Teenie Harris captures the backstory of baseball in the city like only a Pittsburgher can.
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Baseball players, front row from left: Douglas Jones, Charles Evans, Thomas Wallace, Sterling Smith, Joe Lewis, Larry Hubbard; back row: Roy Campanella, Gair Allie, Jackie Robinson, Joe Black, Carlos Bernier, Sam Narron, and Ronald Gray holding shoes on left, at Uptown Little League baseball opening day ceremonies, Kennard Field, May 29, 1953, Heinz Family Fund, © 2006 Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive, Carnegie Museum of Art
On the surface, the photograph looks much like any other Little League team portrait: young ballplayers kneeling in the foreground with mitts slung across their laps, a group of adults lined up behind them. But this particular black-andwhite image, taken on May 29, 1953, by Charles “Teenie” Harris, captures anything but the typical. It was opening day for the Uptown Little League in Pittsburgh, the city’s first racially integrated league. Pictured in the center of the frame are several professional players, including Jackie Robinson and fellow Brooklyn Dodger teammates Roy Campanella and Joe Black.
“Teenie captured the whole panorama of it—that it wasn’t just about the sports action, but also an important community event elevated by the presence of Jackie Robinson, and recognizing it was also an important political event,” says Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art.
The image is one of 25 taken between 1938 and 1966 and grouped together to form Teenie Harris Photographs: Baseball in Pittsburgh, on view through September 22. The new exhibition, which includes five minutes of recently digitized 16mm film shot by Harris at Forbes Field, features intimate portraits of Negro League players, sandlot teams, and otherwise undocumented moments on and off the field.
Included are several candid shots of famed Pittsburgh Pirates players of the past along with icons of the game, such as Josh Gibson, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Mays. One such print shows Jackie Robinson smiling on a hotel couch alongside Major League Baseball executive Wesley Branch Rickey in 1957, 10 years after Rickey signed the slugger to the Dodgers roster, breaking the baseball color barrier. (Pittsburgh fans will, of course, remember Rickey as the trailblazing general manager who acquired such Pirates greats as Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, and Dick Groat.)
Exhibition organizers initially imagined the show as a chronicle of black baseball in Pittsburgh, but soon realized how closely that history tracked the desegregation of the city, the integration of professional sports, and the impact both had on the city.
“We realized there was a much bigger story about the history of the community and the role sports played in that history,” says Lippincott, who for more than a decade has managed the vast Teenie Harris Archive. “There’s quite a big story about the integration of professional sports and its relation to the Civil Rights movement that comes from this collection of 25 prints.”
And no one was better positioned to tell it than Harris.The Hill District native was a shortstop and founding member of the Pittsburgh Crawfords—a sandlot team until 1931, when local business owner and reputed numbers runner Gus Greenlee turned the team into one of the dominant clubs in the Negro League. Harris’s lifelong love of the game combined with his keen eye for the photographic moment during a decades-long career with the Pittsburgh Courier, the leading national African American newspaper of the time, translated into unbeatable access.
Carnegie Museum of Art tapped another insider, Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Negro League power-hitter and hall-of-famer Josh Gibson, to guest curate the exhibition. Gibson’s grandfather, Josh Gibson, Jr., also played in the Negro League in Pittsburgh and went on to create the Josh Gibson Foundation to maintain his father’s legacy. Sean Gibson took the helm of the foundation after college and now serves as its executive director.
Over several weeks, Gibson and Kerin Shellenbarger, archivist for the Teenie Harris collection, each selected 50 images from the original 667 baseball-related photographs by Harris—out of the nearly 80,000 total images in his archive. Gibson paid special attention to historic moments within the sport, while Shellenbarger considered aesthetics. Then they teamed up with Lippincott to decide which 25 would make the final cut. Gibson recalls the uncanny moment of looking through images chosen by Shellenbarger and recognizing his greatgrandfather standing for a group portrait at the Harris Hotel and Grill in the Hill District in 1944.
“The exhibition captures black baseball in Pittsburgh. But what’s most compelling is the stories behind that history.”
- Sean Gibson, Great-grandson of Negro League Power-hitter and Hall-of-famer Josh Gibson
“The exhibition captures black baseball in Pittsburgh,” says Gibson. “But what’s most compelling is the stories behind that history: Jackie Robinson; Curtis Roberts, the first African American player for Pittsburgh [signed seven years after Robinson]; and Josh Gibson, and you get him out of uniform just hanging out.”
Those personal connections motivated Gibson’s own process. A candid shot of Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams and Minnie Minoso of the Cleveland Indians chatting in the dugout during the 1959 All-Star Game stood out to Gibson “because in 1966, when Williams got into the Hall of Fame, he mentioned in his speech that one day Negro League ballplayers such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson would get into the Hall of Fame—and five years later Paige got in, and Gibson soon after,” he says.
Indeed it’s about special moments, like the 1961 image of Mark Harris, Teenie’s grandson, clad in a diaper and clutching a baseball bat. Or spectators dressed to the nines at a Homestead Grays game at Forbes Field sometime between 1940 and 1945. There’s a surprise tucked into the bottom right-hand corner of the latter image: a glimpse of backup catcher Robert “Rab Roy” Gaston and a young Josh Gibson, Jr., then a batboy who went on to play briefly for the team.
Archive sleuthing is part detective work, and in the case of the Teenie Harris Archive many of the photographic negatives and much of the film footage document moments in a largely unchronicled history. Even some of the more public moments are not prefaced with captions or title cards and time stamps.
“With the Teenie Harris Archive, we encourage people to get involved with making history,” says Lippincott. “We always accept that our knowledge of a particular photograph or subject is incomplete and we encourage people who know something— a name, a location—to contact us and provide information that’s missing.”
She wasn’t surprised that Gibson recognized his own grandfather in one of the portraits and she expected he wouldn’t be the only one. Harris was a voracious documentarian of his time, his neighborhood, his city, his race.
“He took photos of everyone: famous people, non-famous, black, white, kids, adults, Little League games, professional games, women in softball, women in baseball, victory parades,” says Gibson. “He didn’t just focus on African Americans, he took pictures of everyone. That’s what’s so fascinating to me about his work: It didn’t matter who it was, when it was—he took the photo.”