When I was a kid growing up in Detroit, I wanted to be Ernie Harwell. As the main play-by-play radio/TV voice of the baseball Tigers, I thought, he had the greatest job in the world.
After hearing of his death Tuesday at the age of 92, I still want to be Ernie Harwell.
More on that shortly.
It is not as true now as it was, say, 40 years ago that the radio broadcaster for the local Major League Baseball team held an important role in the community. In 1967, however, when the city of Detroit was trying to hang onto anything positive, Harwell played an important role is healing the city’s wounds.
The Tigers were involved in a tight four-game scramble for the pennant that year. Every game, it seemed, brought new tensions. Harwell, who never lost his Southern twang and ability to tell stories, kept people together by telling tales of the Tigers. If Harwell told you Willie Horton just missed a diving catch, you knew it was so. When he told you that Mickey Lolich snapped a darting curve that left a player “standing like the house by the side of the road,” you knew it was strike three.
When Detroit (like Minnesota) lost that pennant on the last day of the season, Harwell simply said, “The season is over, and it will be ‘Wait until next year for the Tiges.’ ” We sighed together and began the wait that all fans of second-place teams do.
When that next year came, Harwell started it like he started every exhibition opener with the Song of Solomon:
“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.”
After that, the first exhibition game started and Harwell picked up where he had left off the year before.
Like the late Herb Carneal here (they worked as partners in Baltimore for two seasons), Harwell apparently didn’t know how much influence he held in Detroit.
In 1968, his voice carried from car radio to car radio and from the shop to the street as the Tigers rolled to the pennant and then rallied past the Cardinals to win the World Series. Listening to Harwell work, you had the feeling he was broadcasting specifically to you. It was if he was saying, “OK, Dave, John Hiller is ready, he winds and here’s the pitch …”
Like Carneal, Harwell seemed to get even better when his club went through a dark period in the 1970s, when they had the worst record in baseball. If you tuned in during this era, you would Harwell speak in as cheery tones over the efforts of such foot soldiers as Ken Szotkiewicz and Ray Bare as he did talking about the earlier exploits of Al Kaline and Denny McLain. “Every game is important to somebody,” he said.
But Harwell’s ability to tell and teach us baseball was only half the story. The man knew how to handle real life as well. Bo Schembechler, an old football guy who was running the Tigers at the time, thought Harwell wasn’t excitable enough. When Schembechler announced Harwell’s contract would not be renewed after the 1991 season, he figured it was no big deal. After all, football players come and go all the time in college.
For his part, Harwell took it in stride, saying in his final game: “There’s a new adventure waiting for me somewhere. It may be a microphone. It may be a rocking chair. But I will approach it willingly.”
A year later, Schembechler was gone and Harwell was back at his own stead.
He stayed for another decade before leaving the way guys of his caliber should … on their own terms.
It was last year when Harwell decided to teach us all one last lesson — how to die. Diagnosed with incurable cancer, he simply shrugged his shoulders and took the disease head on. “I’m ready to face what comes,” he said at the time. “Whether it’s a long time or a short time is all right with me because it’s up to my Lord and savior.”
And to think I was just grumbling to my wife the other day about how much pain I was in when I cut a fingernail too close.
The truly great ones simply persevere through life. They are comfortable in their own skin. They take their work (but not themselves) seriously.
Whether it was behind a microphone describing Mark Fidrych’s odd routine on the mound or talking about the Baseball Chapel (he was a founding member), Ernie Harwell was one of those guys.
It’s something all of us can still aspire to.
Dave Wright, a Detroit native, is a freelance writer/editor in St. Paul. His first book, “162 – 0: The Greatest Wins in Twins History,” is available in bookstores and online.