Happy birthday, Ernie Harwell

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Photo by Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press

I grew up in the same town I live today, Ann Arbor — just 40 miles west of Detroit. I was a sports fan, and I spent my summers playing Rec & Ed baseball and pick up games with my friends and neighbors. My childhood spanned from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, with the Detroit Tigers’ last World Series championship falling right in the middle. Of course, all this means that the landscape of my childhood was shaped by the voice of the broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell.

Ernie was the radio voice of the Tigers from 1960 through 2002, with a brief stint away from the club (not his idea) — a mistake that the rectified within a couple years when the Tigers realized what they (and their fans) were missing. He was known for his place in history (the only broadcaster to ever be traded for a player from one team to another), his signature calls (“Strike three! He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.”), for his apparent omniscience concerning the hometown of individual fans (“There’s a foul ball down the third base line that will reach the seats, and a gentleman from Canton will take that one home as a souvenir.”) and his friendly Georgia drawl that perfectly fit the game of baseball. Ernie wasn’t afraid to stop talking and let the sounds of the game waft through the radio speakers and into the living rooms, porches, cars, and backyards of the listeners. Ernie sounded like summer.

His style was understated. He had no “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” moment. He wasn’t given to wild vocal gesticulations. But his call of the game was memorable — at least to me. Twenty-eight years after Larry Herndon caught a pop fly off of Tony Gwynn to clinch the championship for the Tigers, I could still hear the call as I remembered it in my head. It went something like this:

There’s a fly ball to left, here comes Herndon…he’s got it! And the Tigers are the champions of 1984.

I recently found the actual call online. While I’d probably heard it once or twice since the game, itself, I was impressed by how accurate my memory was. I may have missed a word or two, but not more than that. But what’s really interesting to me is that the call in my mind had the emphases at all the right places. The cadence was right. The tone and timbre of the call was all the same.

What does it mean that I could not only tell you almost word-for-word how the call was phrased, but also remember the rise and fall of the call — almost 30 years after I heard it? Well, one, that it was a big moment in my young baseball fan life. Sure. Any Tigers fan will tell you that a World Series championship doesn’t come around every year decade quarter-century. But two, I think I knew then that listening to Ernie Harwell on the radio was special. It’s why we made a habit of watching the TV broadcast and turning the sound down on George Kell and Al Kaline (two legends in their own right) and turning on WJR to hear Ernie.

***************

“It’s time to say goodbye, but I think goodbyes are sad and I’d much rather say hello. Hello to a new adventure. I’m not leaving, folks. I’ll still be with you, living my life in Michigan — my home state — surrounded by family and friends.”

Spring training in Florida and Arizona starts in February, where up north, we’ve still got weeks of kicking snow off our boots and cleaning frozen slush out from behind our tires. But in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues in February and March, hope springs anew. Ernie knew this, and wrote about it. He was also known to greet the exhibition season with a reading from the Song of Solomon:

But it was in spring training of 2002 that many a heart fell, including mine. Ernie announced that he’d be leaving the airwaves at the end of the season. He was healthy, he reassured. But it was just time for him to hang it up and spend some time with his dear LuLu while he was still feeling good. He was 84 years old at this time — still doing a couple hundred push ups a day; still as sharp as a tack.

“…And rather than goodbye, please allow me to say thank you. Thank you for letting me be part of your family. Thank you for taking me with you to that cottage up north, to the beach, the picnic, your work place and your backyard. Thank you for sneaking your transistor under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers.”

At the end of an otherwise forgettable season, after the Tigers dropped a 1-0 decision to the Blue Jays on a late September Sunday in Toronto, Ernie signed off for the last time. I paused my lawn mowing to listen to Ernie on a handheld radio, and wondered what it would be like from here on out for me and the Tigers. I realized how lucky I was to have grown up on this man’s voice, and to have it be my companion on vacations to Lake Michigan, on boat rides down the Huron River, and at home in the back yard. My experience had been duplicated millions of times all across the state over 40-some years.

