Ernie Harwell

The Voice of the Tigers, The Voice of Michigan

I stopped being a baseball fan during the last strike, and decided that I didn’t want to be a fan when the players were after big money for themselves, but didn’t do anything—at least publicly—to advance the cause of the minor leaguers, didn’t do anything for the roots of the game.

Perhaps I’m a hypocrite, as I became a basketball fan and followed the Pistons on their rise to glory in the days even before the Bad Boys, with Isiah and Kelly Tripucka and the A Team.

I no longer live in Detroit, moved in 2001, and happy to be in a better economic climate, although Florida has its own problems. When Ernie Harwell finally passed away, I choked up a little reading about it on line, and read every article posted by the Freep and Detroit News. Why was I so attached to Ernie Harwell?

I grew up listening to Ernie do the broadcasts for Tiger games. I listened to him when he called Milt Wilcox’ one-hitter. I listened to him when Dan Petry threw a no-hitter. I listened to him countless other times, dating back to my childhood.

When I was growing up, we didn’t know that Ernie Harwell was a great sportscaster, he was just our sportscaster. He was the voice of summer in Michigan—a week at the cottage up north, running through the sprinklers, a trip to Mackinac Island or Traverse City or Houghton Lake. We listened to him when the crickets chirped while eating ice cream. We listened when the rain fell, we listened to him while driving in the car, we listened to him everywhere we went.

I was the same age as Ray Lane’s son, Greg. Although never a friend, we went to the same schools and knowing that the father of a schoolmate was a Tigers broadcaster made it seem closer.

I was shocked when Ernie was fired. Why? He’s doing a great job, he’s the voice of the Tigers, our Tigers. He’s our broadcaster. A lot of other folks felt the same way, and the next year he was back, and the world became a little bit more normal once again.

I had already moved away when Ernie finally retired from broadcasting, but it was still a sad thing. An era was over, and even though we knew the day would come when he was rehired after being fired a decade earlier, I was ill-prepared. It’s as if the mortal realities of this world were laid bare the year he was first fired, and when he came back, we knew it wouldn’t last forever.

I listened to Ernie calling games in those years, because it was Ernie, and could he call a game.

I lived in LA for three years in the early 80s, and I can honestly say that Vin Scully is one hell of a broadcaster. He is smooth and polished, and the epitome of LA. Ernie, Ernie was just natural. He was calm, he was blue-collar, he was down-home, no pretenses. Who was better? For our town, for our state, no question, it was Ernie Harwell.

Why was he so great? What made him so special?

I think it’s because Ernie called the game of baseball. Not the business of baseball, which it has become, but the game of baseball. Balls and strikes and line drives to left, pop-ups to second, foul balls in the stands.

When I was a kid, when Ernie would call out after a foul into the seats, “And a young man from Standish is going to take that one home,” I thought, “Wow, they must have a chart of where everyone is from. How does he find their name so fast on the chart?”

It made Tigers baseball our sport, it made it our game, it made the Tigers our Tigers. (I still hate those damn Yankees.)

When the Tigers won it all in ’84, I thought, “Ernie and George (Kell) sure deserved to call another championship.” This was after the championship in ’68, and the Tigers were often in the hunt, bridesmaids so often but never the bride.

We were closer to baseball when I was a kid. When I grew up, Bill Freehan lived in the sub surrounding my elementary school. When I was a teen, I caddied at Oakland Hills, and got to watch first-hand Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup wallop a golf ball incredible distances (in those days). When my golfer asked Mickey, “How can you hit it so far?” Mickey replied, “It’s easy. The ball is sitting still.” Baseball players worked second jobs in the off-season to support the family. They were one of us.

The game was the game. It was a passion, it was American, it was played for the love of the game. We had our Tiger Stadium, home to Tiger baseball for generations. It was a lousy stadium, but it was ours. We had our heroes of ’68 and ’84, and a few near misses in there as well. I can still picture in my mind Al Kaline zipping a ball from the corner in right, catching an unsuspecting batter trying to reach second when he should have stayed at first. Who painted that image in my mind? Ernie Harwell.

I listened to Ernie with my grandfather. I listened to Ernie with my brothers. I listened to Ernie with my dad. As I got older, I listened to Ernie in the car and working around the house. The voice of the Tigers, the voice of baseball.

Baseball. The game, not the business. The blood and sweat, the passion of the game as shown in Field of Dreams and Bull Durham and Love of the Game and The Rookie. Apple Pie and Watermelon, Sunday doubleheaders and rain-outs, The Bird and Trammell and Lou, Kaline and Horton, Morris and Petry, Lolich and McLain. And what about Gates Brown or Don Wert, Ray Oiler and Norm Cash? Household names, heroes all, as their exploits were told and retold days and nights by Ernie Harwell. Our Ernie Harwell.

