Editor’s note: Ernie Harwell died on Tuesday after fighting cancer for nearly a year. He was 92. Portions of this column were published in John U. Bacon’s September 2009 tribute to Harwell.
This past September, the Detroit Tigers’ beloved broadcaster, Ernie Harwell, announced that he had contracted an incurable form of cancer, and would not seek treatment.
For everybody who knew him, or felt like they did – which, really, is just about all of us – it hit hard. We were losing our baseball buddy, our grandfather, our friend.
The only person who didn’t seem shaken by the news was Ernie Harwell. He said, “Whatever’s in store, I’m ready for a new adventure. That’s the way I look at it.”
Harwell was a deeply religious man, but he never wore it on his sleeve. He simply lived it. He was, truly, at peace.
But I was not. Like just about every sports writer who knew him, I felt compelled to write about him.
I wrote about our family trips up north, which were always accompanied by Harwell’s comfortable cadences filling our station wagon. Harwell didn’t simply broadcast baseball games. He turned them into stories. In Harwell’s world, a batter didn’t merely strike out. He was “called out for excessive window shopping,” or “caught standing there like the house by the side of the road.”
Unlike today’s announcers, who prattle on with mindless patter and pointless stats, Harwell treated his listeners to healthy doses of “companionable silences,” something Zen masters refer to as the delicious “space between the notes.” Harwell often said the quiet allowed the listeners to enjoy the sounds of the ballpark itself, which he felt was richer than his own voice. When Harwell called the game, you not only heard the crack of the bat, you heard the peanut vendors.
Harwell was born in Georgia in 1918, a time and a place that valued relaxed conversations on the porch. He grew up listening to Atlanta Crackers games on a crystal radio set. The power of those broadcasts probably hit Harwell more than most. His dad suffered from multiple sclerosis, and rarely left his wheel chair. The highlight of his day was listening to those ball games.
At age 29, Harwell became the Crackers’ play-by-play man. Just two years later, in 1948, Harwell caught the ear of the Brooklyn Dodgers. They were so impressed, they traded their catcher for Harwell, making him the only broadcaster in baseball history to be traded for a player.
Harwell went on to set the record for most games broadcast, including 41 seasons for the Tigers. When Sports Illustrated picked its all-time baseball dream team a few years ago, they included a spot for their favorite radio announcer. They bypassed some real legends – like Mel Allen and Vin Scully and even Red Barber – to tap Harwell, a true Hall of Famer.
He told me Willie Mays was the best player he’s ever seen, that Jackie Robinson was the most courageous, and that a lovable Tigers pitcher named Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who used to get on his hands and knees to groom the mound, “was probably the most charismatic guy we’ve ever had here in Detroit. A real breath of fresh air.”
In 1997, I was lucky enough to cover spring training for The Detroit News. My first day I was sitting on a bench, watching infield practice, when Ernie Harwell sidled up next to me. We sat there, watching baseball, and chatting like old friends – just the way everyone one of us imagined we already were, listening to him on the radio all those years. He invited me for dinner that night with his wife Lulu. We enjoyed a long talk, and he picked up the tab.
I wrote a story about him nine years ago. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke up to the phone ringing. It was Ernie Harwell, calling to thank me for the article. Who does that? That day, of course, soon turned tragic, but Harwell’s little act of humanity will always stand in my mind as such a poignant contrast to everything that followed that day.
A few times over the years, I invited him to call in to a talk show I was hosting. “Just ask,” he always said, “And I’ll come running.”
Eight months ago, I closed my piece by saying, I wish there was something I could do for him now. If he just asked, I’d come running.
I had to deliver that line in the studio a few times before I got through it without getting too choked up. The next morning, after the piece ran, an old friend called to thank me. Who does that? Ernie Harwell, that’s who.
It’s a strange sensation, knowing it’s probably going to be the last time you’ll talk. I kept it short – I didn’t want to be greedy with his time – but I had to tell him how much I appreciated hearing from him. He said, “Well, John, we go back a loooong way. Thanks for the wonderful story. God bless you. Good bye.”
After we hung up, I sat there for a few minutes. We went back about 13 years – not really that long for a man who had friends going back more than a half-century – and I’m sure he read better stories than mine that week alone. But he still took the time to call.
So, thank you, Mr. Harwell, for all the wonderful stories.
God bless you.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.