LAKELAND, Fla. — Year after year, winter after winter, the voice stirs from under the snow. It heats up, it melts free, it crosses your lawn and taps the frost from your window. “Time to wake up,” it seems to say. “It’s spring. I’m back.”
You yawn. You smile. It is a voice you trust, an easy pitch, not too shrill, not too deep, a sprinkle of Southern accent — genteel, that’s probably a good word, a voice that would sing you a lullaby or tell you bedtime stories. It asks for nothing, this voice. It never scolds. It never whines. It wants only to live inside your transistor radio, to narrate from your car speakers as you drive on a summer night. It is the human lyric of the double play and the single up the middle. It is the call of a rookie with a smoking fastball. It is the game the way the game would sound if only the game could talk. It is the voice of baseball.
It belongs to Ernie Harwell.
“He’s the best,” people say, as if stating a law of nature. And he is still here, behind the mike in that little booth at Tiger Stadium. Amidst all the turmoil, all the change, all the money and lawyers and lockouts and strikes, Ernie’s voice remains as much real baseball as green grass and orange dirt. We’re talking transition? He has seen transition. He has outlasted owners and outlasted managers and watched rookies turn to old-timers and old-timers turn to the grave. He was bellowing into that microphone before his new boss was in high school. He sold his first story to The Sporting News the year Sparky Anderson was born. He used to shag fly balls with Jackie Robinson and ride the train with Gil Hodges. He had a fight with Leo Durocher and called Denny McLain’s 30th victory. You name it, he’s seen it. And he is still here.
That voice. On your worst days, it can make you feel good. On your good days, it can make you feel better. Bag of potato chips, Ernie on the radio. Window rolled down, Ernie on the radio. Suntan oil, Ernie on the radio. A Tigers game without him would be like playing with a purple baseball. In 30 years with the Detroit club, this is how many broadcasts he has missed: two. One in 1968, for his brother’s funeral. One last year, to receive a major award. Oh, yeah. There was this night in the mid-’70s, at Tiger Stadium, against the California Angels, when it began to rain. After a while, an announcement came to the broadcast booth: “Game canceled, doubleheader tomorrow.” Harwell, as he had been doing for years, relayed the message over the air — never knowing it was a practical joke. Then he packed up and left.
Ten minutes later, on the freeway, he turned on the radio to hear the postgame program. “Wait a minute folks,” said Ray Lane, “apparently, the game has not been canceled. They’re going to start back up . . .
“Ernie! Ernie! Wherever you are! Come back!”
Harwell got off the next exit, returned to the park, and finished the broadcast.
See? Even when he tries to leave, the game calls him home. Ding how!”
The cook looks at him. He doesn’t understand.
“Ding how?” Harwell repeats.
“Oh, meestah. You speak Chinese?”
“Well, ha ha . . . just that word. I learned it when I was over there.”
He smiles. The cook smiles. Everybody smiles. We are in a Chinese restaurant, where baseball is hardly a dominant subject, but people still react to Harwell as if he is an honored guest. His voice does it. It sings of hospitality.
He takes a seat next to his wife, Lulu, whom he met almost 50 years ago at a fraternity dance at Emory College. They talked about books. She thought he was “cute.” He proposed in a letter. They still hold hands today.
At 72, Harwell seems more frail now. His face shows the lines of experience, his hair is whitish-blond and often tucked under a beret. He wears glasses, he has for years. Now and then he will dig his fists in his pockets and stiffen while he sucks in a deep breath, as if trying to realign his bones. Breathing is important for the voice, he will tell you, and to this day, he takes a morning walk and holds in air for 10 paces and lets it out for 10 more, a trick he was shown by a Russian violinist back in the 1940s, at his first job, WSB in Atlanta, “The Voice of the South.” Those were the days when radio stations used orchestras, not compact disc players.
Ernie Harwell does not have a compact disc player. He does not have an answering machine. He has radios. One in the living room, one in the kitchen, one in the office, one in the family room, one in every bedroom, and one little portable that Lulu takes on her nightly walk around the neighborhood, so she can listen to her husband broadcast the games.
He seems as dedicated to radios as he is to his subject, which has always been baseball, as long as we can remember. Oh, he broadcast some football, some golf, some tennis, some bowling. He wrote articles for Esquire, Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. He covered the Japanese surrender at Wake Island. While in the Marines, as a correspondent, he had this idea for a story about the president’s mail — how much he gets, how much he answers. He contacted the White House. They set up an appointment. Eleanor Roosevelt met him in the Green Room. Alone. They talked for 90 minutes. “She was very accommodating,” he says. Eleanor Roosevelt?
Still, the ballpark is Harwell’s natural stage. It has been since his first major league season in 1948, working for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His first road game was at Braves Field in Boston. They didn’t have a booth. So he and his engineer sat in in the rightfield stands with their equipment on their laps. Can you picture that? “The fans were all around us,” Harwell recalls. “Looking over our shoulder, looking over our heads. You had to try to block them out.”
You need a hell of a focus. But then, that always has been the strength of a Harwell broadcast. Focus. Oh, he can tell you almost anything about baseball history. He just won’t. Not unless it’s pertinent. He does not chew fat. He does not drop names. He will talk about the rookie left-hander, tell you which way the wind is blowing, set the bases, shift the outfield, call the pitch, bring you right in — and let you float above the action.
