When Ernie Harwell Met Babe Ruth
Sportscaster's Biography Recounts Boyhood Meeting
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Aug. 29, 2002 -- Among the stories in the new authorized biography of sportscaster Ernie Harwell is the account of his boyhood encounter with one of his baseball idols, Babe Ruth. It's told below in Chapter 2, "A Tongue-Tied Georgia Boy," from the new book Ernie Harwell: My 60 Years in Baseball by Tom Keegan.
In the 20th century's second decade, Gray and Helen Harwell brought three sons into the rural sliver of the world known as Washington, Georgia. Population: 2,500. Recreation: watching the paint dry on the colossal columns of the antebellum homes that graced the town.
For those in a hurry, rapid transit was available: two mules, a big conductor holding a whip, and a carriage into which as many as eight passengers could cram. Big, bold letters boasted WASHINGTON RAPID TRANSIT on the side of the coach.
The Harwells rented a more modest home than the sprawling mansions occupied by wealthier folks, though it was by no means a small abode. Gray, who answered to his middle name and not his first name, Davis, ran a furniture store with his brother Tom, and, as was customary in small towns, it doubled as a funeral home, because they were the ones making and selling the caskets.
Davis Jr., the extroverted oldest son, had his own circle of friends and was too old to gain much pleasure from the company of his two younger brothers, the more cynical, introverted Dick, a voracious reader, and Ernie, the precocious, ever-upbeat baby of the family, born January 25, 1918. Dick and Ernie, born less than two years apart, were inseparable, linked by their mutual passion for their father's game of choice, baseball.
As boys so often do, the Harwells lent their father mythical status. Ernie, eyes as blue as they were wide, hair blond and curly, grew particularly impressed when Daddy returned from trips to Chicago and shared the conversations he had had with his pal, the major league baseball player Sherrod Smith, an old friend from Georgia.
Gray visited the furniture mart in Chicago and while in town made it over to the ballpark and sat in the visiting dugout to catch up with Smith, a left-handed pitcher who started his career with Pittsburgh, gained World Series fame pitching for Brooklyn, and finished with Cleveland.
Any big leaguer would have impressed the boys. That this was Sherrod Smith, no humpty-dumpty, made the sparkle in their eyes all the brighter. Smith was noted for having the best pickoff move in the game, and he was noted for far more than that.
He locked left arms with none other than Babe Ruth in the longest World Series pitching duel ever waged. Pitching for the Red Sox, Ruth defeated Smith and the Dodgers in 14 innings, 2-1 in 1916, a story told many times in the Harwell household.
Times were good at home and at work until Mother Nature found the friendly little Georgia town and turned it inside out.
When Ernie was five, boll weevils, those long-snouted, relentless little bugs, hit Washington, devoured the cotton crops, and destroyed the economy. The farmers who had purchased furniture on credit had no means to pay their bills. The Harwell brothers, Gray and Tom, barely had enough to pay their creditors and were forced to close up shop. Like so many other families, they moved to the big city to find work.
They didn't have the means to own a car, but they could afford to keep three African-American servants working for as little as 50 cents a week, including Mammy, as much a part of the family as anybody. She made sure the boys scrubbed behind their ears, saw that they minded Mother and Daddy, and aided in myriad household chores.
The Harwells piled into another family's car and made the 100-mile journey to Atlanta, and what a journey it was. The rains turned dirt roads difficult enough to negotiate when dry into a muddy mess. They slogged along until the mud made them stop. Out of the car they filed and pushed, pushed, pushed, until they were back on their way. And so it went. Stuck in the mud, out of the car to push, back in the car until the mud made the wheels spin in vain again.
Muddied and weary, they made it to Atlanta and found an economically healthier town than the one they left behind. Gray went to work at a branch of the Mather Brothers furniture store chain, known for its homespun motto: "Good and Bad Furniture." Mammy and her husband, Jim, had their own basement apartment in the home the Harwells rented on Piedmont Avenue.
Ernie's passion for baseball reached a new level one October day in 1926. He and his brother Davis listened to Game 7 of the 1926 World Series, pitting the Cardinals against the Yankees, on a crystal set. Such radios required listeners to hunt through a pool of mercury for stations by holding a small piece of wire called a cat whisker. To move would be to lose the station, so the Harwell brothers sat motionless for two hours and listened to Graham McNamee's dramatic presentation of the World Series. One earphone was in Davis' ear, the other in Ernie's.
