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Assignment Detroit: Ernie Harwell will always be the voice of summer

Baseball is the President tossing out the first ball of the season and a scrubby schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm. A tall, thin old man waving a scorecard from the corner of his dugout. That's baseball. And so is the big, fat guy with a bulbous nose trotting home at the end of one of his 714 home runs.

I once asked Ernie Harwell why people loved him so. That's a hard question for any person to answer, but it is especially challenging for a man as modest and decent as Ernie Harwell. "I'm just a failed newspaper man," he would say whenever the praise grew too thick.

But the question remained: Few around sports have ever been as loved as Ernie Harwell, the Detroit Tigers baseball announcer for a half-century, going back to the summer before John F. Kennedy was elected president. Every room he walked into was filled with friends. Ernie said that maybe it was because his voice had always been, day after day, year after year, barbecue after barbecue, booming through summer thunderstorms. Maybe, he said, it is because baseball on the radio cools humid Sunday afternoons and lights up darkened nights for weary drivers, and keeps children company when muffled by flattened pillows.

"It's just there," he said of his own voice on the radio. "You can listen to it, if you want. Or you can be doing something else, and it just sort of drifts into your psyche."

When I told him, no, that there was more in his 50-plus years of calling baseball games on the radio -- something reassuring and wonderful and honest and warm and... well, he just cut me off with a grateful smile. I'm just a failed newspaperman, he said.

"It isn't me that people love," he said. "It's baseball."

There's a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh 46 years ago. That's baseball. So is the scout reporting that a 16-year-old pitcher in Cheyenne is a coming Walter Johnson. Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered, or booed. And then it becomes a statistic.

Ernie Harwell was traded into the major leagues. It's a pretty famous baseball story, but Ernie never hesitated to tell famous baseball stories. He felt certain that someone out there was hearing it for the very first time. Harwell was a Georgia boy, born in a little town called Washington, raised in a growing metropolis called Atlanta. He was a batboy for the minor league Atlanta Crackers when he was 5, and the radio announcer for the Atlanta Crackers when he got out of the Marines.

"The Atlanta Crackers!" his contemporary Buck O'Neil once said to Harwell. "Can you believe they actually called a team the Atlanta Crackers? And you know what's even better? There was once a Negro Leagues team, and they called them the Atlanta BLACK Crackers!"

And the two of them laughed and laughed.

In 1948, the Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber was hospitalized and the team needed an announcer fast. And so Branch Rickey -- a man who always believed a good trade could make all the difference -- dealt a catcher named Cliff Dapper to the Crackers for their announcer, Ernie Harwell. Dapper, Harwell would occasionally mention, hit .471 in the big leagues (in 17 at-bats) and became the manager of the Crackers.

And Ernie Harwell went to the big leagues. To Brooklyn. In the first inning of his first game, he always said, Jackie Robinson stole home.

In baseball, democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rule book. Color merely means something to distinguish one team's uniform from another.

Baseball is a rookie, his experience no bigger than the lump in his throat as he begins fulfillment of his dream. It's a veteran too, a tired old man of 35 hoping that those aching muscles can pull him through another sweltering August and September. Nicknames are baseball, names like Zeke and Pie and Kiki and Home Run and Cracker and Dizzy and Dazzy.

Words. Oh, how Ernie Harwell has loved words. That was the failed newspaperman in him. He did not speak much about numbers on the air. Radio was for words, for splashes of imagination, for poetry. He loved the Sam Walter Foss poem The House by the Side of the Road.

"Let me live in my house by the side of the road/and be a friend to man," Foss wrote.

"He stood there like the house by the side of the road," Ernie Harwell would say after strike three, "and watched that one go by."

With Harwell, there was always something surprising -- a story, a line from a play, a refrain from an old song. Oh, yes, there were familiar Harwell lines -- what is baseball without the familiar? "It's two for the price of one," Ernie would say after a double play. When the fans booed an umpire he might offer something like, "Some of the umpires who paid to get in disagreed with that call." And, of course, when a fan caught a foul ball, Ernie would give that fan a hometown. "That ball was caught by a fan from Ypsilanti," or "and a fine catch was made by a lady from Windsor."

For more than 40 years doing Detroit Tigers baseball, people in Michigan wondered how he knew.