“…Now, I might have been a small part of your life. But you’ve been a very large part of mine. And it’s my privilege and honor to share with you the greatest game of all. Now God has a new adventure for me and I’m ready to move on. So I’ll leave you with a deep sense of appreciation for your longtime loyalty and support. I thank you very much and God Bless all of you.”—Ernie Harwell, September 29, 2002

I toyed with the idea of giving up on the Tigers. They were perennial losers, and now the best thing about them was gone. But the team hired Alan Trammell, the star shortstop from that magical 1984 club, to be their rookie manager in 2003, and that was enough to bring me back. (That season would see the Tigers lose a staggering 119 games.) Dan Dickerson and Jim Price have done an admirable job as the play-by-play combo, and I enjoy their call of the game. They too, were fans of Ernie, and were lucky enough to have worked with him.

And for a while, life without Ernie wasn’t really life without Ernie. As the voice of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan commercials that aired during games, he’d admonish us to take regular walks in order to stay fit. He was often interviewed for his thoughts on the Tigers and baseball in general, and he had a column in the Detroit Free Press. But beyond that, his absence from the broadcasting booth caused me to reflect about his influence on me. He was a man of profound faith, who lived simply. He enjoyed people and treated them well. He put people at ease, whether they knew him or not. I realized these were all traits I aspired to, and was glad to have a role model who put them in action.

As a broadcaster, he was also influential. He never tried to upstage the action on the field. Never tried to be the story. He believed baseball was the greatest game on earth and was humbled to be a part of it and to bring it into the homes and cars of so many people.

For a few years in the late 1990s, I had a little radio show on a little radio station in a little market with a little broadcasting range. I loved it. I got to program, produce, and host the show — I played music I loved and couldn’t wait to bring it to the ears of my small group of faithful listeners. I learned the show went really well if I didn’t try to upstage the music and if I didn’t try to be the story. I had a very good mentor who helped me realize that my strengths lay in my personable nature and humor, and he helped me find ways to bring that out. Now, as a voice over artist, I try to take the same approach, trusting in a good script and lending a personal touch to my read, without overwhelming the copy. It’s an approach that works for me, and at least in part, I need to thank Ernie Harwell.

***************

Ernie statue

A statue of Ernie Harwell greets visitors to Comerica Park

Baseball fans everywhere had one more sad goodbye to say to Ernie, when he died at the age of 92 on May 4, 2010 from bile duct cancer. He was as humble and gracious as ever as he neared what he called “his next adventure,” and was even able to view his illness as a gift, because it drew him and his family closer to God. His death came one day before he was to be awarded the Vin Scully Lifetime Achievement Award for Sports Broadcasting. Ernie, knowing he’d not be there for the ceremony, asked Al Kaline to accept the award on his behalf and tell those in attendance that Vin Scully was the best in the business. Kaline did so, but added, “We Tiger fans respectfully disagree.” Well said.

Today is Ernie Harwell’s birthday. He would have been 95. Let’s celebrate. I’ve got my memories, and I’ll be taking some time to browse through clips of his calls and columns he wrote. I’ll be looking for what others have had to say about him, and I’m curious about your memories. Take a minute to let me know what you remember about Ernie in the Leave a Reply section.

Happy birthday, Ernie.

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4 responses to “Happy birthday, Ernie Harwell

  1. Good job, Dave. I grew up in rural Washington state, and all we had was a revolving door farm team that was fun to watch, but few memories. There were no Mariners, and I can’t remember any Major League team broadcasting into our area. Dave Niehaus became the Mariner voice, and he referred to Ernie and his greatness.

    • Thanks, Harry.
      Minor league games can be fun to watch — you can often get really good seats close to the action. I like to catch a Mud Hens game now and then.

  2. You’re right that Ernie’s voice was the sound of summer. Your insight about the way he focused listeners on the game and not on himself can be applied in many areas of life. I remember walking with you through a park in Arkansas when you re-created the voice over of that Larry Herndon catch. It was fun to think of that again while reading your post and feel some summer on a snowy day.

    • Thanks for the words, Hugh! I had forgotten about that conversation in Arkansas, but now that you mention it, I think I can remember what the landscape at that exact part of the park looked like. Indelible moments begetting indelible moments…that’s fun.
      (And on this snowy day, I’m reminding myself that pitchers and catchers report next week!)

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