It’s important to be aware…
This story started percolating in my brain while thinking about artists and autographs. The few forays that I’ve made into that territory usually end badly. I was turned down once by Carole King after being the only person at a party to approach her and say how much I liked her music. That was about fifteen years ago in NYC and I swore I’d never do it again. Then just last month I brought a picture for Bob Seger to sign at a show and his manager said “no.”
But after some reflection I did recall a successful autograph “get” and it involved my dad, Hugh McVeigh, and the legendary Detroit Tigers baseball announcer, Ernie Harwell. This was in 2000 and my brothers, Scott and Dave, were camped out at the abandoned Tiger Stadium on a HBO shoot that Billy Crystal was directing called 61*. The brothers McVeigh were doing a “making of” feature about the film.
The film told the story of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle’s 1961 battle to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. The Detroit location, with Tiger Stadium acting as Yankee Stadium, was perfect for McVeigh family members, especially Dad, to visit the set. Also visiting was Ernie Harwell, and one day Dad got to sit with him and talk, mostly small talk, a kick for my dad. Sometime during that day a picture was taken of the two men. The framed photo hung proudly in Dad’s living room.
Later that winter I was visiting my dad and received a call from Dave saying that he had contacted Ernie’s wife, Lulu, and she was pretty sure she could get Ernie to autograph the photo. Dave said that she was expecting my call. I gave her a call and we agreed on a time to meet at the couple’s apartment complex in suburban Detroit.
My first thought was to try and surprise Dad – tell him we were going shopping and then take him to meet up with Ernie. But I figured that he would notice that his favorite picture was missing and the whole thing would go off the rails. So instead I told him the deal and I’m glad I did. He was like a kid with excitement and had the good sense to insist that we stop by Staples and get a couple of Sharpies to try before going over to Ernie’s.
Outside of Ernie’s house we sat in the car with a few new Sharpies and scraps of paper that resembled the rather dark photo. We only had one shot at this and the thought of an unrecognizable Ernie Harwell autograph was more than we could bear. Nothing looked great but we figured we had one color that would be acceptable.
As we approached the buzzer to his apartment I could tell that my dad was nervous. He wasn’t exactly a stranger to celebrity, between Scott and Dave’s video work and my work in music, he’d been exposed to some stars. But this was different. He asked me questions; how long should we stay? What should we talk about? I told him to relax and see where things take us. I’d give him a sign when it was time to go. We hit the buzzer and THAT VOICE sounded in return. That unmistakable, to any Detroit sports fan, voice saying in his soft Texan drawl, “Hi Hugh, I’ll be right down.” Magic.
And here is where it gets even better. Ernie walked into the room with a pocket stuffed full of Sharpies. And a fistful of the markers too. In every color imaginable. I didn’t know that Sharpie made so many colors. When I commented on that he laughed and said, “I’ve done this a time or two” and then signed the picture.
For the next half hour or so the two men chatted about Detroit things; the car business, property values, and of course The Tigers. When it was time to leave we all shook hands and Dad and I thanked Ernie. At home he put the picture back in its frame and on the wall. He smiled for the next three days and never missed a chance to show it off to his friends when they came to his house for a visit.
It’s only recently that I’ve come to embrace the totality of that experience for me as an artist relations specialist and businessperson. The photo is compelling, just my dad and Ernie Harwell – a broadcast legend and artist in his own right – sitting in an empty Tiger Stadium talking. And the fact that all sorts of movie activity is going on nearby is cool too.
But add to that the work that Scott and Dave were doing in town with HBO, their awareness and alertness to get that picture – a photo that had nothing to do with the film – the phone calls to Ernie’s wife and then to me and finally the run to Staples and the sit-down with Ernie transforms it into something…soulful. And sometimes we, in artist relations or any business endeavor, need some soul.
Later, during his Tigers broadcast that day, Ernie mentioned meeting my dad on air. “He's so proud of his kids and he should be... A swing and a miss... they moved out to California and they're doing really well..."