With the Cardinals leading by a run, the bases loaded, and two men out in the seventh, Cardinals player/manager Rogers Hornsby summoned Grover Cleveland Alexander from the bullpen to face Yankees second baseman Tony Lazzeri. Alexander had pitched his second complete game of that World Series the previous day and had celebrated deep into the night, figuring his work was done. Alexander struck out Lazzeri, and the Cardinals won it in the ninth when Ruth was thrown out trying to steal second. And a little boy from Washington, Georgia, was forever hooked on the magic of baseball and radio.
More often, it was the voices of the men calling the games of his beloved Atlanta Crackers that Harwell listened to and mimicked. He went to the house of a neighbor, Thad Johnson, who built radios and listened to the Crackers. If Thad wasn't home, Ernie had to get creative to hear the broadcasts that made him feel as if he had a front-row seat. If it meant he had to wander the neighborhood to find an open window under which he could stand and listen to Jimmy Davenport and Mike Thomas call Crackers games, then wander the neighborhood he did. The cracking of the bat and smacking of the glove mesmerized the young boy, who likewise was entranced by the distant cries of the vendors that could be heard over the radio.
He did more than listen to baseball. He played it and read about it and spent so much time daydreaming about the sport. When Ernie wasn't tossing a baseball against the steps, inventing games with his brother Dick, the boys were wearing out another baseball board game played on a field with a tin base and wooden sides. The ball, a marble, could be thrown fast or slow, depending on which button was pushed.
Their father was fond of telling them baseball was a "talkin' game, passed along from generation to generation."
Doc Green, the druggist back in Washington, was one of Ernie's first baseball heroes. He had played semiprofessional baseball with the Georgia Peach, Ty Cobb, and that alone granted him small-town celebrity status.
Folks gathered around the radio at Doc's to listen to Crackers games, and it was there, during summer visits back to Washington, that Ernie's broadcasting career was informally launched. He wasn't quite ready for prime time.
Doc or one of his customers would lift the young boy onto a stool, push a frosty mug of Coca-Cola in front of him, and urge him to do an imaginary broadcast of a Crackers game. Howls of laughter followed as the baseball-obsessed boy lit up the room with so much enthusiasm and a speech impediment that, among other things, prevented him from pronouncing the letter s.
"And Thmith thlides into thecond bathe!" he bellowed to the delight of his audience.
The laughter was all in good fun and no feelings were wounded. The boy's father had the vision to see beyond the counter at Doc Green's and knew the tongue tied in knots wouldn't always trigger such friendly responses. He knew schoolyard taunts had the potential to scar the boy's unbridled enthusiasm for life. One night at the dinner table, while Ernie lisped his way through a conversation, his father declared, "We need to get that boy some help."
Strapped for cash, as were so many families during the Depression, the Harwells nonetheless decided to send their son to the local elocution teacher for weekly sessions.
Passage by passage, Margaret Lackland helped eager young Ernie unfasten his tongue.
Mrs. Lackland had Ernie read passages from various works of literature, including a poem, "The House by the Side of the Road," by Sam Walter Foss.
At first he read:
There are hermit thouls that live withdrawn
In the peathe of their thelf-content
In time, and not a short time, it became:
There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the peace of their self-content
Mrs. Lackland, who counted Benjamin Franklin among her ancestors, also taught her pupils debating skills. Ernie learned well enough to win first place in a local debate competition.
The Tenth Street School awarded a gold medal to the best boy debater and another to the best girl of each graduating class. A panel of judges selected by the P.T.A. president gave a gold medal to Lucy Beacham and one to Earnest Harwell.
Decades later, when Mrs. Lackland was well into her eighties and still teaching speech, she read a magazine article written by her former pupil and wrote a letter to him that, in part, read: "I shall never forget the day you won the medal. Your dad stood there with tears streaming down his face and said, 'This is the happiest day of my life.'"
Those who knew Davis Gray Harwell marveled at how his life was filled with nothing but happy days, despite circumstances that would leave weaker men with broken spirits and bitter hearts.
