James Hartzell's Oriole Bird 1954. (JAMES HARTZELL, Baltimore Sun / April 1, 2003)

News reports this month about the return next season of a slightly altered Oriole bird to players' caps for the first time since 1992 brought to mind its creator, longtime Baltimore Sun cartoonist James Adams Hartzell, who introduced the original bird in 1954.

Gone is the "ornithologically correct bird" in favor of the cartoon one, The Sun reported.

Hartzell's bird was a Baltimore tradition beginning in 1954, and from 1966 until its retirement in 1979 was a front-page feature of The Sun during baseball season.

When the Orioles came to town in 1954 from St. Louis, Hartzell made a call on the team's owners.

"In 1954," recalled Hartzell in a 1979 Sun interview, "I suggested to the new franchise owners that they needed a mascot, an emblem, so I drew the bird."

The rookie bird so pleased Orioles owners that it was reproduced many times on uniform caps, lamps, balloons, place mats, admission tickets, ashtrays, cigarette lighters, pennants, coffee mugs, dishes and other souvenir items.

Later, a variation of the bird made its way onto the club's official stationery and corporate checks. For years, The Sporting News used Hartzell's bird, as did other national publications and trade magazines.

"The only change I made from the original bird was to eliminate its tail and feathers. And a lady suggested I eliminate some of the background which I occasionally drew in, such as a light pole, a section of the bleachers or even a rain cloud," Hartzell said in the 1979 interview. "I guess all they wanted to see was whether the bird was happy or sad."

All countless Orioles fans had to do during baseball season was glance at the front-page bird, and they knew instantly how their boys of summer had done the previous day.

Hartzell, who was born in Baltimore and raised on Auchentoroly Terrace, began drawing as a child. He used to spend hours drawing the Hochschild Kohn department store logo he saw on the delivery trucks that passed by his boyhood home.

He studied at Polytechnic Institute and took art courses at the Maryland Institute. After working as an office boy, in 1926 he joined the advertising department of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Hartzell, who had a love for baseball and was a talented sandlot infielder, was able through his railroad connections to use the office pass, which enabled him to go to New York on Sundays to see games.

One of his baseball heroes was Babe Ruth. One day, Hartzell saw the "Sultan of Swat" signing autographs at Philadelphia's old Shibe Park. Standing patiently in line, Hartzell presented the Babe that day's game card.

"I don't sign score cards," Ruth growled. Hartzell felt around in his coat and found a letter that had arrived that morning from his fiancee in Maine. That was OK with the Babe, who signed it with a flourish.

I worked with Hartzell, and that letter with Ruth's signature was something he was extremely proud of and enjoyed showing visitors.

Hartzell joined The Sunday Sun in 1930 but was cut from the staff in 1933 during the middle of the Depression. He worked on the Times Herald in Washington for a year before returning to The Sunday Sun in 1934.

In May 1966, the Sun's managing editor, Paul A. Banker, made a change on Page 1. He ordered an Oriole bird that would tell the outcome of the previous day's game.

Hartzell brought an animated touch to the bird. It had life and a personality all its own.

He could also churn the drawings out quickly, finishing them off with a quick "Hartzell" that curved under the bird's feet.

If the Orioles lost against Boston, for example, Hartzell might draw the bird being chased out of Fenway Park with a bean pot aimed squarely at his head. If they beat Milwaukee, a somewhat-in-his-cups bird might be leaning against the bar rail enjoying a couple of mugs of beer.