And another generation—Gibson and Senor Smoke and Willie Hernandez and Sparky and Chet Lemon, untold others whose names escape me at the moment. Was it Wockenfuss, the catcher, with the flutter fingers when he was up to bat? This generation was more TV than radio, but behind it all, there was still Ernie.

When he passed, the accolades printed in the paper surprised me. I never met the man, knew nothing about the person. To hear what a fine gentleman he was, by everyone who knew him, surprised me at first, but then it didn’t. Because that quality came across in his broadcasts. The same heart that drove the man carried the quality and grace that is the essence of baseball.

His broadcasting was not about himself. I can’t say that it ever sounded like he meant to impress. He told us a story, every night. Some nights the story was good, some nights the story was bad, but he told the story straight, he told it simply. He gave us glimpses inside the game, he made the game real to us, he made the game ours.

I got the feeling he loved the Tigers, and he loved baseball. I couldn’t imagine him calling games for another team the year he got fired. I’ll bet he could if he wanted to, I’m sure any number of teams would have gladly hired him.

He grew up in an era where there was no free-agency, when a player was with a team for life, unless he was traded. When the players on the team were the face of the team, year after year, and the constancy made everything right with the world. Back then, players retired as a member of the same team. The identity of the team and the player were intermingled, they were one.

Sure, I know that free agency is good for the players. If I don’t like my job, I can up and quit and go work somewhere else. Analytically, I know that sports figures should be able to do that too. But I think it lessens the game. There’s less of an identity when the turnover is so high. It seems like a player is playing for the money, not for the love of the game, not for the team, not for the city. He’s not our player out there, he’s just doing a job, or winning a championship for himself, or or or. The business of baseball.

Baseball was simpler. It was the love of the game, when the game was what was important, not endorsement deals or future broadcasting careers on ESPN or the next multi-year multi-million dollar contract.

Baseball was sandlots and stickball in the streets and mowing a square in a field. It was catch with Dad and hot dogs and rooting for the home team. Sunday afternoon picnics with the radio on, two strikes and a man on third. Baseball was about hard work and hard play, rooting for our heroes and beating the damn Yankees. Baseball was American and it was ours.

That’s what Ernie Harwell meant to me. An honest man, calling an honest game, a game where individuals worked together as a team, each one with a different job, put to win as a team, to win for us, for our city and our state. It was a game for Detroit, it was a game for Michigan, and it was Ernie Harwell that brought this game to us.

Even in passing, Ernie casts a long shadow. Sports needs good role models today, and with all the accolades he’s receiving after his passing, others will learn that you can be a nice guy, you can be honest and gracious and caring and succeed in this world. That integrity and friendliness rub off on others, and one man can make a difference, just by being a good guy.

With his passing, the story of his character is passed on, a story only partially told. We see again his farewell at Comerica Park, his talk to the media that day, his speech to the crowd. He knows his end is near, yet he’s buoyant and cheerful and thankful to others. When it’s our time, will we have as much class as Ernie Harwell?

An end of an era has come with the passing of Ernie. But does it have to be so? Can his example cause others to sit up and notice, and decide to emulate at least some of the qualities of Ernie, and so make the world a better place?

Will baseball notice, and reach back for the love of the game, as a game, and not just as a business? Sure, there’s a business of baseball. I would like to put forth that rekindling the Game of Baseball will be good for the Business of Baseball. Play for the joy of the game. Play for the thrill, the challenge, the smell of leather and crack of the bat. Play for the hard slide into second, the charge home. The artistry of the double play, the mastery of the strike-out. The line drive up the third base line, the dive by the third baseman, the LONNNNGGGG throw to first—safe or out?

Catching the corner with a called third strike as the batter stood there like the house by the side of the road. Connecting on a hard, fast one and driving it Deep, where it’s LOONNNGGGG GONNNNE!

Bring back the passion of baseball. Bring back the love of baseball. And may a new generation of players and writers and sportscasters rekindle the joy in the game, and bring that joy to millions. Please, bring back America’s game. And with it, help make America a better place.

Thank you, Ernie, for bringing me Tiger baseball. After writing this, I have to go buy a Tigers hat. It was my game growing up, and that hat will mean to me all that was and is good about baseball, about life, about Michigan and about America. Thank you, Ernie, for your life and setting such a great example. And thank you, Ernie, for inspiring me to write this piece. May it inspire others, ensuring that your legacy is truly passed on.

Note: I now have two Tigers baseball hats. I wear them proudly.

 

©2010, 2012 Curt Larson

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