The Detroit Tigers happened to be out of town this past May 4th–playing at the new Target Field in Minnesota. Soon came the seventh-inning stretch and a picture of a smiling Ernie Harwell graced the stadium’s bright, new big screen. The news was then announced–though many fans were already privy to the inevitable: the Hall of Fame Tigers broadcast legend had just lost his months-long battle with inoperable cancer. The 39,000 fans in attendance responded with a warm, standing ovation; some of them wiped away tears while younger patrons–perhaps not too familiar with the man–just KNEW some type of honorary tribute was still in order. Yeah, the Tigers didn’t just lose a game that evening; I guess the loss of a legend always has a bit more sting to it than an “L” in the standings.
A sportscaster who was acquired by the Brooklyn Dodgers for a catcher in 1948, Ernie Harwell went on to spend 42 of his 55 broadcasting years with the Detroit Tigers–his sweet, Southern diction gracing the Motor City over the course of five glorious decades. It’s extremely difficult to describe what made Mr. Harwell great; I guess legends do that on occasion to us admiring scribes. But let me try: he was easygoing, smooth, and his voice was unmistakable; fellow Hall of Famer Vin Scully simply used the words “gentle” and “caring” in describing a man whose catch phrases enthralled even the most casual of baseball fans. When radio listeners/TV viewers heard the words “LOOOOONG GONE!” (home run) or “TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE!” (double play) while Ernie Harwell worked a broadcast, they KNEW these were coming from a man who simply loved the game of baseball. Nope–nothing forced, nothing meant to be self-serving, and never any self-promoting “shtick” from one Mr. Harwell. It was just one man demonstrating the love of his craft while relaying info to an audience who truly loved him back–probably more than he ever realized.
Oh, what a thrill on those rare occasions in the past when I’d be watching a televised “game of the week” and be treated to a live ‘look in’ on a Tigers game for some particular reason–and hear Ernie Harwell describing the action in a manner nothing short of magical. He possessed the type of demeanor and delivery that made you FEEL like he was your friend; yeah, what a gift. And he was magical OUT of the booth, too. Baseball writer/rules consultant Rich Marazzi on Harwell: “I first met Ernie at Yankee Stadium around 1982 as a rookie writer and he made me feel like a million dollars. He was so friendly and it made me proud that he always called me by my first name. He was baseball royalty–and I was privileged to know him.” Shelly Riley–a contributor to Seamheads.com who was recently present on a day when Harwell would lie in internment at Comerica Park–added this: “Ernie was a man of the people–an everyone’s man. Regardless of whether you had ever physically met him or not, you felt as if you had a close personal connection to him. Losing Ernie was like losing a grandparent; we all knew his death was coming, but no one wanted to admit it.” Finally, Tony DeAngelo–my co-host on CTV-14’s “Monday Night Sports Talk“–remembered Harwell this way: “Just to hear him say ‘Gary Roenicke was left standing at that curveball like the house by the side of the road and watched it go by’–that told me everything I needed to know about Ernie. He brought such a color and respect to the game; when you heard the voice of Ernie Harwell, you knew you were listening to a special event.”
I never had the opportunity to meet Ernie Harwell personally, but was lucky enough to interview him last year on ESPN Radio’s “Inside Yankee Baseball” shortly after the death of former Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych. He talked fondly about his memories of “The Bird”–graciously answering me with the same warmth that had engulfed so many others over his remarkable lifetime. He was real, he was genuine–and for those few cherished minutes became MY friend; it would be from THAT day forward–after experiencing his wonderful persona over the airwaves–that I’d always refer to him as “the GREAT Ernie Harwell.” Yes, I’ll always treasure the opportunity I had to converse with a true “journalistic giant” whose personality made me feel like we were equals; to him, it was just two guys talking baseball. Thanks for that, Ernie.
Currently, a life-size statue of Ernie Harwell graces the entrance to Detroit’s Comerica Park; the press box, called the “Ernie Harwell Media Center,” now stands as a tribute to a man–or should I say “friend to many”–whose contributions to sports journalism surely remain beyond the scope of one particular weekly column. After calling his last game back in 2002, part of Harwell’s final words to his listeners were as follows: “It’s time to say goodbye, but I think goodbyes are sad and I’d much rather say hello–hello to a new adventure. I’m not leaving, folks–I’ll still be with you.”
Yes, Mr. Harwell–goodbyes ARE sad–so I’ll just say “So long” for now. And yes–you’re STILL not leaving–as your legacy assures that you’ll always be in the hearts and minds of many.