Ernie Harwell: A voice that left many feeling safe at home
Thursday, May 6, 2010
I was a scared kid from a small town in Kansas when I moved to Detroit in 1983. I was straight out of college, and I knew one person in the entire state of Michigan.
During my first copy editing shift at the Detroit Free Press, someone tuned the transistor radio to the Tigers game, and I heard Ernie Harwell's voice for the first time. The homesickness and uncertainty and fear melted away. I had made my second friend.
That was Harwell's special gift. Everyone in Michigan felt close to Ernie Harwell, who died of cancer Tuesday night at the age of 92. Harwell, in turn, never met a stranger. He was just as kind as he sounded on the radio. There were no sides to Ernie Harwell. What you heard was what you got.
And what you heard was that voice, that praline voice, smooth and sweet, homey and warm. He had started broadcasting in 1943 and knew all the stories, all the stars, but you prayed for a rain delay some nights just to hear him talk some more. Ernie worked the first three and last three innings, so you looked forward to West Coast swings because you knew there was a chance you'd go to sleep to the sound of that voice. You'd go to sleep happy.
Harwell began his radio career in the minors in 1943, then served four years in the Marines before joining the Dodgers in 1948. He holds the distinction of being the only announcer to be acquired in a trade; Branch Rickey sent Cliff Dapper to the minor league Atlanta Crackers to acquire his contract. Ernie worked for the Dodgers, Giants and Orioles before joining the Tigers in 1960.
Like so many Detroiters, Ernie was a transplanted southerner who grew to love Michigan in all its parts. A foul ball into the stands might draw this comment: "And a gentleman from Livonia will take home a souvenir." His home run call was simple -- "That one is loooong gone" -- but like a good pitcher, the delivery made it special. He wasn't a shouter; he often used country phrases that were no doubt a part of his childhood in Georgia. My favorite was this, when an opposing player -- never a Tiger -- looked at a called third strike: "He stood there like the house by the side of the road." He would announce birthday or get-well greetings to fans all over Michigan, and to get one, all you had to do was ask. After I had gotten to know Ernie, I asked him to mention the mother of a friend. She was over the moon; Ernie Harwell said her name.
My first spring in Detroit was 1984, destined to be a magical year for the city. I came in the office one day to find the radio tuned to WJR for the first spring training game from Lakeland, Fla. People from all over the building had gathered to hear Ernie kick off the season in his traditional way, with his favorite lines from the Song of Solomon (2:11-12):
"For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."
How perfect is that?
I wrote a weekly baseball column back then, one that is hard to describe. Let's just say I wrote in the voice of a very old, curmudgeonly, male Tigers fan. Once a reader sent in a poem he had written as a tribute to Ernie and his partner, Paul Carey. I ran a portion of it in my column, along with a little background about the author, who had Lou Gehrig's disease and was unable to go to Tigers games.
His wife called me several weeks later to tell me that Ernie had called after the poem was printed. Next thing she knew, he came by and picked up her and her husband and took them to a Tigers game himself, loading her husband and his wheelchair into his car. "Don't tell anyone," she said. "He doesn't want anyone to make a big deal." I've heard dozens of similar stories about Harwell over the years.
After the 1991 season, Ernie was let go by then-Tigers president Bo Schembechler, proof positive that Schembechler should have stuck to football. Tigers fans, shocked to their core, held protests all that season to try to get the team to change its mind. But the Tigers held fast, so the Freep offered Ernie a weekly column and that's how I became his editor.
Ernie would compose his column on a typewriter and drop it off at the office or fax it in or sometimes dictate it to me over the phone. Those were the best times, when I got to hear Ernie's voice telling Ernie's stories. He had started his career as a sports reporter and copy editor and you could tell; he was a good writer, clean and concise. He was also a songwriter -- more than 60 of his songs have been recorded -- and his essay "The Game for All America" is still widely regarded as one of the best pieces written on baseball.
When I left the Free Press in 1992, my friend Gene threw a goodbye party, but I wasn't the guest of honor, because Ernie came to say goodbye. One by one, every journalist in the joint made his or her way to the corner of the room where Ernie stood with his wife, Lulu, to pay homage to the quiet man in the tweed jacket and beret. If he had said, "She stood there like the house by the side of the road," I probably would have changed my mind and stayed.
After Mike Ilitch bought the Tigers, one of his first acts was to bring Ernie back to the booth in 1994. He remained with the team until he retired, this time on his own terms, in 2002. His eyesight was failing a bit, and he knew it was time.
He called a few pitches during the national telecast of the 2005 All-Star Game at Comerica Park. I heard his voice again, and found myself weeping, for my long-gone 20s and Detroit and coney dogs and Hamtramck and blind pigs and old Tiger Stadium and Stroh's and Beaver Island and the Freep and a million other memories -- happy memories -- that velvety voice conjured.
Ernie's death came as no surprise. He had told all of Michigan last September that he was dying. He said his goodbyes at a Tigers game at the end of the season, giving a short speech and walking out of Comerica with a wave to the cheering, weeping crowd. He was smiling, as always. He'd hate that I'm crying as I write this. He said he was ready for his next adventure, and now it has begun.