Ernie Harwell: Gone now but never forgotten

Detroit Free Press | May 5, 2010

The Voice of Summer died in the spring, shortly before the Tigers’ first pitch of the evening. That was fitting. Ernie Harwell would never want to interrupt the game.

Gone now. Like the home run that lands in the seats, like the final out of the ninth inning, like the thousands of games he closed with his signature sign-offs, his genteel voice telling us he’d see us tomorrow. Gone now. No more tomorrows. At 92, after a battle with bile duct cancer that stretched into extra innings, Ernie let go of this world and moved on to the higher place to which we are certain he was sent.

Gone now. We knew this was coming. Ernie, in his final grace, prepared us for it. He told us not to worry. We still worried. He told us not to cry. We cried anyhow. He told us he had led the life he’d wanted, that he was ready to say good-bye.

But we were not.

“I know into whose arms I’m gonna fall,” he told me in one of our last conversations, on a wide stage in front of a sold-out Fox Theatre, a last, packed-house tribute to a man who became arguably the most popular figure in the history of our state simply by doing the same gentle thing over and over, simply by being there, by remaining consistent, pure, good and true, even as things around him became anything but. Ernie stood out because he stood still. He was reliable as a rock. A soul in a void. A heart in a sometimes heartless world.

As long as there was Ernie, there was still a piece of childhood, of summers gone by, a piece of what baseball was supposed to be about, a pastime, a joyous diversion, youth — good, sweet, innocent youth. Even after he stopped broadcasting nearly eight years ago, just knowing he was here, seeing him on occasion at the stadium, his hands dug in his back pockets, that wide grin beneath a funny beret, made us feel that things were still OK in baseball, because the Voice of Summer was still around, watching over the game.

Gone now.

 

 

 A man we all knew so well

And so the time comes to write the piece you never want to write. The one you build for over a career and must punch out in a matter of hours. So unfair, it seems. But then, what can I tell you that you don’t already know? Normally, when someone dies, those of us on the inside can share the unique perspective of “a person who knew him.” But everybody knew Ernie. If you heard him, you knew him. If you met him, you knew him. He was that rare thing, a man the same on the front side and the back.

Maybe I can tell you a few things. The way he re-enacted games in his early days as a voice of the Atlanta Crackers, following the action on tickertape, then broadcasting with sound effects, as if it happened in front of him. Sometimes, he told me, if the machine broke down, he’d have to invent a reason for the delay.

“Uh-oh, a dog just ran on the field,” he’d say, or something like that. Ernie laughed at those memories. But in such moments, he had to use his imagination. And ultimately, that made him more like us. For wasn’t imagination a key to listening to baseball on the radio? Didn’t you paint pictures to Ernie’s words as he called the action — “the crafty left-hander” on the mound, or, on a nasty strikeout, the batter who “stood there like the house by the side of the road”?

Over time, Ernie’s voice became the soundtrack of our internal pictures, until the game became a story — a story told by a fatherly figure. I once said if baseball could talk, it would sound like Ernie Harwell — unhurried, slightly southern, as comfortable as an old couch.

It was true then, it is true now.

But you knew that already.

What else can I tell you? That he loved his wife? This is almost too obvious to mention. For 68 years, they were together, acting like kids on their first date. The last time I saw them both, a few months back, in his modest residence at a senior center in Novi, he said, “Lulu, how about some of that butter pecan ice cream?” And she brought us some and we ate it together. I don’t know why I remember that line. “How about some of that butter pecan ice cream?” It was just so innocent, so happy, a man in his 90s, asking for a treat. I don’t even eat ice cream. I ate it that night. How could you not do what this guy wanted to do?

Ernie. He once wrote that his heroes were sportswriters. I guess we loved him for that. But I can tell you that whenever a new sportswriter or broadcaster came to town, Ernie would greet him as if we were lucky to have him. He never played the kingpin. Never acted like a boss checking out the new kid. Not with journalists. Not with players. He made humility his calling card, he shook hands and drawled, “Welcome to the Tigahs” or “Good to have ya here,” and it usually would be someone else who would nudge the new guy and say, “Do you know who that is?

That’s Ernie Harwell. THE Ernie Harwell.”

No one ever earned a “THE” more than him.

Truly one for the ages

There is, in the story of any good man’s passing, the laundry list of achievements that should be mentioned, the fact that Harwell was likely the first baseball announcer to be traded for a player (in 1948), the fact that he called games for the Dodgers, Giants, Orioles and Tigers, the fact that he missed just two broadcasts in his 55 years behind the mike — one because he was being inducted into a hall of fame. The fact that he was there for Jackie Robinson’s career as well as Cecil Fielder’s, the fact that he did 42 years in Detroit and that the press box in Comerica Park is now named in his honor, the fact that he wrote hundreds of songs and penned a famous baseball poem, the fact that he felt unsatisfied by his path in the 1960s, attended a Bill Graham speech in Florida one night and became a devout Christian, the fact that lived quietly by those precepts for the rest of his days.

An outsider may wonder why so many fans today are singing Ernie’s praises, but it was largely because he never sang his own. In a sport full of big egos, Ernie’s was invisible. He once told the media, when asked about his retirement, that pretty soon people would say, “Who’s that old guy who used to do the Tiger games?”

That was the rare time Ernie Harwell miscalculated. Nobody says that. And we’ll all be off this earth before anybody will.

Gone now.

Ernie believed in heaven and you can see him in it, because where else could he be? He left this world Tuesday night with his wife and children by his side, and when the news was announced in Minnesota, where the Tigers were playing, fans there gave him a standing ovation.

In Minnesota!

 

His body will lie in repose at Comerica Park on Thursday morning, like a head of state, giving fans a chance to say good-bye. I can’t remember that ever happening for an announcer.

But then, Harwell was more than an announcer. He was a voice inside of us as well as outside us. A voice you still can hear, even though the world has silenced it. He was a man to admire, an example of life lived purely and honestly. Andbecause of that, Ernie will live on inside everyone who ever met him, shook his hand, gave him a hug, or simply heard his soothing words come through a tiny speaker in a car radio, or through an earphone hidden from the teacher on a school day afternoon.

In his last appearance at the stadium last year, he told the crowd, “The blessed part of (my) journey is that it’s going to end here in the great state of Michigan.”

And one last time, his call was on the money.

Ernie Harwell, the Voice of Summer, is now, as they say in the game he loved, in the books. But his page will be read again and again, and remembered lovingly by any of us lucky enough to have heard, met or known him. Gone now. But not forgotten. Never forgotten. You don’t forget your angels. And I’m sure Ernie’s one right now, up there, because he was always one down here.

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