It was Ernie’s idea.
I was visiting with him and his wife, Lulu, in their home in Novi, in what would be Ernie’s final autumn on this Earth. His friend and attorney, Gary Spicer, was there, and since Ernie was much too modest to bring it up, Gary did.
“We were wondering if you’d consider writing a play or movie about Ernie’s life.”
Ernie quickly looked at the floor and shyly mumbled something like, “Only if you feel it’s worthwhile” – but how could anything about Ernie not be worthwhile?
So I said I would consider it. Sadly, Ernie, who already was sick with cancer, grew too ill to spend much time on it. The idea was shelved.
After his death last May at age 92, I often found myself thinking about that visit. There was so much grace in that room, even as we sat with small bowls of butter pecan ice cream, so much history and baseball and Americana, and the most humble man I’d ever met asking if his story could be told – “only if you feel it’s worthwhile” – that I was drawn to a yellow pad and started jotting ideas. The ideas turned to scenes, the pad turned to a keyboard, then a printer, then a script, then a casting call.
And this week, the finished product, “Ernie” (how could you call it anything else?), premieres at the City Theatre in downtown Detroit. All Michigan actors, Michigan director, Michigan crew.
And I pray we have done the man proud.
A play that needed a unique approach
When I told a friend from New York that I was creating a play about Ernie Harwell, he said, “You know, I can’t remember one really famous Ernie call – but I know how much he was loved. I guess it’s all the years he put in.”
It’s true, Harwell was never famous for a “Do you believe in miracles?” moment. In fact, the best-known radio call in baseball history – the 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” – saw Ernie doing the TV broadcast, while his partner, Russ Hodges, was on the radio immortalizing, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
Ernie exists in stories. In the way people remember him. So the director of our play, Tony Caselli, remembers listening to Ernie on a radio by his bed.
And the actor who plays Ernie, Will David Young, admired his humility – the same humility he now must bring to the stage.
The stage manager, the set designer, the sound designer – they all have a story or a memory or an impression. Everyone involved feels, in a way, they knew Ernie, even though most never knew him.
This isn’t the usual formula for a play. Usually, in a play, you have conflict, yelling, angst, issues, Hamlet, Willy Loman. But Ernie Harwell was one of the least confrontational men on Earth.
How do you make a play about an angel?
A broadcasting legend’s life and times
You start with stories. His humble roots. His speech impediment. The time he got Babe Ruth to sign his shoe. You move through his World War II service, his early career, his relationship with Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, then on to Detroit, the 1968 champions, the Jose Feliciano brouhaha, the 1984 World Series. You explore his firing from the Tigers, his fondness for Tiger Stadium. And you layer the whole thing with one of the great love stories in baseball, Ernie and Lulu.
And you find there is a beautiful play there, a man about to make his farewell speech at a ballpark, wondering how he could be worth such a fuss.
I have worked on plays before. Often there are arguments. There have been none on this production. Not a single raised voice. Just joy, cooperation and a stern devotion to getting this story right. Maybe Ernie’s spirit is in the theater, keeping everyone in line.
The show runs until June, but already in preview performances, it is amazing how people gasp a little when they hear Will speak like Ernie, how they laugh, nod and even cry at familiar stories, and how, when Ernie talks of his lifetime honeymoon with his wife, they all sigh at the same time.
You never know how plays will be received. But after nearly a year working on this labor of love, I know this. It was certainly worthwhile, Ernie. Take a bow.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.