June 23, 2018

My Dinner With Ernie

May 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

“For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” I heard these words, and I knew it was time for baseball.

I grew up just outside of Detroit, listening to Ernie and Paul…excuse me, to those outside of Detroit that would be Ernie Harwell and his partner Paul Carey. See, to Tigers fans, it was simply just Ernie and Paul.  Everyone knew who “Ernie” was.  He called the game the right way.  Ernie, like many of the old-school broadcasters, wasn’t afraid of silence.  He let the crowd noise seep in.  I remember spending the night at my grandparents’ house, falling asleep to the radio.  You could hear the crowd and the vendors in-between pitches.  That was the best.  I could listen to a game, get all of the information I needed, and yet not feel overwhelmed by the noise that is all-too-common in today’s broadcasts.  But I digress; this isn’t about the state of announcing today, it’s about my brush with the Hall of Fame broadcaster.  Rob Neyer said it best in his column (http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/3455/my-visit-with-ernie-harwell):  “I’m sure that practically everyone who’s spent much time around the game has an Ernie Harwell story.”  I haven’t spent that much time around the game except as a fan, but here’s my story of how a legend touched my life.

In 2007, I made the decision to go to law school.  I had been kicking around the idea for a while; one day, I found my position at a large corporation was to be eliminated.  So I decided that I would do it.  I had a friend who encouraged me and wrote a recommendation letter.  He’s still one of my best friends today.  Another friend encouraged me, and being a lawyer himself, told me what I was in for.  He’s also still one of my best friends.  I needed to thank these guys in a way that was different.  See, I went to law school and will graduate in just over a week, with the hope and dream that I will work in baseball (to any of you reading this, if you can help me, PLEASE!!!!).  So I wrote a letter to Ernie.  My request was simple.  I asked if he would personalize a few baseballs for me. I explained why, and offered to pay any fee or make a donation to any charity.  On the advice of my mom, I asked if he would ever be interested in having dinner with a huge fan, and enclosed my phone number.  I never thought Ernie would call.  But he did.

“Hello Mr. Waddell, Ernie Harwell here…” began the voicemail.  He had called to tell me he had sent the baseballs back to me, and that if I wanted to have dinner, he’d certainly find the time.  Ernie had time for me.  He didn’t know me from ANYONE, yet this man wanted to have dinner with me.  And he left his home phone number for me to call him.  I was nervous.  How could I call this Hall of Famer at home?  But I did, and his wonderful wife Lulu answered the phone.  I stammered, stumbled, and introduced myself and asked to speak with “Mr. Harwell.”  “Ernie, telephone” I heard.  Ernie got on the phone, and greeted me like an old friend.  And we made dinner plans.

A few days later, I met Ernie at a nice restaurant near his home.  I was standing near the door, as the hostess looked me up and down.  “Can I help you?” she asked.  “No thank you, I’m just waiting for a friend” I replied.  Wait, did I just say friend?  But Ernie doesn’t know me.  And I don’t really know him, other than years on the radio.  But that’s what Ernie was to Tigers fans.  He was a friend.  He was a grandfather who told you stories.  I nervously waited for him, not believing that I was about to have dinner with Ernie.  But he walked through the door, saw me and said “Mr. Waddell I presume; Nice to meet you.  Ernie Harwell.”  What could I say?  He was introducing himself, as a polite gentleman would.  I responded, or at least I hope I did.  The hostess knew Ernie from previous visits, and quickly seated us at a nice table.  I started by thanking him for having dinner with me, and for signing the baseballs.  I gushed about how big a fan I was, and what an honor he bestowed upon me.  He smiled and replied “you’re welcome.”  Our waitress arrived and asked us if we wanted any drinks.  Before either could answer, she blurted out “Mr. Harwell, how nice to see you again.  How is Lulu?”  “Nice to see you again too, she’s not feeling well, but it’s just a cold; she’s getting better.  This is my friend, Nick Waddell.”  The waitress looked and me and smiled like I was someone important; and really, I was!  I was having dinner with Ernie Harwell.  AND, he had just introduced me as his FRIEND!  What a true gentleman.  We both ordered water, and the waitress disappeared.  Ernie turned to me and said “so, Nick, what is your story?  Where did you go to school?  What do you do for a living?”  I was speechless.  This living legend, this man who saw so many decades of baseball, had so many stories, knew so many players and managers and broadcasters, was asking about ME?  Little me?  Heck, I’m bored by me, I can imagine how others would feel.  But this guy wanted to know about me.  So I told him that I had graduated two years before as a chemical engineer, but I decided I needed to work in baseball, and thought law school would open that door.  He said “good for you” about going for more schooling, and I felt it was a time for me to ask a question.  I asked him about how much he loved baseball, and whether his love for the game was what brought him into broadcasting or was it more of the “right place, right time” sort of idea.

Ernie told me a story of growing up poor, how his mom would make cakes, and he would go out and sell them.  He told me about seeing what would now be called a speech pathologist to help him.  He told me firsthand about writing for The Sporting News and how much he loved the job.  He even told me about being traded for a player.  For those of you who don’t know, Ernie was a broadcaster for the Brooklyn Dodgers before Vin Scully.  He did some work replacing Red Barber, who was ill at the time.  Ernie became a Dodger broadcaster because Branch Rickey traded a catcher to the Atlanta Crackers for him.  I heard one of the most famous baseball stories first hand, and loved every minute of it.  Ernie told me his biography, and I wanted more.

