She can put the chair away now. The one she jams under the bedroom doorknob whenever her husband is away. She feels safer when that chair is wedged in. She reads. She sews. She watches TV. Now and then she’ll run the vacuum, because the whirring noise gives a buffer against the loneliness. And of course she has the radio. She can turn on the radio and have her husband nearby, or as near as a man can be when his life is broadcasting baseball.
Lulu Harwell gets her husband home for good after 46 years of waiting through road trips, 46 years of driving him to airports, 46 years of working the garden, paying the bills, being the one adult they run to when the kids fall off their bikes, or come home scratching with poison ivy.
Once, when they were living in Baltimore, the Harwells kept a horse in the farmhouse garage. Lulu was tending her babies one night when the horse broke free. It pranced through a nearby college for a couple of hours before the police lassoed it and brought it back. Lulu saw the flashing lights, went rushing outside and heard the door slam behind her. Then she realized she had locked herself out of the house, and the babies were inside crying. While she held the horse, the police busted in.
The next morning, when Ernie called and said, “What’s new?” she said, “Pick up a newspaper. The AP wrote all about it.”
The Women Who Wait. You often hear about the athlete’s wife, the coach’s wife. They never mention announcers’ wives. Why? After all, the athlete usually comes home to roost by age 35, and often with enough money to last a lifetime.
The announcer stays out till he’s old and gray, until his back hurts when he squeezes in the booth, and everyone he interviews is young enough to call him Grandpa.
Time to come home. Life on the road
“I know some announcers’ wives have a difficult time with this life,” Lulu Harwell says, sitting in a chair in the Harwells’ tidy Farmington Hills home.
“But I knew Ernie would be doing this from the day I married him. We used to walk in the parks in Atlanta — we didn’t own a car then — and he would say,
‘What do you want to hear? Baseball? Tennis? Golf?’ And I would pick and he would start announcing, right there, a make-believe game.”
She smiles. “Mostly, I picked baseball.”
Which, of course, is where her husband was destined to star. His warm, rich voice, with the trace of Georgia accent, became an enjoyment and later a comfort to baseball fans in Michigan. Season after season. Decade after decade. Hearing that voice meant the snow really was going to melt, and the coats really would be put in the closet, and summer really would come again.
For everyone but Harwell — and his family. Summer was work time in the their world. The Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day — these were traditionally doubleheader baseball days. Lulu remembers watching neighbors barbecuing all day, while her family ate inside. It’s not the same barbecuing without your father.
Harwell, 75, broadcast the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Giants, the Orioles, and of course, the Tigers. In 33 years, he missed just two Detroit games.
But he missed other things. When one of the Harwell boys smashed his hand with a hammer, Ernie was on the road. When his two girls got the chicken pox and mumps — simultaneously — Ernie was on the road. When the horse ran away, Ernie was, well, you get the idea.
This is the life of a baseball voice. The Harwells have lived in countless houses and apartments in Michigan, Baltimore, Atlanta, New York. For 16 years they came north from Florida when Tigers seasons began, lived wherever they could. Ernie would pack, Lulu would drive him to the airport. Ernie would come home, Lulu would pick him up. She knew he was home when she came downstairs
“and saw a pile of newspapers on the floor by his chair.”
Her eyes are bad now. She can’t drive him anymore. The lawn of their home, bare when they moved here, is covered with her beautiful rosebushes, asters, lilacs, baby’s breath.
It is harvest time. For the plants and the planters. A dignified ending
So Ernie ends his rich career, and — as in the false end once before — the feelings are dipped in nostalgia. Fans would love to see Harwell broadcast until the day he dies, but how fair would that be for the others in his life? This farewell is much more subdued, and better this way, because Ernie prefers it quiet. It’s more elegant. And as much as a baseball man can be that word, he is.
If it had any sense, WJR would have him broadcast the whole game Sunday, his Tigers finale, because you should not hear anyone else’s voice after Harwell’s. Just silence. Let it sink in.
And then let him go. His new job with the Tigers will be in a promotional/goodwill capacity, and the Tigers are richer for having him there.
Lulu and the family are richer for having him home. She can put away the chair. Stop wedging her loneliness under the doorknob. The world they always dreamed of — together — can begin.
Funny, isn’t it, how art imitates us? For all his baseball expertise, Harwell’s most notable broadcast expression is the one that actually best describes his personal life: “Lonnng gone!”
Long home now. May it be the best of stays.