Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ernie Harwell was everything you wanted someone you’d admired from afar to be: warm and funny and patient

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.


James Malayang said...

Growing up in Michigan I listened to Ernie Harwell call Tiger games (my buddies and I used to narrate our own pick up games with his distinctive style). I've lived in areas where I regularly listened to Vin Scully (the best ever) and Marty Brennaman (for the Reds), and hearing baseball on the radio has got to be one life's simple pleasures.

Matt Dick said...

Memories of driving with baseball on the radio are so much a part of my life... it's just the symbol of summer to me in a way almost nothing else is.

My wife gave up major league baseball almost entirely after the strike in 1994, but she still likes to have a game on in the car on long drives.

As an Orioles fan, Chuck Thompson is the voice of baseball and those long summer drives.

Anonymous said...

I posted a couple weeks ago on this blog about Ernie's voice being magnificent and how I grew up in Detroit listening to him on the radio. Maybe ~10 years ago I was flipping stations in the car and heard a voice I immediately recognized - Ernie was calling a baseball game and I don't think it was the Tigers. I want to say it was a syndicated post season game. Anyway, the part I remember was after a commercial break Ernie got back to baseball. Then his partner blurted in and said something like, "I'm going to tell this story because apparently Ernie isn't. During our break somebody stepped into the booth and said, 'Excuse me, Mr. Harwell, I just want to tell you how much I loved listening to your voice calling baseball games while growing up.' That somebody just happened to be Wayne Gretzky."

Ernie just said something back like, "Aw shucks."

I, too, get a smile on my face when I think of listening to Ernie's voice.

Paul said...

The day the Orioles closed Memorial Stadium in 1991, one of the classiest things that once-classy franchise did was salute Ernie Harwell (there with the visiting Tigers), both for the fact that he was the original voice of the Orioles back in 1954, and for his unceremonious dismissal at the hands of Bo Schembechler(!) and the Tigers/WJR brass. Who would have guessed that a short time later the Orioles would do much the same thing to a man who could have been the Ernie Harwell/Chuck Thompson of his generation: Jon Miller.

I am glad the Tigers came to their senses and righted that historic wrong, allowing Ernie to go out on his own terms. Any kid who grew up in Maryland between the sixties and the nineties can hear Thompson in his head any time he wants. I sense Tiger fans are the same with Ernie.

Mark said...

Does anyone in the Washington DC area remember Shelby Whitfield doing the Senators games in the late 60s and first two years of the 70s? Whenever someone hit a home run he would say "Kiss it goodbye"!

I regret I do not remember ever hearing Ernie Harwell on the radio.

Dana King said...

There's somehting about baseball announcers, especially on the radio. No other sport can match it.

I watched four Pirates games over the weekend on MLB Extra Innings, picking up the LA feed with Vin Scully. It was a privilege to listen to him on a warm Sunday afternoon. The game was a blowout, but I never considered turning it off.

Anonymous said...

John, great entry on Ernie Harwell. Havin grown up in New York, Phil Rizzuto calling Yankee games will always be what baseball sounded like. But I went to graduate school in Ann Arbor, and had the pleasure of listening to Ernie Harwell for a few years. On foul balls, he would pick a town in Michigan like "Royal Oak" and say "a young fan from Royal Oak, Michigan caught that ball!" What a great touch.

Laura's Husband said...

It was the Spring of 1984 and there I was sitting in Ernie Harwell's living room! Through the kindness of strangers I was given the opportunity to meet one of my idols - I was a 23 yr old recent graduate of Michigan State, life long Michigander, and wannabe sportscaster. As with most great opportunities that come early in life it was wasted on my youth - I had no clue what to ask him. But Mr. Harwell was eveything everyone said he was - kind, gracious, generous. Thanks Ernie! Tell The Babe we say HI.

Gordon said...

This is a day we all knew was coming all too soon after the cancer diagnosis.

Ernie Harwell is the only broadcaster who was actually traded for a player, a catcher.

Growing up in Detroit he was the voice of my childhood. Many a summer night I'd hurry home from my little league game to listen to or watch Ernie, George Kell and Ray Lane.

Rest in peace Mr. Harwell. Thank you for being such an important "voice" in my life.

I hoe MLB network reruns Bob Costas interview with Ernie Harwell. It was a retrospective into baseball history.

Anonymous said...

It was Joe Tait with Herb Score in Cleveland in the 70s. Too bad those teams were never as good as the broadcast.

My great radio experience was spending the summer of 1985 in St Louis listening to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. That was one of the years that the Cardinals went to the World Series with Whitey Herzog as manager. That team was so good -- good fundamentals, great defense, clutch hitting, solid pitching. With their speed and contact hitters, there were always a lot of options for steals and hit-and-run plays. Jack was always superb at explaining the details of the situation. He is famous for a few dramatic calls during post-season baseball (e.g. the Kirk Gibson and Ozzie Smith home runs), but those don't match the joy of listening to regular season games every night through an entire summer.

Anonymous said...

Ernie was a hall of fame announcer AND person. Along with Vin Scully and Jack Buck, the greatest ever. I remember sneaking my radio under my pillow listening to Ernie tell these wonderful stories, all along with keeping track of the game.

What I most admired was his work with charities, he seemed to say yes to evrything. He was giant who never acted like one. We met with him years ago and he spent five minutes talking to US, just fans!
Tiger, are you reading this?

Fans started lining upeight hours before Ernie was scheduled to be shown by his stature at Comerica Park. He was shown from 7AM to midnight, allowing thousands of us to show our last respects. Losing Ernie is like losing a family member. God bless Ernie Harwell.

Bob, Grand Blanc, MI