But then Ernie threw a curveball.  He asked me about me again: if I had any brothers or sisters, what they did, if I was married, etc…  Again, I wanted to ask Ernie why the hell he cared about me when HE was the legend at the table?  But then it dawned on me.  This was Ernie. He was as true as he was on the radio.  He wanted to know about everyone.  He wasn’t a legend in his own eyes; he was a lucky man who got to do what he loved.

I asked him a few more questions, like whether he could see the pitch clearly from the broadcast booth.  Ever hear an announcer say “that slider missed outside”?  I asked him if the booth was positioned in such a way that he could see the slider.  Ernie laughed and said “yes sometimes” but continued to tell me that before a game he would read up on the pitcher and knew the speeds at which a pitcher would throw.  So sometimes he could see the slider, but other times he would see the speed and surmise that it was a slider.  If he didn’t know, the pitch would simply be “a ball low and outside.”  Simple enough, yet so effective.  By this point, our meal had come, so we we’re in-between bites of food talking back and forth about the 2007 Tigers, and how we hoped after such a terrific 2006 team (made it to the World Series!), 2007 would be even better.  Then, I asked Ernie the question he’s probably been asked millions of times.  How was it calling the 1984 World Series?  I was 4 when the Tigers won their last Series, and I had to know.  He smiled and laughed, and said what a terrific honor it was, and how great that team was.  This leads me to my final story.

I asked Ernie what his favorite baseball story was.  He paused for a minute, and took a bite of asparagus.  He then said that this was one of his favorites.  It was told to him by the great Red Barber, or so I remember.  See, I tried so hard to remember the story exactly as Ernie told me, but alas I can’t.  I remember the story exactly, and I remember that it involved Babe Ruth, but I want to say it also involved Red Barber but the time lines don’t match up.  So maybe it was Mel Allen.  Or maybe it was someone who told Red Barber.  But please, for argument, I’ll just say it was Red Barber.  Red and Babe are sharing a cab to the game when suddenly Babe tells the cab driver to stop and that he’ll be back……

< so here’s another Ernie interjection.  Another waitress came over to greet him and ask how his wife was .  Ernie politely responded, and again introduced me to another waitress as “his friend.”  Inside I giggled like a schoolboy.  And all that was going through my head was the theme from “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.”  You know the one… “people let me tell you ‘bout my best friend…”  I pictured Ernie and I meeting more often and sharing stories.  Maybe I’d be invited for Christmas dinner….but again I digress.  The waitress walked away, and I’ll be damned if Ernie doesn’t start up the story on the EXACT word he stopped on.  His memory at 89 was AMAZING.  It took me a second or two to remember what he was talking about, and I was 26 at the time.  He was still so sharp.  It makes me cringe a bit when I say that, as if all older people shouldn’t be sharp.  But I wouldn’t expect anyone, let alone an 89 year old, to be sharp enough to pick up a story on the exact word they stopped on, as if there had been no interruption.  I was in awe…so back to the story>

in EXACTLY twenty minutes.  Babe gets out of the car, and goes into the building they are stopped in front of.  The cab driver and (in my memory) Red Barber strike up a conversation wondering where Babe went to.  Exactly twenty minutes later, Babe emerges, gets in the cab, and tells him to take them to the ballpark.  After a few moments of silence, curiosity overcomes Red and he finally asked the Babe what he was doing.  Turns out, Babe had a female friend in that building he was visiting; and Babe went out to hit three home runs in that game.  Ernie grinned and laughed at the story and I did the same.  Could you imagine hearing that story from Red himself?  It’s better only to hearing it from Ernie.  Now again, please don’t write me and say it couldn’t have been Red, or Babe hit only 2 home runs that day.  I know, don’t have exact details right, but that’s the beauty of it.  Ernie could tell the details of the story and remember it as if it was yesterday.  Me?  It was only 3 years ago, and I can’t.

So that’s it, that’s my brush with Ernie.  I paid for dinner and thanked him for the opportunity.  I have a baseball that was signed “to Nick, Ernie Harwell” that I look at quite often.  Two friends have the same ball, with their name.  For one night, I was Ernie Harwell’s friend; with the way he interacted with fans, everyone was a friend.  He was genuine and true, and that’s why we Tigers fans, baseball fans all over really, loved Ernie.  Ernie will be missed.  He was one of a kind, like all of the older broadcasters: Harry Kalas, Harry Caray, Jack Brickhouse, Jack Buck, Red Barber, and Mel Allen previously, and even Vin Scully now.  I cried when I learned of Ernie’s death, and I think all Tigers fans did.  I consider myself lucky for having been able to hear our voice, our legend, and for getting a glimpse behind the curtain and seeing that that down-to-earth man on the radio was the same in person.  He truly was one of the world’s great people.  The next time you hear or see a home run, think of Ernie’s “loooooong gone” call.  Or the next time a batter looks at strike three, think of the batter “standing there like a house by the side of the road.”  That’s how Ernie would have called it.

Thanks for indulging me and allowing me to share my story with you.

Nick is currently a 3rd year law student in Chicago, and a student member of the Sports Lawyers Association. He’s been a baseball fan since age three, and avidly follows his Detroit Tigers no matter where he is. Nick’s hoping to work his way into baseball after law school. He wrote a biography on Al Kaline for the SABR book “Sock It To ‘Em Tigers” and has been a member of SABR since 2006.

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