that ball was hit to shortstop, it was an automatic out," his son said.

Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.


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