Several years after he moved his family to Atlanta, the head of the Harwell household underwent brain surgery to have a tumor removed. He was left temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Years later, in the early 1930s, the paralysis returned and was permanent. There was talk that multiple sclerosis might be the cause. He had no trouble talking, had a sharp mind, and lived until he was 72. Unfortunately, he was limited to a life at home. He couldn't work and was only as mobile as a primitive wooden wheelchair enabled. His days of taking the boys to the ballpark to see the Crackers were over.
His wife and sons became the breadwinners in the family. If this wounded his pride, he refused to show it and forever remained upbeat, thus imparting the wisdom of positive thinking onto his children.
Mrs. Harwell supported the family and in doing so filled the home with sweet scents of baked goods from lemon cheesecake to chocolate rolls to Lady Baltimore Cake. She made sandwiches, as many as 400 at a time, for debut parties. She made wedding cakes and birthday cakes. Customers, sensitive to the family's circumstances, often came to the house to pick up the baked goods. The boys pitched in by riding the streetcar to the drug store to deliver cakes. The ride cost a nickel each way, and the cakes were sold for 50 cents apiece.
Ernie delivered more than cakes. He earned $2 a week tossing the Atlanta Georgian onto porches from his bicycle. The 90 customers had a choice of which of the three editions-the first, the market edition, or the baseball edition-they wanted delivered. They paid 10 cents a week for the newspaper only, 12 cents for the newspaper plus life insurance.
Even before Ernie had a paper route, he exhibited an entrepreneurial flair. Without any urging from his parents, Ernie went door-to-door selling magazines. Later, he sold Christmas cards.
Be it his smile, his sparkling eyes, his curly hair, or the pity he inspired as an undersized youth-whatever the cause-little Ernie had a knack for sales. Even so, he wasn't all work and no play Ernie. He found time to pursue his passion. He found time to play ball.
Most of the games were three-on-three or four-on-four with other boys from the neighborhood. The godfather of these games was a bachelor in his thirties who had no social life to speak of and seemingly no passion that extended beyond the game played on the dusty sandlots on those steamy, hot Georgia afternoons.
Blacky Blackstock, a chubby little left-handed hitter who worked at a filling station, never grew tired of hitting grounders and fly balls to the boys. He was always there to correct them when they failed to play the game the right way. He regaled them with tales of his days playing semipro ball. He even taught some of the older boys how to drive a car.
Ernie's first taste of organized ball came when he was selected to the Piedmont Pirates All-Star team at about the age of 11.
In March of 1930, at the age of 12, Ernie experienced a thrill greater than playing for the Piedmont Pirates.
The Yankees stopped in Atlanta on their trip north from spring training to play an exhibition game at Ponce de Leon Park. Harwell snuck down to the front row of the box seats, and when the great Babe Ruth came off the field, he pleaded with him for an autograph.
Ruth called everyone kid, though he pronounced it "keed."
"Keed," he told Harwell, "you ain't got no paper. What am I gonna sign?"
"You can sign my shoe," Harwell told him, and left him no choice. He wheeled his leg over the railing and offered one of his Keds.
The Babe got a chuckle out of the kid's determination and obliged.
"OK," he said. "I'll sign your shoe."
It didn't occur to Ernie that he could have saved that tennis shoe and one day made a pretty penny off it. It was just a tennis shoe and tennis shoes are made for feet, not trophy cases. He kept right on wearing that shoe until it was worn out and then thrown out.
Four years later, Ernie saw the Babe play in a game that counted in the standings.
Ernie's mother had an uncle named Lauren Foreman. He took it upon himself to make sure that Ernie's exposure to baseball would not be hindered by his father's condition.
In 1934, when Ernie was between his sophomore and junior years in high school, Foreman arranged for him to come to Chicago so that he could see a regular-season major league game in person for the first time.
Ernie took the train to Chicago and his great-uncle, no big baseball fan, made plans to take him to see the White Sox play the Yankees. The game was rained out and so was the next day's.
"I don't care how long you have to stay, you're going to see a game," Foreman reassured the disappointed teenager. "I don't care if we have to change your train ticket, you're going to see a game. We'll do whatever it takes."
When the rain finally ended, Red Ruffing of the Yankees faced Ted Lyons of the White Sox. It was Ruth's final American League game in Chicago, and he entertained the crowd with a running catch in foul territory in left field. Lou Gehrig tried to duck from two pitches that ricocheted off his bat and landed over the third baseman's head for doubles. One was identical to the next, and in all his decades of watching baseball, Harwell would never see another hit that followed the path of those two doubles in one day by one hitter.
