For more than 50 years, Harwell was what fans wanted: a friend
Every now and again, I would wake up early and go to my computer, check my email, and there would be the most wonderful thing in there: An email from bbpeach80.
BB for baseball.
Peach for Georgia.
The emails were never long, never more than a sentence or two. They were always happy thoughts:
How does a man live 92 years without losing his innocence? How does a man announce baseball games for more than a half century and still appreciate triples in the gap and still hear the whisper of the fountains? How is it that a man who spends his whole life bringing joy to other people spends his days worrying that he has not said "Thank you" enough?
These are the wonders of Ernie Harwell. It's a funny thing about broadcasting baseball games: Some people are good at it and some people are not as good -- you know, as far as that technical stuff goes -- but unlike just about any other walk of life, quality is beside the point when it comes to our hometown baseball announcers. Yes, we want pilots who are proficient and doctors who are skillful and bankers who are methodical and dentists who remember that we need to rinse. We want columnists who are interesting, and actors who help us believe, and secretaries who are efficient, and coaches who win. We want announcers in football and basketball and hockey and other sports to keep up with the action and tell us what we want and need to know.
But with our hometown baseball announcer, we want a friend. We will get used to his quirks. We will grow accustomed to his voice. We will not love everything about them. We may occasionally shout, "Come on, give us the score already!" or "Not that story again!" But that's all in the rhythm of the games, 162 of them every year, 810 of them every five years, 2,106 of them every 13 years, 4,050 of them every 25 years, and so on, and so on, the long march, thousands of home runs, thousands of check swings, tens of thousands of strikeouts, and just enough tailor-made double plays to keep our team in the game.
And you listen -- some listen religiously, some when they happen to be in the car, some reaching out from a great distance for a little bit of home, some just to pass the time -- and if the announcer seems real then, without even thinking about it, his voice becomes a part of your life. The style hardly matters. Go crazy, St. Louis. Have a Bud on Rush Street, Chicago. It's a beautiful day for baseball in Cleveland. Two and two to
Ernie Harwell had his routines too. You don't announce baseball games for 55 years without building routines. He would often shout out the hometown of the person who caught a foul ball -- Ypsilanti, Grosse Pointe, Saginaw, Lansing -- and a young
But it wasn't the poetry, and it wasn't tradition, and it wasn't the turtles, and it wasn't the foul ball hometowns that made Ernie Harwell beloved. It wasn't his memorable voice, dripping with Georgia all of his life -- The Tigers becoming the Tiguhs, and
No... it was Ernie himself. He was always there, night after night, day after day, missing only two games in his long broadcasting career -- one for his brother's funeral, the other for getting his lifetime award from the Hall of Fame. And he wasn't just present -- he was always THERE, full of life, full of optimism, full of faith, full of wonder.
The last email I got from bbpeach80 was a few weeks ago; it was an invitation to call. I had written him an email expressing how proud I was to know him, even a little bit, and how lucky I was to call him a friend. Of course, everyone who ever listened to Ernie Harwell called him a friend. "It isn't me that people love," he said to me once, "It's baseball." But, of course, it wasn't true. People loved him.
And so I told him how much he meant to me. You only get to meet and talk with so many beautiful people in this life. I've been lucky. I've known more than my share. He wrote back and thanked me -- I wonder if any person who ever lived said "Thank you" more than Ernie Harwell -- and said that I was welcome to call if the mood would ever strike me. He enclosed his telephone number like he had a few times before. I never did call; I knew so many people were calling. I had said what I wanted to say. I had taken up too much of his time.
But more than once, I would go on the Internet and listen to
In the videos I found, he inevitably would leave out my favorite part. He was too modest to say it again.
"I've lived a wonderful life," he said. He did. He lived a wonderful life. But what made him Ernie Harwell was that he never failed to remember. Our friend Buck O'Neil used to say that he went to the ballpark hoping one more time to hear that thunderous crack of the bat, that unusual sound he had only heard three times in his life, once for
Why? Because he was looking for it.