Silence. The magic is in the pauses. Dizzy Gillespie, the famous jazz trumpeter, once said: “It took me my whole life to learn what not to play.” So, too, does Harwell know when to leave it alone, when to let the crowd noise or the beer man or your own imagination take the mike from his hands. This is radio. This is play-by-play artistry. What separates him from those other pretenders trying to become famous with their mouths is this: Ernie Harwell respects the game.
Sure, there are flashier names in media. Guys like Harry Caray, who scream
“HOLY COW!” every five minutes. Guys like Al Michaels, who give sports a slick, corporate feel. Guys like John Madden, who are hired to go “BOOM!”
Somewhere along the line, something was lost. Except at Tiger Stadium. Except in that little booth. Baseball nuts in Pennsylvania and Virginia and Indiana still sit in their cars, late at night, fiddling with the knobs, until the signal from WJR wafts in across the skies, and they can hear that voice with the touch of Georgia accent. (“Hello evrahbody, welcome to Tigah baseball
. . .”) Make us young again, Ernie. Make it fun again, Ernie. Year after year, in the first game of spring, he opens with the same sentence: “For lo, the winter is past, and the song of the turtle is heard across the land . . .”
He’s quoting the bible. Song of Solomon.
That’s Ernie’s idea of flash.
You know, the game hasn’t changed all that much,” Harwell says now, after returning home from the restaurant and taking a chair in his hotel room. “A lot of people think the players are more money-minded than before. They say,
‘This guy is making $3 million so he won’t hustle.’
“But it’s all relative. I read a book not too long ago that went back to the 1934 season. It reprinted baseball stories from the top sports writers of the day. And one of those guys wrote ‘It’s no wonder the players of today don’t hustle! They’re making $3,000 a year and have two-year contracts!’ “
Harwell laughs, perhaps for the irony, perhaps because he can still remember 1934. And 1944. And 1954. Those were the days you rode trains with the players, you played cards, you passed the beer. You glorified their heroics, and shut your eyes to their antics. Harwell was with the Brooklyn Dodgers for much of that time. He rode the trains. He shagged fly balls in the outfield, right alongside the players. He was not afraid to call men such as Robinson, Hodges and Campanella his “friends” — a faux pas amongst today’s more hard-bitten journalists.
“I guess I’ve never really gotten comfortable with the whole antagonistic relationship, especially the drugs and alcohol thing,” he says. “You know, I’ve never seen a person use drugs. I never have. In the old days, you might see a player get on the train a little tipsy from too many drinks after the game. But things were a lot different. The feeling was much more paternalistic, between the reporters and the players — and between the owners
and the players. Back then, the owners were former baseball men themselves, or baseball families. If a guy got drunk, the owner would bail him out of jail, give him an advance, never say anything about it.
“Nowadays, they don’t do that. They’re at odds with each other. And besides, the owners aren’t the same kind of people. They’re corporations, guys who made a lot of money and want to buy into the game.”
Harwell has endured his share of owners. And general managers. He has worked for the Dodgers, the Giants, the Orioles. He has done more than 4,500 Tigers games. He has witnessed the strikes and lockouts and walkouts and players coming from jail and players going to rehab centers.
He is asked whether the participants could ever do something so terrible, so revolting, that the fans would give up on the game?
“I honestly don’t think so,” he says. “They’ve gone through just about everything there is. To me, baseball is sort of like the church. The church has always taken all kinds of abuse. People in it have made terrible mistakes in the name of religion. And yet it survives.
“Besides, I really believe if a guy is a jerk, but he gets up there in the bottom of the ninth and hits a three-run homer, the fans are going to cheer, no matter what. That’s baseball. It goes on and on.”
And so does Harwell. Once upon a time, he dreamed of the cheers himself. As a child in Georgia, he spent hours on the sandlots. Second base. Fielding grounders. Broadcasting was probably the last career anyone would have predicted; after all, young Harwell’s tongue did not move properly when he spoke — they call it tongue-tied — and for years, everything came out with an “f.” The word sister, he pronounced “fifter.” Christmas was “fifmaf.” Once a month, in school, he would have to stand up and “debate or declare.” The other kids would laugh. “Ernie can’t talk right. Ha ha ha . . . “
That he survived that trauma and prospered from it (with the help of an elocution teacher) is credit to his quiet strength. And the fact that he had bigger things to worry about. When Ernie was 6, his father, Gray, who owned a furniture store, was afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Paralyzed and home-bound, he would live another 36 years and never move his limbs. The store was lost. Money was scarce. In the mornings, Ernie and his two brothers would help lift their father from the bed to the wheelchair. Then they would gather up cakes and sandwiches their mother had been making since 4 a.m., and deliver them via streetcar to drugstores and society functions. It was the Depression. A nickel here. A dime there.
He wrote. He loved writing. He even considered music (and has written nearly 50 songs that have been recorded). But, in time, he fell in love with radio. His first broadcasting job was in 1946, with the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern League, Ponce De Leon Field. When they played at home, he called it all.