In October of 1935, Foreman sent for Ernie again, this time so that he could attend the middle three games of the World Series between the Cubs and Tigers at Wrigley Field.
Nine years after Ernie listened to his first World Series game, he witnessed his first one. Submarine-style pitcher Elden Auker was on the mound for the Tigers, and Bill Lee pitched for the Cubs. Marv Owen scored the winning run on a Jo-Jo White single for the Tigers to break a 5-5 tie in the eleventh inning.
Watching baseball was enjoyable, but even watching the Babe didn't do quite as much for Ernie as playing the game.
He was skilled enough to play for the North Side Terrors, an American Legion team. Ernie filled the vacancy at second base created by the departure of Marty Marion, who would go on to become one of the greatest shortstops in the history of the major leagues. Marty's brother Roy Marion was Ernie's double-play partner.
When Ernie rifled those newspapers onto porches from his bicycle, in his head he was taking Roy Marion's feed and firing to Louie Perkerson at first base to complete the double play. In those fantasies, the formidable double play combination would be wearing the uniforms of the Atlanta Crackers, not the North Side Terrors. They would be playing in the Southern League, not the American Legion.
That boyhood dream took on a measure of reality when the Terrors made it to the championship game, played at Ponce de Leon Park, home of the Crackers.
Harwell wore his sleeves long, mimicking those of his boyhood idol, Crackers second baseman Jack Sheehan.
The Terrors lost in the championship game to the Grant Park Aces, though just to gain the thrill of playing at such a grand ballpark as a young teen was an unforgettable victory in itself.
The Marion boys went on to star at Tech High. Harwell attended adjacent Boys High, Tech's bitter rival. Ernie didn't play baseball for the high school. He was too busy making money. Besides, he wasn't sure he hit well enough to play for the highly competitive team. It wasn't until he was on a rifle range in the Marine Corps that he discovered the source of his hitting troubles. He was in need of glasses.
At Boys High, most of the classes were held in little wooden sheds called portables. The trick was to get into the classroom early enough to grab one of the desks in the middle of the room. The potbelly stove turned the back of the room into a sauna, but it didn't have the range to keep those seated in the front from shivering through classes.
Ernie tried his best to pay attention to the teachers, but the Crackers dominated Ernie's thoughts.
"Let's see, they're in Chatanooga and they're probably all eating lunch now," he would daydream.
As he finished up his homework at night, it was more of the same: "Let's see, they are probably all at the hotel, ready to go to sleep pretty soon."
Imagine little Ernie's horror when he awakened after going to bed happy about his beloved Crackers' first-place standing in the Southern League to find they had fallen all the way to last place because they were forced to forfeit 14 games over a technicality. They were in violation of rules limiting the number of experienced players on a roster.
Ernie's knack for sales and passion for baseball merged when he made trips to the visiting team's hotel and pitched himself as a willing and able batboy. He made a habit of going down to the Ansley Hotel, and he approached the manager of the visiting team to offer his services as the batboy. Sometimes the managers forgot about saying yes to the boy and sometimes they remembered. He was paid with a broken bat or a baseball or two too worn out to be of any use to the team.
He had forced his way into baseball, but he had more to offer than retrieving bats and balls. He did his best early baseball work seated in front of a typewriter.
At 16, Harwell took the bold step of writing to The Sporting News to offer his services as Atlanta correspondent. He read the publication religiously and noticed they did not include much news from his region of the country.
He knew he would have no shot of landing the freelance work if he confessed his age in the letter, so he did everything in his power to disguise his youth.
He signed the letter, "W. Earnest Harwell" in an attempt to come off as an older, distinguished gentleman. It worked. He landed the assignment, beginning a 31-year association with the publication.
Eventually, J. G. Taylor Spink, editor and publisher of The Sporting News, made Harwell one of the ghostwriters for his column. He also used sportswriters Dan Daniel from New York and Stan Baumgartner from Philadelphia.
"Don't forget to put me at these guys' lockers, chatting with them before a game," instructed Spink.
Little did the readers of The Sporting News know that Spink never ventured out of his office.
