I only met him once, but it’s a day I’ll never forget. In July 2004, while I was serving as interim pastor at the Morrisville Presbyterian Church in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, just across the river from Trenton, I learned that Ernie would be appearing at a Baseball Card Show in Atlantic City about two hours away and signing autographs from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. I informed Anna [Harry’s wife] that WE WERE DEFINITELY DRIVING TO ATLANTIC CITY immediately following the benediction at the 11:00 a.m. service since this might be my only chance to meet this hero whom I’d idolized since I was 10!
Traffic was heavy. The trip took longer than I’d hoped, so we did not arrive at the Card Show in Atlantic City until 2:45 p.m. I hoped and prayed Ernie would still be there, but our late arrival proved to be most fortunate if not providential. When we found Ernie and his agent in a large room behind a table, they were the only ones in the room. Apparently, all the other attendees hoping to meet him had come early and moved on to other baseball celebrities and exhibits. Apparently, all the other attendees hoping to meet him had come early and moved on to other baseball celebrities and exhibits.
Ernie and his agent greeted us warmly. I told Ernie I had grown up in the shadow of Wrigley Field before moving to Glen Ellyn in 1951. I told him that Phil Cavarretta, Cub first baseman and later Ernie’s first manager, had moved into the apartment in which my parents and I had lived after our move. I confessed that I had idolized Ernie as a child and that I owned all of his baseball cards from 1954 until his retirement in 1971. I had brought along several items of memorabilia hoping that Ernie would sign them. There was an established signing fee for each individual piece, but Ernie signed a card, ball, cap, poster, and several other items all for the price of one item.
Mr. Cub (L) & Mr. Strong (R)
He also consented to pose with me for a picture, which Anna snapped.
About that time, Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly” began playing over the sound system in the room. Ernie and I began singing along with “Satchmo,” while Ernie’s agent took Anna by the arm and they began to waltz around the room together.
By the end of the dance it was after 3:00 p.m., so Anna and I offered our sincere thanks for their gracious welcome, their time, and Ernie’s generous signatures. As they bid us farewell, I noticed that Ernie was limping badly. I asked if the pain was in his knees and he acknowledged indeed it was. Then I told him that by age 53 I had been walking with a cane because of the pain in my right knee due to the loss of cartilage, so that I was hobbling around “bone-on bone.” BUT – I had found an orthopedic surgeon in Trenton who was willing to perform knee-replacement surgery for me at a relatively young age for such a procedure. I told him I had been pain-free for 8 years and demonstrated for him my ability to jump up and down and squat like Jody Davis behind home plate. I urged him to give serious consideration to having the knee(s) replaced (which he later did). I’m sure he received all kinds of solicited (and unsolicited) advice regarding the procedure – but I was thrilled to learn later that indeed he had had both knees replaced and that he enjoyed many more years of more comfortable mobility on the golf course and elsewhere.
After that memorable afternoon in Atlantic City, Anna met him twice, at HoHoKam Park, the Cubs former Spring Training home in Mesa, Arizona. Both times I was too busy attempting to secure autographs from present and future Cub “stars” along the right field line before the start of the Cactus League game. (My loss.)
The first time, Anna waited patiently while Mr. Cub spent time talking with an older woman so she could greet Ernie again and remind him of our meeting a few years before in Atlantic City, when he and I had performed while she and Ernie’s agent danced to “Hello Dolly.” Ernie greeted Anna warmly, seemed to recall their earlier meeting, and signed her Cubs cap, which I am wearing as I type.
Anna’s later encounter with Ernie came a few years later when she saw him beneath the stands at HoHoKam Park. Unfortunately, that was a less pleasant meeting. Anna found Ernie disoriented and confused, attempting to make his way to the press box for an interview. After speaking with Ernie briefly, she quickly grabbed the attention of an usher who was able to assist Ernie in getting to the press box.
As a lifelong Cub fan, I will forever cherish the opportunity I had to spend a few minutes with this gifted ball player and remarkable man!
P.S. As I reread my article just now, I was struck by this quote from Ernie I’d included [in the American Sports entry]:
“When I die, I want my ashes to be spread over Wrigley Field with the wind blowing out!”
— Rev. Harry Lee Strong, H.R. Prescott, AZ
EDITOR”S NOTE: The Cubs have a real shot at going to the World Series this year. Perhaps, in honor of Mr. Cub, they’ll win it all in “the Friendly Confines” of Wrigley Field “with the wind blowing out”.