It is the spring of 1976, before Mark Fidrych’s mercurial career took off, when “the bird” still meant something not-so-nice.
My friend Kris Donker and I are loitering in the expensive box seats next to the Tigers dugout at Tiger Stadium, prior to a weekend afternoon game. We take in the majesty of the ballpark, with Chicago White Sox players taking batting practice before us.
Unbeknownst to us, we are blocking the access to a swinging gate/door that leads directly to the field.
“Excuse me, fellas!”
It only took those three words for me, not even 13 years old, to know who was speaking them.
Kris and I quickly moved out of Ernie Harwell’s way.
Ernie thanked us and stepped onto the field, probably to do a pre-game interview. After he walked by us, Kris and I just stared at each other.
“Ernie Harwell! That was Ernie Harwell!!”
It is about 14 years later, and I’m now 27. But I’m 13 again when our guest on our local cable TV sports talk show that I am directing arrives in our office.
I didn’t shout it that time, but I wanted to. Certainly I did so internally.
Ernie did the show graciously, of course. We were live and we took phone calls. The show was called “The SportsDesk” and we taped it in Taylor for most of Downriver to see. Well, it was available to them—let’s put it that way.
Ernie and I pose for a photo after the show. Ernie poses with EVERYONE on the crew, it seems, for a photo after the show. He and I are smiling broad smiles, my left arm draped over his shoulder, his right arm embracing me from behind.
It’s among my most treasured items.
It gets better.
It’s the following year, and Ernie has agreed to appear on our show again. By this time I have the photo of him and me developed and blown up, courtesy my friend and photographer, Steve Lloyd.
After the show I show Ernie the photo. Would he sign it, please?
“Now, who are those two handsome fellas?” Ernie says in his voice drenched with Georgia.
It’s all I can do to remain upright.
Ernie signs it. Guess what just got even more treasured?
It’s 1994. An intern at the TV station where I work gives me an audio cassette. It’s the dub of the 1968 album, “Year of the Tiger,” featuring Ernie and Ray Lane’s calls of that wonderful baseball season.
I play that tape until it threatens to snap. I mean, I play it everywhere—my car, in a Walkman while I mow the lawn, in the house. Over and over and over. I practically can memorize all of the play-by-play snippets.
It occurs to me that Ernie sounds the same in 1994 as he did in 1968.
Check that: he sounds better.
I don’t know of too many people who can pass away and then spawn millions of personal obituaries.
I was fortunate to have had audiences with Ernie Harwell, but you didn’t need that to be touched by him.
Ernie didn’t broadcast baseball, he painted it. Our ears and our mind’s eye were his canvas.
Lord, have we been blessed in this town when it comes to the men behind our teams’ microphones.
Last year we lost George Kell, and who can’t still hear his Arkansan accent?
The compendium of names is mind-boggling in its iconic splendor.
Bruce Martyn, doing Red Wings hockey on the radio and accelerating your heart rate threefold as his voice raised a couple of octaves during a scramble in front of the net or as Reed Larson was set to blast one from the point.
Van Patrick, for the old-timers. His baritone and inflection doing the Lions were more dramatic than anything they were showing on “Playhouse 90” back in the day.
Budd Lynch, who teamed with Martyn in a dream team of announcers.
George Blaha, who is still so good he makes watching the sad sack Pistons palatable.
Bob Reynolds, doing the Lions after Patrick, was as good a football announcer as there ever was.
Paul Carey, who was only the voice of God—that’s all.
You think we’re a little spoiled in this town?
At that table, though, Ernie Harwell sat at the head. He was the Godfather and the others were his Dons.
I’m not going to tell you anything, really, that you don’t already know about Harwell. Chances are, no one else is, either.
That’s because he belonged to all of us. He was a perpetually giving resource. And he was bottomless.
It didn’t stop with his retirement from Tigers announcing in 2002. Ernie didn’t fade away, like a radio signal too far away from its source. He kept his presence felt, whether it was via his Free Press columns or his radio voice-over ads or an occasional interview.
And he kept it felt, even when the news he had for us was the worst: he revealed last September that he was suffering from bile duct cancer. And it was fatal.
Ironic, that a man known for broadcasting a sport within which there was no clock, now had one ticking against him.
It wasn’t fair, but cancer never is. It’s maybe the most heartless of all the diseases. It fools you into thinking that you’re winning the battle against it, then it rears back, says “F**k you,” and takes you. Or your loved one.
Or OUR loved one.
Ernie fended it off for as long as he could, and he probably accepted his fate better than we did.
Hell, I KNOW he did.
I read the other day that Al Kaline was going to be accepting the Vin Scully Award today on Ernie’s behalf because, as the report said, Ernie was “gravely” ill.
Yeah; Ernie died the next day.
Ernie having cancer was like we were down 3-0 in a playoff series. We knew the end would likely not be good, but until the other team wins that fourth game…
Cancer closed the series yesterday. Ernie maybe grabbed a game or two, but cancer wins it. Again.
The New York Yankees of diseases.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland, so wise in his 65 years, got it right.
“I hope I’m not taken out of context here. But this should be a celebration of a life.”
Yeah. It should be.
Ernie was 92 and we should all be so lucky to make it to that number, for starters. And we’d be even more blessed to spend those years doing exactly what we wanted to do, and with the peace that when it’s nearing the end, there’s no fear or regret.
Ernie was at peace at the end. I’m sure of it. He lived a long, happy, faith-filled life. He had the love of a good woman for 69 of his 92 years.
When it comes to luckiest people on the face of the Earth, Ernie Harwell is giving Lou Gehrig a run for his money.
And we, Ernie’s listeners, are coming in a close third.