Harwell didn't need to camouflage his age to land a job writing for the Tatler, his high school newspaper.
His work for the Tatler earned him first place among more than three thousand contestants in the 1936 Scholastic Quill and Scroll awards, in the column writing division. The first winner of the award from the South, Harwell received as a prize a Royal portable typewriter.
In a letter dated May 13, 1936, and written on official Royal Typewriter Company, Inc., stationery from the New York corporate headquarters, W. H. Beckwith, the company's advertising manager, congratulated Harwell in three short paragraphs.
The first typo didn't appear until the third paragraph: "Again our sincere congratulations upon you fine column." No matter. Harwell learned that the "r" key, missing at the end of the word preceding "fine" in Beckwith's letter, worked properly on his new Royal typewriter. He put it to good use.
His column for the Tatler, entitled "Turning on the Heat," was gossipy in nature and in part informed what boys had "an eye on" which girls. Baseball updates found their way into his columns as well.
The editor's note that appeared at the top of his Tatler swan song in the May 26, 1936, edition read: "This, the last column by Ernie Harwell, marks the termination of the most successful year in feature writing the Tatler has ever known. This decidedly is the best column to appear in the 20-odd years of the paper's existence."
In that column, Harwell wrote profile sketches of several graduating students, including the two speakers on graduation night. One line from his profile on Columbia University-bound James Knight, read: "Appreciates Gilley with the dark brown eyebrows."
Of Gerald Cohen, Harwell wrote: "Class valedictorian . . . wants to reform the world (who doesn't?) . . . made terrific grade on Emory scholarship test . . . has nasal tone . . . Cohen, Cohen, gone."
Harwell managed to grade his classmate's voice quality technique and do a home-run call all at once-proof that baseball broadcasting never was far from his thoughts, even long before he did it as a living.
Harwell also worked during one summer on the sports desk at the Atlanta Constitution during high school.
Harwell did not conduct any interviews for the tidbits he wrote about the Crackers for The Sporting News. He attended games but never introduced himself to players, manager Spencer Abbott, or owner Earl Mann. At 16, he thought he was too young to bother requesting any interviews, so he rewrote stories written in the local papers.
A puzzled Mann asked everyone involved with the ballclub if they had ever met the W. Earnest Harwell whose byline he routinely read in The Sporting News. Everyone had the same answer: no.
Finally, after a year of working in the shadows, Harwell introduced himself to Mann. The boy had no choice. He had been assigned to write a full-length feature on the Crackers' owner. He took a deep breath and made the introduction.
Within seconds, Harwell realized his fears were unfounded. Mann, universally loved by all in baseball who came in contact with him, made the boy feel welcome immediately.
Harwell's confidence in arranging interviews grew with each passing year.
He was far more experienced than most 18-year-old boys. Still, he was naive in some ways of the world, as he would learn when he did his first actual interview of a major league player, conducted at the Georgian Terrace hotel.
The Philadelphia Athletics were on their way north from spring training in 1936, in town to play the Crackers. Harwell figured Wally Moses would make an interesting story for Baseball Magazine. He called Moses at his hotel, and the outfielder agreed to meet him the next morning.
He wasn't hearing stories about Sherrod Smith from his father this time, and he wasn't merely getting a legend to sign his shoe. He was interviewing a real, live big leaguer, a bona fide hero, whom he was sure would give him the respect owed a professional journalist.
Moses let him into the room and barely paid any attention to him. He was in the midst of a conversation with Bob Johnson and Pinky Higgins, and he wasn't about to let the presence of a teenage reporter deter him from the hot topic of discussion. The ballplayers recounted in graphic detail their exploits between the sheets from the previous night, one man outdoing the other with tales unfit for Harwell's virgin ears.
Harwell managed to pry a few printable quotes out of Moses, and he was paid $10 for the thousand-word story that made no mention of Moses and mates boasting of their off-the-field prowess.
The lesson Harwell learned that shocking morning-ballplayers are just that, ballplayers, not gods-was worth far more than the check he received from Baseball Magazine.
Harwell had begun to learn life's lessons and was ready to continue his education at Emory University in Atlanta.
This excerpt of Ernie Harwell: My 60 Years in Baseball is published with permission of Triumph Books. The hardcover book is available at www.triumphbooks.com or by calling 1-800-335-5323.
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