Ernie Harwell: 1918-2010

It’s possible that on a  clear summer night back in the late 70’s or early 80’s, while  flipping the AM dial to see if I could pick up ballgames from distance outposts like Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis, that I caught an inning or two of Ernie Harwell. I seem to recall picking up snippets of Jack Buck on KMOX, Harry Caray on WGN, and perhaps Harwell on WJR. But in all honesty, I can’t say definitively, that I ever heard Harwell call a game. And that’s a real shame.

Harwell passed away yesterday at the age of 92. His career as a baseball broadcaster was surpassed by few, if any. He started out as voice of the minor league Atlanta Crackers in 1948 and joined the Brooklyn Dodgers booth a few years later.  He actually made the TV call of Bobby Thompson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World, but his “It’s Gone!” has long been overshadowed by Russ Hodges’ immortal radio call,  “The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!”

Harwell would later man the booth for the NY Giants and Baltimore Orioles, but it was his 40+ years as voice of the Tigers, beginning in ’68, for which he will most be remembered.  Revered in the Motor City, he was as much Detroit as Motown and Ford.  I have read and heard enough of Harwell to know that I would have greatly enjoyed listening to him call a game. Like the late Bob Murphy, who provided the soundtrack for my endless summers as a Mets fan, Harwell brought  a warm, folksy style to the airwaves. He never let himself get bigger than the game, and understood that radio listeners appreciated the sounds of the ballpark, letting his voice go silent at times to allow you to take in the roar of the crowd and the crack of the bat.

In 1981, Harwell was inducted into the broadcasters wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. His induction speech is a timeless masterpiece, as eloquent an expression of love and affection for the game as any words I have heard or read.  “Baseball is the cool,clear eyes of Rogers Hornsby,” he remarked. “The flashing spikes of Ty Cobb, an overaged pixie named Rabbit Maranville.”

Pure poetry.

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2 responses to “Ernie Harwell: 1918-2010

  1. Bob C.

    Growing up in Michigan you come to rely on harsh winters, crisp falls, cloud-covered springs and cool summers narrated by Ernie Harwell.

    His voice was summer. Tiger players came and went. Of course, I had my favorites over the years. A muscled Willie Horton, the rubber-armed Mickey Lolich, Aurelio Rodriguez zipping bullets from third to first, even light-hitting shortstops like Eddie Brinkman were fun to imitate in our backyard wiffle ball games.

    But nothing said summer in Detroit like hearing Ernie say on a called third strike, “He stood there like a house on the side of the road.” Another signature reactions came on foul balls into the stands, “A lucky man from Kalamazoo caught that one.” My friends and I marveled at how he knew the hometown of fans at Tiger Stadium.

    And his knowledge of the game was unprecedented. Detailed, insightful — with a style and charm that filled our porch each summer night, fitting perfectly in with the crickets chirping in our blackberry bushes.

    He will be missed. And he will always be remembered.

  2. The Tigers will take the field today wearing memorial Ernie Harwell patches on their sleeves. We all knew this was coming – Ernie wrote as much in a beautiful Free Press op-ed last September, when he was diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer. But that doesn’t make it any less sad.

    Ernie’s passing has given me pause to reflect on just how much of what I love about following the game started with him. A lot of the very worthy tribute pieces I’ve read today (including the one here) mention Ernie’s application of the “less is more” method of play-by-play, allowing the crack of the bat and Tiger Stadium crowd ample airtime. The listening audience appreciated it so much that I grew up thinking you needed to have both the TV AND radio on to watch a ball game.

    Tiger fans embraced his folksy “catchphrases,” knowing that Ernie wasn’t trying to make them a marketable property or his personal calling card. I will always remember asking my dad how Ernie knew where everyone in the park lived, after one of his famous foul ball calls, “… a souvenir for a fan from [insert southeast Michigan town here].” He referred to a booing crowd as “the umpires that paid to get in.” Ernie always knew when to add a touch of class, with his traditional Bible quote to open Spring Traning each year (Song of Solomon 2:11-12) and call for a called third strike, “stood there like the house by the side of the road” derived from the Sam Walter Foss poem.

    Quite simply, Ernie Harwell and baseball were perfect for each other. His calm, avuncular tone perfectly set the mood for a relaxing afternoon or evening listening to the last professional sport that doesn’t answer to the clock. You could fall asleep listening to him call a game, and never quite know where the actual game ended and your baseball dream began.

    As Ernie said himself, goodbyes are sad, so I think his final signoff from the end of the 2002 season (my last full season as a Detroiter – but not as a Tiger fan) is pretty close to what he would say today:

    “The Tigers have just finished their 2002 season and I have just finished my baseball broadcasting career. And 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. Living my life in Michigan – my home state surrounded by family and friends. And rather than goodbye, please allow me to say thank you.

    Thank you for letting me be part of your family. Thank you for taking me with you to that cottage up north, to the beach, the picnic, your workplace, your backyard.

    Thank you for sneaking your transistor under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers. Now I might have been a small part of your life, but you’ve been a very large part of mine.

    And it’s my privilege and honor to share with you the greatest game of all.

    Now God has a new adventure for me and I’m ready to move on. So I’ll leave you with a deep sense of appreciation for your longtime loyalty and support. I thank you very much and God Bless all of you.”

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