Column: A True Hall of Famer

Paying tribute to Ernie Harwell, an old friend
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

If you grew up in Michigan in the ’70s, as I did, Bob Seger sang the soundtrack to your summers, and Ernie Harwell provided the voiceover.

When I think about our family trips up north, they’re always accompanied by Harwell’s comfortable cadences filling the car. He 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 said the quiet allowed the listeners to enjoy the sounds of the ballpark itself, which he felt was richer than his own voice.

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, it tapped Harwell as the radio announcer – a true Hall of Famer.

He’ll tell you Willie Mays is 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 we all imagined we already were, listening to him on the radio. He invited me for dinner that night with his wife Lulu. We enjoyed a long talk, and he picked up the tab.

Harwell is a deeply religious man, but he never wears it on his sleeve. He simply lives it. This week, Harwell announced that he had an incurable form of cancer, and would not seek treatment. “Whatever’s in store,” he said, “I’m ready for a new adventure. That’s the way I look at it.”

I wrote a story about him eight 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 I will never forget how Harwell’s little act of humanity stood as such a poignant contrast to all that followed.

A few times I invited him to call in on a talk show I was hosting. “Just ask,” he said, “And I’ll come running.”

I wish there was something I could do for him now. If he just asked, I’d come running.

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 of 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.


  1. September 11, 2009 at 10:15 am | permalink


    A moving remembrance of one of my best memories of summers in Michigan – Harwell’s voice over the radio. You’d be joined by a HUGE crowd who’d come running to help Ernie in any way we could. May God bless the man in his future adventures!

  2. By Steve Canham
    September 11, 2009 at 10:23 am | permalink

    Lots of goosebumps reading that! A great tribute to Ernie. Thanks John.

  3. By Duane Collicott
    September 11, 2009 at 10:29 am | permalink

    >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.”

    >Harwell treated his listeners to healthy doses of “companionable silences,”

    These are two of the things I remember about listening to Ernie on the radio I would sneak under my pillow at night. I used up a lot of batteries those years, and I don’t know if my parents ever figured out why they were dying so fast.

  4. September 11, 2009 at 10:34 am | permalink

    I had the privilege of capturing these moments in an audio autobiography a couple years back on ernies life. He is truly an amazing person. I spoke with him on wednseday and could simply say the best thing for him now will be your prayers

  5. September 11, 2009 at 1:53 pm | permalink

    Thanks for such a great tribute to my grandfather. He is everything he’s cracked up to be….and more.

  6. September 11, 2009 at 2:48 pm | permalink

    Thanks to all the readers who wrote today — but particularly Anne Harwell.

    Years of sports writing have taught me it’s usually a bad idea to meet your childhood heroes as adults — but Mr. Harwell has been a great exception. As they say, some men are like mountains. The closer you get to them, the bigger they are.

    And to prove it, who should call me today but Mr. Harwell himself. Needless to say, I got a little choked up, and had to compose myself before calling back. He was as gracious as ever — but I forgot to underscore the last line of the piece. So, Anne, next time you talk to him, assure him that I meant every word: if there’s anything I can do for him, I’ll come running.

    Thanks to all.

    -John Bacon

  7. By Jerome Drummond
    September 11, 2009 at 8:57 pm | permalink

    Yes, Ernie Harwell is a sort of sportcaster we will not see again. The Detroit area was lucky to have him, as well as Al Kaline and George Kell – two other gentlemen sorely missed. My mother, who listened to the Tigers in the days of Ty Tyson, would agree with Mr. Bacon that Mr. Harwell’s approach to the radio was much nicer than the prattle so often heard today, as if we tuned in for that…

  8. By MS.D
    September 12, 2009 at 1:57 pm | permalink

    I don’t think we can ever truly appreciate just how deeply Ernie Harwell has affected generation after generation of Detroit Tiger fans. As a young kid, I remember listening to Tiger broadcasts on summer nights from my grandfather’s porch. I spent many spring and fall nights when the Tigers were on the west coast listening to Ernie Harwell on the radio long past my “school night” bed time. In my twenties, I lived in Connecticut and I recall the great rush of pleasure that came when occasionally I could listen to Ernie Harwell on WJR through some odd quirk of AM frequencies that allowed the Tiger broadcast to come in clearly across the miles. I am so glad to hear that he is even more amazing in person than the man he always appeared to be. He’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime legend and many people are grateful for the example he provided of how a life should be lived. I hope there is much joy and love in the last leg of his journey.

  9. By Bob Galardi
    September 14, 2009 at 9:27 pm | permalink

    I’ll always remember 1968 sitting in our barracks in Da Nang (Vietnam) at 2 am with my Ann Arbor buddy Geoff Hall. We tuned into Armed Forces Radio to listen to the World Series. We were homesick and then we heard Ernie’s voice and we cried – for that series we were home!