Baseball has had its share of great broadcasters, including Red Barber, Mel Allen, Vin Scully, Jack Buck, Harry Caray, and Curt Gowdy. For baseball fans, they have always identified with that one name, that one voice that carried the hopes and dreams of their club with every pitch that was called. Voices like Barber’s and Allen’s with the Yankees and Giants; Scully with the Dodgers; Buck with the Cardinals; Caray with the Cards, Athletics, Cubs or White Sox; and Gowdy with the Red Sox. For Tiger fans, that voice was Ernie Harwell, who passed away on May 4th. For Detroit fans, Ernie was the person who would introduce us to the team manager, coaches, players, and to the traditions of the great game of baseball. With his passing, tears were shed by not only Detroit fans- but by baseball fans across the United States.
No Tigers broadcaster in my time has woven the sport he loves, game after game, into a story-telling occasion like he did. Whether it was the time that Tigers first-baseman Norm Cash came to the plate with a table leg or when a manager named Casey Stengel did one of his craziest things during a game, Harwell excelled at painting a picture. And he did it without interrupting the flow or importance of the ballgame he was actually calling.
Ernie’s kindness was legendary. One afternoon in the early 1980s, he allowed me the opportunity to follow him around Tiger Stadium. I remember one of the highlights was seeing fellow announcer Paul Carey and him greet the fans in the cramped corridors under the stands on the third base side. The smile he brought to the faces of those fans, mostly youngsters, will forever be in mind. Smiles, I might add, that I was pleased to capture in my book, Detroit Sports Broadcasters On the Air.
I was also amazed at the small quarters he shared with sidekick Paul Carey and engineer Howard Stitzel, digs almost directly behind home plate on the second level. On that day, I had a great time watching him call a couple of innings before retiring to the press box.
Ernie Harwell was as pleasant a person as anyone could meet. Despite his many obligations, he was gracious enough to accept my invitation to write the introduction to my book. And let’s just say this – what he wrote about me in those few paragraphs knocked the socks off of me! But that was Ernie.
I remember the many columns that I would send him; columns that I had written on the Tigers or whenever I mentioned his name. It was a bit self-serving, I guess, but I thought if he did not have time to read the column at the newsstand, the least I could do was to share it with him. He would always take the time to send me a note on what I wrote, and always encouraged me to “keep up the good work.”
Ernie supported me I when I began my own sports talk show, “The Sports Exchange.’ And on one occasion, he appeared as a guest and wished me the best of luck in the endeavor.
In later years, Ernie and I would have opportunities to share meals and stories in the Ernie Harwell Media Center at Comerica Park. And on several occasions, especially around the holidays, he and his dear wife Lulu would invite and welcome me for lunch at their home. It goes without saying that those were precious moments that allowed me a front row seat with a Hall of Famer- to hear his opinions on baseball and sports news.
He would often call me out of the blue, as well. To help him with a sports trivia question or a contact name that I might have. They were always short calls, but I was always gracious to offer what I could and to help a friend out.
In 2001, Ernie received the Ty Tyson Award for Broadcast Excellence by the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association. As the organization’s secretary, it was a thrill to take part in that presentation in front of a packed audience of Ernie’s broadcasting peers and other sports journalists. The moment was made more special when he took the time to autograph a copy of the program for me.
Last December, the DSBA decided to change their annual Christmas luncheon to the Ernie Harwell Christmas Celebration in order to honor his lifetime of service to the broadcasters association. Unfortunately, he could not attend. The Ernie Harwell Lifetime Contribution Award, aka The Harwell, will be given to someone whose contribution to sports broadcasting goes above and beyond the normal. Our first recipient was, of course, Harwell himself. And I was honored to present the award in person a month or so later to Ernie’s son-in-law.
So, Ernie, my friend, thanks for the memories. Thanks for the beaming faces you put on all those who greeted and met you, for your unsung charity work and contributions to good causes, for your devout faith in God, for your wife and family sharing you with all of us as a broadcasting great, and for the joy you brought to listeners. In God’s peace may you rest.