by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

On the morning of the last day of the best days of his life, Ernie Harwell got up and put a cassette into the small recorder he had plugged in under the sink. “This is Sammy Fain singing,” he said. The recorder spit out scratchy sounds of an old man and a piano, a ballad, a pretty melody. We came together young and strong

The summer smiled and touched us with a song

for that one summer

that one sweet summer

It was a song Harwell had written, years ago, in happier times, when there was no end to his rainbow, and no one was telling him Monday would be his last day broadcasting from Tiger Stadium, whether he liked it or not. Harwell has always been a songwriter, back to the time when he was calling home runs for Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers, and in the later years he kept his tapes and sheet music in the booth, just in case. “One time, these two fellows, Homer and Jethro, they were a singing act, they came in before a game, and I played them a song and they said, ‘Hey, we like it. We’ll use it on our next album.’ And they did. That’s how I got my first song recorded.”

He smiled at that memory and walked stiffly to his guest, holding his back, a reminder of all those years in the booth, the hard chair with no cushion. Carpenters get wobbly knees. Coal miners get dust in the lung. Guys in the booth get bad backs. Price you pay.

Ernie Harwell would have paid it longer, if they let him. Instead, he sat in the small living room in the house on Witherspoon Street, a house that still has no answering machines and no stereo system, just transistor radios, everywhere you look, on the couch, on the kitchen counter, on the hall table, transistor radios and Bibles, a book of Psalms, a book of hymns. Here, between the word of God and the sound of the radio, Ernie Harwell awaited the good-bye hour. His last game at Tiger Stadium. Outside the weather was autumn, and through the white curtains he could see his wife, Lulu, picking flowers from the garden.

“I’ve prepared something to say tonight,” Harwell said, holding up a piece of Detroit Tigers stationery. “I wrote it out a few days ago. I figured since the stadium has been such a part of my life, maybe I should say something.”

He handed over the paper, creased in half. The typing was like that of a college student. A few misspellings. Some ink notes on the side. It was probably the millionth note he had written himself to say on the air — hello to a fan in Alpena, a reminder that Picture Day was coming up, good seats still available, the batting average of some broad-shouldered rookie who just got off the bus and was now at home plate.

“Good-byes are never easy . . . ” the paper began. Packing his bags

Good-byes are never easy. Especially when they aren’t necessary. Ernie Harwell needs to leave Detroit the way we need a tax on breathing. But leave he will. After 32 seasons on the job — and nearly 50 in the business — the club and the radio station no longer want him. This was a bombshell last December. Now it is something worse; a dull pain too draining to fight. The protests have been ignored. The club is auditioning new announcers. And the voice of baseball packs his bag. You say to yourself, if they can make Ernie Harwell leave, they can do anything to anybody.

“Here we go,” he said now, getting into the car for that last ride to the stadium, wearing a blue overcoat and his trademark beret, which always made him look more like a French professor than a booth man. Thirty-one years ago, on a warm day much like this one, he left the lobby of the Book Cadillac hotel in downtown Detroit and walked to Tiger Stadium, his first home game as the new announcer. He made his way down Michigan Avenue, past a place called The Crow Bar and past the down-and-out people who would ask him for a dime. He got behind the microphone and began to immortalize names such as Cash and Colavito and Kaline. In the years to come, there would be Lolich, McLain, Fidrych, Gibson, Trammell, Whitaker, Fielder.

Now he drives to work, staring at the landscape that has collapsed during his time. The Crow Bar is gone and the Book Cadillac hotel is gone. The down-and-out people are still there. They ask for a dollar now.

“What will you remember most about the booth at Tiger Stadium?” Harwell was asked.

“Well,” he said in that rich baritone, “the booth we’re in now is not the one we started in. The one we started in was on the first-base side, and you had to climb down into it, like a submarine. It even had a hatch on top, and you would climb down the ladder to get in.

“One time, the mayor of Pinconning stopped by to see us and he brought a present, a big round of cheese, Pinconning cheese, oh, it was so big, maybe 50 pounds. But the problem was, the mayor was a little, shall we say, inebriated. And when he lowered himself down the hatch, he lost his grip on the cheese and it rolled down this slanted roof and over the edge and landed in the seats.”

He chuckled. “That booth wasn’t for everybody.”

No. Only for those who wanted to rub elbows with baseball history. Milton Berle once came to that booth, and Bob Hope came, too, sliding down the hatch to talk with Ernie Harwell. Jerry Vale. The Peach Queen of Romeo. Every senator and congressman you can think of.

