There’s a scene in the play “Ernie” in which the actor playing Ernie Harwell re-enacts the way he broadcast minor-league baseball games in the 1940s, when there was no money to send him on the road.
“We stayed in the studio and waited for the play-by-play ticker to come through,” he says, taking a strip of ticker tape and reading it. “Johnson, B-1-0. That meant Johnson took ball one, outside. Of course that’s pretty dry, so we’d have to embellish it.”
He then demonstrates his embellishment: “There’s a high loping curveball, way outside, Johnson looks at it, doesn’t move his bat, and it’s ball one!”
When asked what he did if the ticker-tape machine broke, Ernie replies that sometimes he’d make up a distraction, like a dog running on the field. And he’d have that dog racing back and forth, eluding escape, until the machine was fixed.
Of course, when the ballplayers came home, their wives would ask, “What happened to that poor dog?” And they’d say, “What dog?”
The audience always laughs. It is a sweet moment. A reminder of a simpler time, when broadcasting was about imagination – for both the listener and, at times, even the announcer.
Simply too much information
I thought about that this past week while watching the NFL draft, the polar opposite of imagination. I don’t know how many people ESPN and the NFL Network employ to cover the draft, but I am guessing it’s in the millions. At least it felt that way. Every prospect had a camera on him, every top draftee was grabbed for a fast reaction. We saw mothers, girlfriends, agents, even the NFL commissioner hugging the players, team caps being tugged on, jerseys held up. There was file footage, instant analysis, numbers, charts, graphics. Your brain needed overdrive to process all the data.
Imagination was of no use.
Ernie Harwell was of a different time. Maybe that is why, as we approach the two-year anniversary of his death this week, he continues to hold such a strong place in our hearts. The image of him alone in a studio, reading ticker tape, bringing you an event from hundreds of miles away, an event with no pictures, no screens, just his voice telling you the story – well, it feels almost prehistoric in today’s information-heavy era.
Yet part of us still longs for it. Human beings relish stories. It’s like that moment in “Alice in Wonderland” when the impatient Gryphon tells Alice, “No, no! The adventures first! Explanations take such a dreadful time.”
Ernie didn’t explain – didn’t analyze, do color commentary, break down the numbers or make predictions.
He brought us adventures.
A beloved broadcaster
The play about Ernie, which I was honored to write at his request, reopens this week at the City Theatre in downtown Detroit, across the street from the Tigers’ ballpark. Lulu Harwell, Ernie’s wife, and Bill Harwell, one of Ernie’s sons, are expected to be there Thursday, Opening Night, as are several of Ernie’s colleagues and friends – all of whom saw the play last year, yet are coming back again.
It is rare that a stage play runs for long in our city, rarer still that it returns for a second season. It’s extremely rare that people view it multiple times. I think the reason folks return for “Ernie” is the same reason we couldn’t wait to hear him talk about “the voice of the turtle” when he opened his broadcasts every season. It meant renewal. It meant familiarity.
It meant we got to sit and hear a story told to us – not with the bombardment of images and graphics and instant analysis, but with a soothing, laconic, Georgia-twanged voice that made us feel young and old at the same time.
This Friday marks two years that Ernie passed away from cancer. He was 92. I still miss him, as I’m sure you do. I miss his smile, his humility, his friendliness.
I miss his voice.
And I miss it more when I watch things like the NFL draft. Does this mean I’m getting too old, or that the world is getting too young?
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.