This is one of my favorite stories. Baseball and the 4th of July are an American tradition – and Ernie Harwell’s story of baseball as America’s game is the best way to share it.
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“Baseball is the President tossing out the first pitch of the season. And a pudgy schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm.”
I remember the start of that speech as if it happened yesterday. It was one of the coolest little talks I ever was part of.
It was the Sunday before the All-Star break in 2001, and the Cubs were finishing the first half in Detroit. Manager Don Baylor, one of the nicest guys I met in the game and the person who introduced me to Jordan wine, wanted to do something special for the team prior to the break.
Don had heard Ernie Harwell recite a poem he had written about baseball, and he reached out to the Hall of Fame broadcaster prior to our trip. He thought it would be a neat experience to have his players hear Harwell talk, especially since Ernie was nearing the end of his legendary career. Ernie, then 83, retired the following year.
“Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered – or booed. And then becomes a statistic.”
Due to playing in separate leagues, this was only the second time that the Cubs had traveled to Detroit for regular season games. Rumor has it that the Cubs had played World Series affairs against the Tigers, but that was way before my time.
During my previous trip to Detroit in 1998, a good word to use for the trek there was “chaotic.” Sammy Sosa and a large-and-growing media throng had come to town during his historic 20-homer June – and he didn’t disappoint, first tying then setting the major league record for homers in a month. His 18th homer of the month June 24 at old Tiger Stadium tied Rudy York’s August 1937 record, while his 19th roundtripper June 25 established a new standard (he finished the month with 20).
But this second trip to Detroit – this time at Comerica Park – became just as memorable for me.
“Baseball is a rookie (his experience no bigger than the lump in his throat) trying to begin fulfillment of his dream. It’s a veteran, too – a tired old man of 35 hoping his aching muscles can pull him through another sweltering August and September.”
Ernie, a very gracious man, was more than happy to talk to the team. He had initially published a piece in The Sporting News in 1955, and he continued to tweak his poem. He would recite his love affair with the sport whenever he could, in his wonderful Southern voice, mesmerizing the group in front of him.
I met Mr. Harwell for the first – and only – time that morning. Don had talked all week about how great the speech was going to be, and made it a point to bring me into his office to introduce me to Ernie.
As it was the last day before the break, there was no batting practice. Everyone was dressed in their road uniforms when Ernie entered the players’ portion of the clubhouse.
“Baseball? It’s just a game – as simple as a ball and a bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. It’s a sport, business and sometimes even a religion.”
This particular Sunday morning, I really needed to hear a baseball story. I had spent the better part of that weekend refereeing a battle between a coach and a beat writer over stupid stuff, and I needed an escape.
I needed to be taken back in time, and Mr. Harwell didn’t disappoint.
“The fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World Series catch and then dashing off to play stick ball in the streets with his teenage pals – that’s baseball. So is husky voiced Lou Gehrig saying, ‘I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.’ ”
I remember listening to Ernie’s words – but not staring at him as he talked. Instead, I was off to the side, watching the faces of the players and coaches. Guys like Joe Girardi … and Eric Young … and Ricky Gutierrez … just hanging on his every word.
This was storytelling at its finest.
“Baseball is cigar smoke, hot roasted peanuts, Sporting News, Ladies Day, Down in Front, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the Seventh Inning Stretch and the Star-Spangled Banner.”
When Ernie completed his speech, several players wandered over to thank him. Being the Southern gentleman that he was, he thanked them for listening to him talk.
The great Ernie Harwell then came over to me and asked, “So, was that OK?”
Was that OK? He could have done his speech in a Foster Brooks voice or as Elmer Fudd, and I would have said it was awesome.
At that point, Ernie started telling me that he always liked to write, but that he didn’t get to do it enough.
He then told me he had hard copies of his original poem at home – and he asked if I’d like a copy of it to pass on to anyone who wanted it.
I said "Yes," then gave him my business card with the ballpark address. He then went upstairs to the press box to finish preparing for that day's broadcast.
“Baseball is a man named Campanella telling the nation’s business leaders, “You have to be a man to be a big leaguer, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too.”
Ernie literally went home and put the check in the mail. A couple days later, an envelope arrived for me at Wrigley Field. It was a copy of his article, along with a hand-written note.
I didn’t keep a lot of mementos from my Cubs days, but one thing I did keep were the personalized notes. And I’m so glad I held on to them – especially when a Hall of Famer sends you a note.
“This is a game for America – this is baseball.
“A game for boys and for men.”