“Each game, around the third inning, someone would come by with a bag of cold hot dogs and warm Coke, and they would lower it down the hatch,” Harwell recalled. “That was our dinner. Back then, the Tigers didn’t even allow the announcers to eat with them in the food room.”

So you can see where the tradition began. Charting your life

Now Harwell was walking up the steps in the empty stadium, a walk he has taken every game day for the last 32 seasons. “It’s easier if you just use one foot per step,” he said over his shoulder, like a kid explaining hopscotch. “You’re less tired when you reach the top.”

At 73 years old, he reached the top with barely an extra breath. He turned and headed for the booth, walking along the blue girders and grimy cement passageways that make up this marvelously decaying ballpark. Two teenagers are waiting for him already, holding baseballs.

“Mr. Harwell, will you sign this?”

“Why, sure.”

“Can you put ‘Ernie Harwell, Final Broadcast, 9/30/91?”‘

“All right.”

When he handed over the signed balls, the kids thanked him, then ran away, waving their fists in a collective “ALL RIGHT!” like two guys who just found a winning lottery ticket. Maybe to someone reading this from afar, the fuss seems strange. An announcer? All this for an announcer?

To understand, you must first understand a summer night on Lake Charlevoix, or a traffic jam on the Lodge Freeway, or a clock radio in your bedroom when you’re too sick to go to school but there’s a day game on and you turn the knob and there it is, that voice, genteel and comforting, a trace of Georgia accent. “The Tigahs,” it says. “IT’S LONNNG GONE!” it says.
“Strike three . . . he stood there like a house by the side of the road.”

Call it age. Call it nostalgia. But you have fathers here who remember that voice in 1968, the afternoon McLain won his 30th — “HERE COMES McLAIN RUNNING OUT OF THE DUGOUT” — and you have sons who remember that voice in 1984, the night Kirk Gibson turned October into madness — “IT’S GOING, IT’S LONG GONE, A HOME RUN!”

Fathers. Sons. Mothers. Grandmothers. Can’t everyone here remember something or someplace where that voice was in the background? In this part of the country, Ernie Harwell is the growth chart on the kitchen wall. You stand up against him and you chart your life.
‘I think I’ll survive it’

It was 7 p.m. now and photographers were crammed inside the booth. A local TV anchor requested a few minutes. Out on the field, a guy named Bob Taylor, who has sung the national anthem here for years, was about to dedicate this last one to Ernie and Paul Carey.

Harwell had his jacket off and his tie loose, hot from all the visitors. Many of them looked around, this being their first time inside the booth. So this is where he does his stuff, huh? It hardly seemed worthy. A cramped metal

room with a dropped ceiling, bare walls, a beige Formica table top that holds two microphones: Ernie Harwell, Paul Carey. There is a naked light bulb taped to the table with black electrical tape. It tells them when they are on the air.

“Has it been tough for you, Ernie?” the anchor asked.

“A little bit tough. But the affection of these fans has made it much easier to bear.”

“Will you savor this final game or survive it?”

A laugh. “I think I’ll survive it.”

To the end, he refused to bad-mouth anyone. Not the radio station that turned its back on him. Not the front office that begrudgingly gave him a day in his honor, then sent nobody important from its staff. “The only regret I have,” Harwell said, “is that we’re not ending with friendly feelings. I’m not comfortable with people being upset or unfriendly.” Now the booth began to clear and he took his seat again, next to Carey, who also is leaving after this season. When the little light bulb flickered on, they began.

“This is kind of a special night for both of us,” Carey said, “because it’s our last broadcast at Tiger Stadium. . . .”

“Thank you, Paul,” Harwell said, “and it’s great to be with you for all these years and great to be in this old ballpark. . . .”

The place was nearly empty. A breeze blew through the seats. In the seventh inning, the small crowd would rise, turn to the booth, and begin to clap. There should have been a sellout, of course. There should have been 50,000 people inside, and 50,000 more outside, on their feet, in a salute. But the club didn’t care and it was Monday night and the Tigers were out of it, and, hey, life goes on.

But it doesn’t go on, not the same way, not this morning. You can go to work, you can eat in the restaurant, you can check your bank account and see that everything is still there. But if you live around here and you love baseball, a piece of you was just waved out of town, and come next March, when the first game from spring training is called, you’ll feel it.

I will feel it sooner. I was the one in the living room Monday morning. As I write this, I can hear old Sammy Fain, playing the piano and crooning, from that little tape recorder, the words Ernie Harwell wrote in a happier time:

Let autumn come on distant wind

I’ll treasure still

the time you called me friend

for that one summer

that one sweet summer

The man in the booth is gone.

Tiger Stadium just lost the best friend it ever had.


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