Assignment Detroit: Ernie Harwell will always be the voice of summer
I once asked
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
"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."
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
And the two of them laughed and laughed.
In 1948, the Brooklyn Dodgers announcer
And Ernie Harwell went to the big leagues. To Brooklyn. In the first inning of his first game, he always said,
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
"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.
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
After a time in Baltimore, he came to Detroit in 1960. And that was home. He would spend his days describing the grace of
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.' "
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
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."