Baseball is the cool, clear eyes of Rogers Hornsby, the flashing spikes of Ty Cobb, an overaged pixie named Rabbit Maranville.

Baseball is just a game as simple as a ball and bat, yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport, a business and sometimes almost even a religion.

Why, the fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World Series catch and then dashing off to play stickball in the street with his teenage pals. That's baseball. So is the husky voice of a doomed Lou Gehrig saying, "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

He stayed in Brooklyn for only a year. And then he broadcast a game for the New York Giants -- he was the quiet television voice when Bobby Thomson hit the home run in 1951 and Russ Hodges shouted, again and again, "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" Ernie Harwell always loved Hodges' call. But that wasn't the way he called baseball games. He did not intrude. He did not care to be noticed. He believed that the sound of the crowd could be poetry.

After a time in Baltimore, he came to Detroit in 1960. And that was home. He would spend his days describing the grace of Al Kaline, the raw power of Willie Horton, the brief but blinding brilliance of Denny McLain, the remarkable arm strength of Aurelio Rodriguez, the tango of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, the force of Kirk Gibson. He would talk about Miss Lulu and home runs that were long gone and foul balls caught by men from Walla Walla.

And after a while, as it goes with the best baseball announcers, his voice blended into the Detroit summer. It was hard to tell one from the other. There was a ruckus back in '91, when he was briefly fired when a new owner wanted something new on the radio. But there was an outcry and Harwell was back a year later. People didn't want new. They wanted their summer back. They wanted their summers to last forever. And Ernie Harwell did not retire until 2002, when he was 84 years old.

"Rather than goodbye," he said to the fans in his last broadcast, "please allow me to say 'Thank you.' "

Baseball is cigar smoke, hot roasted peanuts, The Sporting News, Ladies Day, "Down in front!" Take Me Out to the Ball Game and the Star Spangled Banner.

Baseball is a tongue-tied kid from Georgia growing up to be an announcer and praising the Lord for showing him the way to Cooperstown. This is a game for America, still a game for America, this baseball. Thank you.

Ernie Harwell, you have no doubt heard, has inoperable cancer. He is 91 years old, and he says that he doesn't know how long much longer he will live. A year. A half year. Less. He says that he is at peace. He says that the faith he has in God sustains him. He says -- exactly as he said in his last broadcast -- that he is ready for a new adventure.

Of course, there is sadness, even if sadness is not what Ernie wants. Well, people in Detroit do love Ernie Harwell as much as he loves them. The voice and the city suited each other -- Ernie always has believed in Detroit, through the hardest times, and for a simple reason. "Good people," he said, time and again. The other day he was on the field in Detroit, and he said a few words to the crowd. He said that his life has been a great journey. He said that he loved the people of Michigan. He said that the Detroit Tigers fans were the best.

But it wasn't so much what he said... the deepest meaning was in that voice, that familiar voice with the lingering Georgia twang. In Detroit, in Michigan, in the memories of anyone who turned car radio dials in search of baseball, this is the voice of breezes and lemonade and late evening sunshine and the last days of school. This is the voice that wafts through screen doors and sounds over splashing at swimming pools. This is the voice of Tiger Stadium and a stolen base by Ron Leflore and a line drive off the wall by Norm Cash and a Jack Morris scowl and a Mickey Lolich fastball that would dive into the dirt.

This is the voice I would listen to while sitting in my father's beat-up green Audi -- Dad bought that car for $600 and it often seemed that the only thing that worked in it was the radio. I was 16 years old in Charlotte, N.C., and that radio could pick up the scent of baseball in far-off places like Cincinnati and Philadelphia and St. Louis. And that radio could especially pick up Detroit and an announcer who would not chastise a man for looking at strike three but would instead say he was "window shopping."

"You used to listen to me in your father's car?" Ernie Harwell asked with wonder. And when I said yes, he said the two words that he probably has said more than any man over the last 50 years, two words that ended his beautiful 1981 speech in Cooperstown (excerpted above) -- when he was given the Ford C. Frick Award, the highest honor the baseball world can bestow upon an announcer -- two words that probably do a better job than any of summing up the emotions people have about beloved baseball announcers, the emotions that everyone feels about Ernie Harwell.

He said: "Thank you."

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