If only the rest of us could accept Ernie Harwell’s fate as well as Ernie Harwell.
Leave it to Ernie to top us again when it comes to level-headedness and spirituality.
The news that Harwell, 91, the longtime Tigers broadcaster, has a cancerous tumor in a bile duct and that the prognosis isn’t terrific, is slowly but surely sinking into the souls of those who’ve listened to him call Bengals baseball for months, years, decades—whichever category you choose, and in whichever you happen to belong.
“I’m ready to face what comes,” Harwell told the Detroit Free Press. “Whether it’s a long time or a short time is all right with me because it’s up to my Lord and savior.”
OK, but what about the rest of us?
Ernie’s health is about to decline, perhaps quickly, because once this dreaded cancer gets started it can get downright insatiable until it achieves its purpose.
So who knows how long we have to prepare for the worst?
As foolish as it sounds, there was a time when I was convinced that the comedian/actor/writer George Burns would never perish. He had made plans to play Carnegie Hall on his 100th birthday and there was no reason to believe that George wouldn’t be able to honor that commitment.
Burns was once asked what his doctor said about George smoking cigars.
“My doctor’s dead,” George replied with a wink, gently rolling yet another stogie between his thumb and forefinger.
No one is immortal, of course, but sometimes a person comes along and you think they’re going to give that law of nature a run for its money.
Ernie Harwell is one of those types.
It was a crisp spring Saturday afternoon in May, 1976, and my friend Kris Donker and I were hanging out before a Tigers game in front of the lower deck box seats, just behind one of the gates that opened onto the field at Tiger Stadium.
Batting practice had just finished, and the ushers hadn’t shooed us away yet. We just stood there, taking in the sights of the stadium, awash in green: grass, seats, facades—everything was so green. This was several years before they re-painted the Stadium in blue, which I never forgave them for.
Suddenly, a distinctive voice drenched in Georgia was heard from behind us.
“Excuse me, fellas. Comin’ through!”
We were snapped out of our daydreams by Ernie Harwell, which, as a 13-year-old boy, was one of the very best ways to be woken up from such a state.
Ernie was trying to get onto the field and we two adolescent kids, far from our assigned seats, were in his way.
We stepped aside.
“Thank ya, fellas,” Ernie said, carrying a briefcase or valise.
What struck me was that there was absolutely no difference in sound or pitch or delivery between the Ernie Harwell politely asking two boys to move out of his way, and the Ernie Harwell calling a Ron LeFlore at-bat.
I had the good fortune of meeting Harwell several times since then, in my capacity as a cable TV producer/director/host. One of my most treasured possessions is a photo I have of the two of us, snapped circa 1990, arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling on the set of one our shows. A friend of mine blew it up to 12″ x 18″, and the next time I saw Ernie, he signed it graciously.
“Who are those two handsome fellas?,” he asked with a chuckle when I presented it for him to sign.
I ought to scan that photo and post it on the Internet, I suppose.
This is beginning to sound like a eulogy, and I don’t mean it to be, for Ernie is still among us. But the news of Ernie’s cancer is, I’m afraid, the first shoe to drop on a life that we all knew would come to an end but which teased us to think was interminable.
But then again, Ernie himself sounded eulogistic when talking to the Freep.
“I’ve had so many great adventures,” Harwell said. “It’s been a terrific life.”
Geez, even Ernie is talking about himself in the past tense.
Hold on, Mr. Harwell—you’re not “Lonnnng gone” just yet!!
We need time to say goodbye and that just might take forever, so deal with it.