I’ll never forget the first time I met Ernie Harwell.
It was 1993 and I was in the middle of a public relations internship with the Chicago White Sox. That was the year that Ernie was broadcasting a few innings a game for the Tigers as they attempted to erase the mistake of a year earlier when they had let him go.
Ernie had come down a floor from where the broadcast booths were located at U.S. Cellular Field and asked if I would mind if he sat next to me in the press box.
Mind? Was he kidding? I had not grown up listening to Ernie, but I had heard him a little bit and saw him once on Roy Firestone’s “Up Close” show on ESPN. He had read his poem about baseball and to this day it is one of the most beautiful things ever written about the National Pastime. I mentioned that to him and he thanked me.
We talked some baseball during our time sitting next to each other over the next few days and about a week after the Tigers left town, I got a package at the office. Inside was a copy of one of Ernie’s book with a note saying how much he enjoyed meeting me and that I could find the poem I liked on page 48.
That was the kind of man that Ernie was. No matter how small or unimportant your job was he treated you the same way he would treat the owner of a ballclub.
I sent Ernie a thank you note and he would later send me a Christmas card and we kept in touch over the next year. When I joined the Brewers public relations staff in 1995, Ernie saw it in the transactions and sent me a handwritten note that said the Brewers were lucky to have someone like me in their front office.
During my three years in Milwaukee, Ernie would call me when he was coming to town, looking for news about the club, making sure he had an updated roster to prepare for the series.
In 1997, I was standing on the field at old Tiger Stadium with Ernie and a couple of other broadcasters. They were talking about restaurants and Ernie was saying that his favorite restaurant in Milwaukee was The Old English Room. He asked if I had been there.
At the time I was making $22,000 a year and The Old English Room was not something that I could afford.
“No,” I replied. “I’ve heard it’s very nice, but it’s a little out of my league pricewise.”
He didn’t say anything more that day, but a month later just before the Tigers were scheduled to come to town he called me. I was not surprised, because like I said he usually would call for information, but this time it was different.
“I’m going to be getting in early Sunday night,” he said. “And I would like for you to be my guest for dinner that night at The Old English Room.”
I’ll never forget that dinner. He told stories about riding the trains with the ballplayers, about how he lied about his age in order to get his first job with The Sporting News as their Atlanta correspondent at age 16.
But most of all, he asked questions. He wanted to know where I came from, what I wanted to do, how I got started in baseball. It was typical Ernie, always interested in people, forever taking the focus off him. It was never about him and always about you.
I’ll always treasure the memories of that night and of all my conversations with Ernie. Baseball lost a great man today. I lost a friend. Rest in peace, Ernie. We will never forget you.