Wednesday, May 5, 2010

So Long, Mr. Ernie: 1918-2010

William Earnest Harwell passed away yesterday, at the age of 92. "Mr. Ernie." I can't think of him by any other name.

He was a native of Atlanta, and in 1948 he was the voice of the minor-league baseball team, the Atlanta Crackers. He was asked to substitute for Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber during Red's illness, and impressed enough for the crosstown New York Giants to hire him.

Harwell was at the Polo Grounds when the Giants played the Dodgers in a Pennant-decider on October 3, 1951, broadcasting it nationally over NBC-TV. We all know what Giant broadcaster Russ Hodges said: "The Giants win the Pennant!" over and over again. Mr. Ernie? NBC didn't save the footage, so he liked to say, "Only Lulu knows for sure." (Lulu was Mrs. Harwell.)

In 1954, the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles, and Harwell and Chuck Thompson became their first radio announcers. Thompson became beloved in Maryland, but Michigan would be where Harwell made his mark, as in 1960 he was hired by the Detroit Tigers.

More than Ty Cobb, more than Al Kaline, more even than Tiger Stadium itself, Ernie Harwell was the Detroit Tigers for millions. From 1960 to 2002, he was that metro area's "voice of summer." Detroit summers can be long and hot, and dangerous. Mr. Ernie made you feel like everything was all right, even in the Motor City.

There was one season in there where he didn't broadcast for the Tigers: 1992. The Tigers' ownership had hired former University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler as team president, and Bo fired Ernie. Now, how do you want to be remembered: AS the man who rebuilt one of the nation's greatest college football programs, and made it that again, and educated hundreds while making millions cheer; or as the man who fired Ernie Harwell? Bo went to his grave insisting that he didn't fire Harwell, radio station WJR did -- which was, well, I'm not going to use a word that Mr. Ernie would never have used, not in an entry paying tribute to him, but you can guess what that word is.

When the Tigers were sold that year, the new owner, Mike Ilitch (also owner of the NHL's Detroit Red Wings and Little Caesar's Pizza) hired him back. (That may have been secondarily a tribute to the most popular figure in Michigan sports, and primarily a swipe at the old owner, Tom Monaghan, who ran rival pizza company Domino's.)

Ernie Harwell served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II -- as did a contemporary, Chicago sportscasting legend Jack Brickhouse. I have no problem imagining Brickhouse as a Marine, and, of course, there's no such thing as a "former Marine," only a discharged one.

But I can't imagine Mr. Ernie as a Marine. He was just so, well, un-Marine-like. He was an ordained minister, who never seemed to have an unkind word for anyone, and vice versa. If a player was in a slump, he would say the player was struggling. But he never said a player had blown it, or was to blame for a defeat. I don't know what he was like in the service (or if he saw combat, not all Marines did, even then), but he seemed... gentle. He was certainly one of the kindliest souls anyone ever knew. Tigers pitching legend Denny McLain, who had several people's shares of ups and downs and was no stranger to reprobate behavior, said that in all the 45 years he knew Harwell, he never heard him use a profanity -- not even "damn" or "hell." That's freakin' unbelievable.

Harwell was also a songwriter. In his role as a minister, he wrote hymns. He wrote poetry. As a Tiger broadcaster, he wrote "There's Never Been Any Like Denny McLain" during the Tigers' 1968 World Championship season, as McLain won 31 games, a total not seriously approached since. As an Atlanta native, he wrote "Move Over Babe, Here Comes Henry" in 1972, as Hank Aaron approached the all-time home run record.

War hero, minister, songwriter, chronicler of one of the great sports institutions of this country, and yet nothing that can be said about this man can suffice. His goodness surpassed whatever we can say about his greatness, and that's the best legacy anyone can have.

I've only been to Detroit once, making it to Tiger Stadium in that farewell season of 1999, and although the city was in no better shape now than then, and the Tigers got pounded by the White Sox that day, I had a great time, not least because I could hear Mr. Ernie on my Walkman and see him in that nice close press box.

His decency touched the heart of a demented Yankee Fan from 700 miles away, and made me tune in every once in a while, even though I have no particular reason to root for the Tigers (except when they play the Red Sox) and, at 760 AM, WJR is right next to a New York superstation, 770 WABC. I made the effort to tune him in anyway. How's that for an achievement?

When we had that flood on March 13, and my bookcase collapsed, one of the books I was very upset about losing was Ernie's Tuned to Baseball, written just after the Tigers' 1984 World Championship, their 4th and the 2nd he broadcast. I bought it at a sidewalk stand on Michigan Avenue, after coming out of Tiger Stadium that day, May 30, 1999. His writing style was much like his broadcasting style: He treated you as if you were intelligent enough to read the words of an educated man, but also as if you were forever young, or else why would you love the game of baseball enough to read a book about it?

To have the mind of a 40-year-old, knowing that this game will often disappoint you and you shouldn't let it get to you too much; but to also have the heart of an 11-year-old, still full of hope that "This is the year," and to admire those, like Mr. Ernie, who do their best to bring it to you? That's a pretty good definition of a baseball fan. And even at 92, Mr. Ernie Harwell was that kind of person.

Yes, Ernie Harwell was forever young, young enough at heart to always begin the first spring training broadcast of each season with a reading from the Bible's Song of Solomon, Chapter 2, Verses 11 and 12, choosing (as one would expect an educated man of his age to do) the King James text: "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."

When the Tigers closed down Tiger Stadium on September 27, 1999, after playing there for 87 seasons -- before moving to Comerica Park, which has a statue of him outside -- the last words were those of Ernie Harwell. And they are words we can have for him, too:

"So long, old friend. We will remember."

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