Saying Good Bye To An Old Friend
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If you grew up in Michigan in the seventies, as I did, Bob Seger sang the soundtrack to your summers, and Ernie Harwell provided the voice over.
When I think about our family trips up north, they’re always accompanied by Harwell’s comfortable cadences filling the car. He didn’t simply broadcast baseball games. He turned them into stories. In Harwell’s world, a batter didn’t merely strike out. He was "called out for excessive window shopping," or "caught standing there like the house by the side of the road.”
Unlike today’s announcers, who prattle on with mindless patter and pointless stats, Harwell treated his listeners to healthy doses of "companionable silences," something Zen masters refer to as the delicious “space between the notes.” Harwell said the quiet allowed the listeners to enjoy the sounds of the ballpark itself, which he felt was richer than his own voice.
Harwell was born in Georgia in 1918, a time and a place that valued relaxed conversations on the porch. He grew up listening to Atlanta Crackers games on a crystal radio set. The power of those broadcasts probably hit Harwell more than most. His dad suffered from multiple sclerosis, and rarely left his wheel chair. The highlight of his day was listening to those ball games.
At age 29, Harwell became the Crackers’ play-by-play man. Just two years later, in 1948, Harwell caught the ear of the Brooklyn Dodgers. They were so impressed, they traded their catcher for Harwell, making him the only broadcaster in baseball history to be traded for a player.
Harwell went on to set the record for most games broadcast, including 41 seasons for the Tigers. When Sports Illustrated picked its all-time baseball dream team a few years ago, it tapped Harwell as the radio announcer -- a true Hall of Famer.
He’ll tell you Willie Mays is the best player he’s ever seen, that Jackie Robinson was the most courageous, and that a lovable Tigers pitcher named Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who used to get on his hands and knees to groom the mound, "was probably the most charismatic guy we’ve ever had here in Detroit. A real breath of fresh air."
In 1997, I was lucky enough to cover spring training for The Detroit News. My first day I was sitting on a bench, watching infield practice, when Ernie Harwell sidled up up next to me. We sat there, watching baseball, and chatting like old friends – just the way we all imagined we already were, listening to him on the radio. He invited me for dinner that night with his wife Lulu. We enjoyed a long talk, and he picked up the tab.
Harwell is a deeply religious man, but he never wears it on his sleeve. He simply lives it. This week, Harwell announced that he had an incurable form of cancer, and would not seek treatment. “"Whatever's in store,” he said, “I'm ready for a new adventure. That's the way I look at it."
I wrote a story about him eight years ago. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke up to the phone ringing. It was Ernie Harwell, calling to thank me for the article. Who does that? That day, of course, soon turned tragic, but I will never forget how Harwell’s little act of humanity stood as such a poignant contrast to all that followed.
A few times I invited him to call in on a talk show I was hosting. “Just ask,” he said, “And I’ll come running.”
I wish there was something I could do for him now. If he just asked, I’d come running.
Copyright © 2009, Michigan Radio
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