Everyone who's spent much time around the game has an Ernie Harwell story. Here's mine ...
In 1999, three old ballparks -- Milwaukee's County Stadium, Houston's Astrodome, and Detroit's Tiger Stadium -- were on their way out (though County Stadium would live for another year, due to a construction accident at Miller Park). Fortunately, someone at ESPN.com got the bright idea of sending me and colleague David Schoenfield to all three of the old yards before they were gone.
That week or so we spent traveling is mostly a blur. I don't remember the airports or the hotels or the meals or anything else except the time we actually spent at the ballparks. Dave and I split up the interviews, and somehow I was lucky enough to draw Ernie Harwell.
Harwell hadn't meant anything to me, growing up. I'd probably never heard his voice for more than a moment, in a snippet here or there. I had read about him in Curt Smith's book, Voices of the Game, so I knew he'd been around forever and I knew he'd written a wonderfully poetic definition of baseball (which he took great joy in reciting). To me, he wasn't a broadcaster or a man, as much as a legend. I was, as you might imagine, nervous about meeting him.
I can't recall exactly how I reached Harwell, but I remember him telling me to meet him on the concourse near his broadcast booth. A moment or two after the appointed time, here came Harwell, wearing his signature cap and carrying a notebook. I introduced myself, and he nodded toward a walkway: "Come on up!"
So I followed Ernie Harwell to his Tiger Stadium perch, which was suspended from the upper deck. Remember, in the old ballparks the upper decks were a great deal closer to the field than they are today. In Tiger Stadium, the press box sat high atop the upper deck, accessible solely via a five-minute elevator ride (seriously). But Ernie's radio booth was so close to the action that you thought you could reach out the window and scratch the umpire's back (it must have been at least a little scary, working so close to the action).
Ernie Harwell hadn't the foggiest idea who I was. I haven't any idea if he'd ever looked at ESPN.com. On that trip, David Schoenfield and I spoke to a number of players and broadcasters, and most of them barely tolerated us (you could see them thinking, "Dot-what?"). I won't name them. Ernie wouldn't want me to. But these were famous names that you'll find on walls in Cooperstown.
Harwell, though, could not have been more accommodating. I had a dozen-odd questions for him, and he responded to each of them as if I'd sent him the questions beforehand and he'd rehearsed his answers. Which is to say, he gave me exactly what I needed.
I wish I had a transcript of that interview, or a better memory. These 11 years later, I remember just one bit of our exchange. I asked Harwell for a single image that he would always associate with Tiger Stadium, and he described a moment in 1968 when some enemy hitter drove a ball off the fence in right field, and Al Kaline sprinted to the perfect spot to field the carom, then wheeled around and fired a strike to the cutoff man.
Except he told it better than I just did.
When I'd reached the end of my questions and my all-too-brief stay, I thanked Harwell ... and then he suggested it was his great pleasure to have met me. As I left him in his perch and found my way back to the real world, I considered (again) my great fortune to do what I do.
Some middle-aged men lament the loss of their baseball cards, tossed out by Mom or sacrificed to the God of Bicycle Wheel Spokes. Not me. I sold my baseball cards to Billy Olaskowitz for three dollars, and I've never regretted it (much). No, what I wish I'd saved is that microcassette with Ernie's golden voice all over it.
But I didn't. It's gone.
Eleven years ago, I was young. I thought Ernie Harwell would live forever.