Ernie Harwell’s death on Tuesday did not come as a shock. He had announced in the fall that he had inoperable cancer and had been told that he didn’t have very long to live. He was 92 and to say that he lived what he would no doubt call a blessed life is a vast understatement.
That doesn’t make his passing any less sad, just not shocking. Ernie was one of those rare people who fit this description: He’s as good as it gets at what he does—but a far better person.
Ernie was one of those voices that came out of my radio at night on occasion when I was a boy. I couldn’t pick up WJR coming out of Detroit on my transistor as regularly as I could pick up WTIC in Hartford (Ken Coleman and Ned Martin doing the Red Sox) or WBAL in Baltimore (Chuck Thompson and Bill O’Donnell on the Orioles) or WWWE in Cleveland (Joe Tait—I think—and Herb Score—I know—on the Indians) but on clear nights it was there along with KMOX in St. Louis (Jack Buck and Harry Caray in those days) and WJR with Ernie.
There wasn’t an announcer in that group—along with my beloved Mets trio of Bob Murphy, Lindsey Nelson and Ralph Kiner, who all did radio and TV in the team’s early days—that I didn’t love hearing. Thompson was an absolute joy and, even though I heard less of him, so was Ernie, with that lilting southern accent that at first sounded out of place coming out of Detroit. Only after I got older did I realize that his voice WAS Detroit.
When I got older and got the chance to meet most of the men I just mentioned, it was about as thrilling as meeting any of the athletes. These guys had been a part of my life in some way since boyhood. I still vividly remember a night when I was in college when I had managed to get myself credentialed to a Yankees-Orioles series in Memorial Stadium. I had convinced the sports editor at The Durham Morning Herald (the paper’s name then) to let me do a feature on Catfish Hunter, who was from North Carolina and lived there in the offseason.
After I had talked to Hunter in the clubhouse, I went up to the old media dining room in the back of the press box. It was dark and cramped (the crab cakes on the other hand were fabulous) and just being there was an adrenaline jolt. I got my food—free in those days, no small thing for a college kid—and sat alone in a booth in the corner. All of a sudden, Chuck Thompson walked up with his food and said, “mind if I join you young man?”
Are you kidding?
When I introduced myself, Chuck began peppering me with questions: what year was I in college; was this what I wanted to do; who else had I done work for; had Hunter been cooperative? If his interest wasn’t genuine, he did a great job of covering it up. Later, when I got to know him, I learned that was the way he was every day. Two years later, when I was in Memorial Stadium again to cover a game, but this time as a Washington Post summer intern, I proudly told him what I was doing there.
“That’s great John,” he said, clapping me on the back. “I’m proud of you.”
THAT was a memorable moment for me.
It wasn’t until years later that I got to know Ernie. I met him on several occasions when the Tigers were in Baltimore, but didn’t spend time with him until I was doing my first baseball book, “Play Ball,” in 1992. That was the year that Tigers management, in one of the boneheaded moves ever made, had decided to ‘retire,’ Ernie (and his longtime partner Paul Carey) who had absolutely no interest in retiring. I was actually in a little bit of an awkward spot because one of the men hired to replace Harwell and Carey was Bob Rathbun, a good friend who had been doing ACC basketball on TV for a number of years.
Rathbun and Rick Rizzs, who came in from Seattle to work with Bob, were in an impossible position: replacing a legend—Ernie had been in Detroit since 1961—is impossible at best but doing so when everyone knows the legend didn’t want to leave is beyond impossible. Fortunately for everyone, Mike Ilitch bought the team during the 1992 season and restored Ernie to the booth in 1993. Rizzs returned to Seattle, where he still works and Rathbun went to Atlanta where he has very successfully worked Braves and Hawks telecasts.
The first time I visited Ernie during the ’92 season was in his hotel in Baltimore. He was doing the CBS game of the week on radio. I told him what a fan of his I had always been but also about my friendship with Rathbun. “Those guys aren’t at fault in any way,” he said. “They didn’t make the decision to fire me and someone was going to sit behind the microphone. I actually feel badly for them because a lot of people are angry at them when they haven’t done anything wrong.”
Like Chuck Thompson, Ernie was everything you wanted someone you’d admired from afar to be: he was warm and funny and patient. Every time I was at a game he was working for the next ten years, I made a point to try to spend some time with him. As anyone who has ever listened to him on the radio knows, he was a great storyteller. When he decided to retire in 2002, I was surprised. Sure, he was 84, but he seemed to me to be as good as he’d ever been. He insisted that he wasn’t, that his vision wasn’t close to what it had been and he got tired far more easily than his younger days. Certainly understandable.
Every once in a while he would do a game here and there or an inning or two for someone and, when he did, he sounded as great as he’d ever sounded. Even when he was honored last fall by the Lions after announcing that he was dying of cancer, his voice sounded like, well, Ernie Harwell.
No doubt others who knew him better and longer than I did will spend a lot of time in the next few days and weeks tell stories about him. He hasn’t done Tigers games since 2003 and the days when the team was on WJR are long gone.
For some reason, I have always remembered certain moments when baseball on the radio has made me feel good about life. Some of those moments are attached to memorable games, some are not. In 1991, I had just finished covering the Duke-St. John’s Midwest regional final in the old Pontiac Silverdome and was en route to the airport. (These days I would have been en route home in the car). It was—surprise—cold in Detroit in late March. I flipped on the radio and there was Ernie, giving the starting lineups for a Sunday night exhibition game in Lakeland. The Tigers were playing the Twins.
I got to listen to two-and-a-half innings before I got to the airport. I could almost feel the warmth of Florida and of Ernie coming through the car radio. Whenever I think of Ernie, I think of those two-and-a-half innings. And every time, without fail, it puts a smile on my face.