I’ll never forget the first time I met Cal Ermer. It was April of 2001 on the pitcher’s mound at then Bellsouth Park before an exhibition game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Minnesota Twins. The park opened a season earlier with former president George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara throwing out the first pitch. Who would it be this year I wondered? Thoughts of political, sports, and other celebrity icons crossed my mind.
Up to the pitching rubber a tall, lanky, white-haired gentleman took to the mound with ball in hand and threw a strike to the catcher. For a second I thought to myself, “Who the heck is this guy?” That man was Cal Ermer and during the next eight years I realized not only what an institution he was, but a legend.
Cal passed away quietly Saturday morning at the age of 85 after a brief illness. Despite my limited knowledge of him from conversations and hanging out in the press box at the Lookouts’ games, I feel a profound loss.
There are plenty of stories both locally and nationally telling you the history of Cal Ermer and while I may touch on that a little, this is more about the man and what he represented. Once I officially met Cal I was informed he was a scout for the Minnesota Twins organization, a position he held since 1986. In the hundreds of games I sat in the press box he proudly wore his Twins ball cap, taking off only briefly during the playing of the National Anthem.
For 67 of Cal’s 85 years on this planet he was involved in professional baseball. Baseball was Cal’s life, and for the most part Cal was baseball, representing everything good about the game. He was a player, manager, coach and scout during his time in baseball.
Game after game, day after day in the Lookouts’ press box I witnessed Cal holding court. He was always seated in the front row on the press box directly in the center. When someone new came into the press box he would turn around and greet them. “How’s it going?” he’d say in a strong, booming voice. He would then turn back around and watch the game intently.
Even up to the last home stand he attended last week before taken ill, baseball scouts, managers, upper level executives who came through town made their way to the press box to meet Cal Ermer. Baseball purists, or true fans of the game even asked for autographs up two weeks ago. The legend of Cal Ermer is greater to many than even that of players like Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron.
A 29-year-old Ermer was hired by Lookouts’ owner Joe Engel to manage his rag tag team that were cellar dwellers for many years, finishing barely out of last place for years and years. Ermer whipped the team into a playoff team, some of the more successful seasons the franchise had seen. Ermer’s star was rising and he ended up managing briefly in the big leagues for the Twins for part of 1967 and 1968, missing the playoffs by a single game in ’67. The following season did not work out well for the Twins as a trade with the Dodgers backfired and Harmon Killebrew tore his hamstring in the All-Star game, an injury that almost ended his career. That blow ended Cal’s career as a big league manager. After finishing the season 79-83 he was relieved of his duties and replaced by Billy Martin. The week prior to his death Cal reminisced about his managing the Twins as he proudly recalled a conversation he had with Twins owner Calvin Griffith. “Firing you was the biggest mistake I ever made,” Griffith told Ermer.
A keen eye for talent, Ermer worked with many of the legends of baseball including Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, and countless others. He rubbed shoulders with all the legends – everyone from Joe DiMaggio, Billy Martin, Mickey Mantle – you name a Hall-of-Famer and Cal had first-hand story about them.
Telling baseball stories was something else Cal was known for. He literally had hundreds of them. He would frequently share one in the press box whenever something on the field happened that triggered his memory of it.
His most famous and documented story involves the Denver team in AAA he managed in 1967. During the game Cal’s team fell behind 17-0 in the fourth inning. When his team came up to bat next Cal said the press box announcer came on the loud speaker and said, “Hope springs eternal.” His team fought back with ten runs in that inning and ended up tying the score 17-17. Going into the bottom ninth they were behind 20-17. Denver loaded the bases with two outs. The next Denver batter hit a long fly ball that the opponent caught at the base of the wall. After telling that story to me Cal said, “You just never know.” He then turned around and went back to intently watching the Lookouts play.
A couple of years ago Cal was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Gradually the number of stories he would tell dwindled soon to a couple of dozen, and last season maybe a dozen that he would repeat often. This season it was down to about four. Of course his signature story, for what he is famous for around AT&T Field is “Hope springs eternal”.
And Cal lived by that motto. It was his true belief that his team would and should win every game. Often when behind by a number of runs in the bottom of the ninth, if he did not break into the Denver story, he would softly repeat “Hope Springs Eternal”. When the Lookouts were leading in the top of the ninth he would yell, “Hold ‘em!”
While a lot of people thought Cal was near the end for some time, it is still a shock that he is gone. To look back at what Cal Ermer experienced and what he lived through as a professional ball player and manager is mind blowing. During his lifetime he played against and managed against the likes of DiMaggio, Mantle, Killebrew, Carew, Catfish Hunter, Billy Martin, Sparky Anderson, Brooks Robinson, Roberto Clemente and the list goes on and on. He was there when the major leagues finally allowed racial integration for the first time. Cal was involved with baseball before television. He was around to see the home run record broken twice (Henry Aaron and then Barry Bonds), was a kid when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were in their prime and beyond. He lived through the volatile ‘60s, four wars, one presidential assassination, and female reporters allowed to cover the male dominated sports landscape.
Through it all, and what he has seen change in the political and public landscape Cal Ermer was nothing less than a gentleman to whomever he met. He didn’t care about race or gender. As long as they loved baseball, that was all that mattered to Cal.
Cal Ermer represented everything that is great about the game of baseball. Note I say the game – not the business. To Cal, baseball was about hitting, and pitching, executing a bunt, catching the ball – not racism, contract negotiations, union work stoppages or TV endorsements.
Baseball the business, on the other hand has been replaced by professional football as our national pastime, but the game in its true form remains intact. These days the motivation behind playing or managing in the major leagues is big money and/or ego gratification. Separating the game from the business seems to have gotten lost in this day and age.
Cal Ermer never spoke truer words about baseball when he said hope springs eternal. Baseball is a game that begins in the spring, a time of the year for renewal. The grass starts to grow, the trees come to bloom and the animals come out of hibernation. And every year thousands upon thousands of children take to the field to have fun interacting and play a simple game, a game their parents played and their parent’s parents. We forget that in this modern age.
Cal lived a storybook life. He spent almost his whole life doing what he loved the best – the game of baseball, married a beauty queen (Miss Chattanooga 1952) and raised a family. Prior to the Lookout’s last home stand he was at every game, last attending a game on August 25. Baseball was Cal and Cal, baseball.
With Cal’s passing Saturday morning it is quite possible to say the very last of a dying breed is gone. The press box feels very empty these days and everyone’s agenda seems to be different than pure love of the game as was Cal’s. True appreciation of the game of baseball seems to be lost in this modern era. We can only hope otherwise. After all, to quote Cal one last time, “hope springs eternal”.
– Dave Weinthal