Filmmaker Ken Burns was surprisingly easy to get on the phone. It was 1991, and the PBS family was still cheering his Civil War victory. Burns had just started researching his next project, a film about the history of baseball.
By coincidence, we were working on our own baseball special at Wisconsin Public Television. It seemed like a good idea to interview Burns about America's pastime.
"I can't talk about that," Burns said when we contacted him. "Why not?" we asked, figuring he was either too busy or didn't want to reveal anything about his documentary.
"I don't know anything about baseball," he said. "I'm still researching."
I figured that to be either the most modest claim ever made or the cleverest blow-off ever devised. Either way, he was off the hook, and I was left to conclude that, taking him at his word, Burns had to be one of a small handful of American men who couldn't take at least a swing at a conversation on America's pastime.
Of course, pastimes change over the decades. Our kids used to play soccer on a clutch of soccer fields behind Kennedy School that once were baseball diamonds. Ropes of ragweed strangled the steel posts of two baseball backstops that, minus the diamonds that once defined their place, situated themselves at odd angles to each other.
"What's this?" a 7-year-old asked me as he climbed the chain link.
"This is a baseball backstop," I told him.
"What's it do?" he asked.
I looked around at the soccer games surrounding us. "Nothing," I said
Back in Louisville, boys of my generation would have never asked his question. Baseball was our sport. And my father's devotion to the Cincinnati Reds swept me in like a riptide.
It didn't hurt that those were the days when the Big Red Machine - featuring Dave Concepcion, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose - ground their National League foes into hamburger. My favorite Red was George Foster, who strolled to the plate with badass sideburns and a big black bat that was later found to be illegally corked.
Foster hit 52 homers in 1977, and I still have a home run ball I fielded in the stands at Riverfront Stadium. It has a black streak across the hide where Foster's famous ebony bat kissed it good-bye.
When Ken Burns turned us down for our star interview, I got the idea we should go after the biggest slugger of all, Hank Aaron. His roots run deep in Wisconsin baseball, and he sure as hell didn't have to do any research. So I called him.
Or I should say I called the Atlanta front office and began winding my way through the matrix of handlers and public relations specialists that protected the baseball legend as though he were King Tut's mummy. Finally, the right person committed the Home Run King to an interview with us.
In the vernacular of talk television, landing Aaron was a "get." As we went live on the night of our one-hour baseball special, everything was coming together perfectly. The field reports were tightly produced, rehearsal went well, and all the live guests were in place.
All, that is, except for Hank Aaron.
We sat in Madison's dark control room, hearts in our throats, staring at the Atlanta satellite feed where the shot of a Hank-less chair glowed, a lavaliere mike draped over the back of it. It was 7 p.m. We went live.
He never showed. A couple times during the hour we put the shot of the empty chair into the program and said, "There's Hank Aaron's chair. Yup. He was supposed to be sitting right there." I felt the need to do that if for no other reason than we were paying a pretty penny for the damn satellite and studio. It was the most expensive chair I ever produced.
Having promised our viewers the Hall of Famer in the days leading up to the special, I was humiliated. Leaving work that night gave new meaning to home run.
Home sure looked good, though. I blazed through the front door and dove into dinner. "Call for you," said my wife, Peggy, pointing over her shoulder to the kitchen. "I'm not home," I said.
"Oh, I think you'll want to talk to this guy," she said.
"Mr. Moore," said the voice on the other end. "This is Henry Aaron. I want to apologize for tonight."
Aaron explained that as he was leaving his office for the Atlanta TV studio, he was told his daughter had been in a car accident and was en route to the hospital. That's where she was now. That's where he was calling from. Fortunately, she suffered only minor injuries.
"I just wanted you to understand why I didn't show," he said.
On Aug. 7, after drinking from his smoking test tube, Barry Bonds broke Aaron's home run record. It caused me to remember the night Hank Aaron called me at home to say he was sorry - as real an act, as authentic a gesture, as any soul can muster.