Assignment Detroit: Ernie Harwell will always be the voice of summer
Few in the sports world have ever been as beloved as Ernie Harwell
He was the Tigers announcer for a half-century, retiring in 2002
Now 91, Harwell is suffering from inoperable cancer but says he is at peace
Baseball is the President tossing out the first ball of the season and a scrubby schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm. A tall, thin old man waving a scorecard from the corner of his dugout. That's baseball. And so is the big, fat guy with a bulbous nose trotting home at the end of one of his 714 home runs.
I once asked Ernie Harwell why people loved him so. That's a hard question for any person to answer, but it is especially challenging for a man as modest and decent as Ernie Harwell. "I'm just a failed newspaper man," he would say whenever the praise grew too thick.
But the question remained: Few around sports have ever been as loved as Ernie Harwell, the Detroit Tigers baseball announcer for a half-century, going back to the summer before John F. Kennedy was elected president. Every room he walked into was filled with friends. Ernie said that maybe it was because his voice had always been, day after day, year after year, barbecue after barbecue, booming through summer thunderstorms. Maybe, he said, it is because baseball on the radio cools humid Sunday afternoons and lights up darkened nights for weary drivers, and keeps children company when muffled by flattened pillows.
"It's just there," he said of his own voice on the radio. "You can listen to it, if you want. Or you can be doing something else, and it just sort of drifts into your psyche."
When I told him, no, that there was more in his 50-plus years of calling baseball games on the radio -- something reassuring and wonderful and honest and warm and... well, he just cut me off with a grateful smile. I'm just a failed newspaperman, he said.
"It isn't me that people love," he said. "It's baseball."
There's a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh 46 years ago. That's baseball. So is the scout reporting that a 16-year-old pitcher in Cheyenne is a coming Walter Johnson. Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered, or booed. And then it becomes a statistic.
Ernie Harwell was traded into the major leagues. It's a pretty famous baseball story, but Ernie never hesitated to tell famous baseball stories. He felt certain that someone out there was hearing it for the very first time. Harwell was a Georgia boy, born in a little town called Washington, raised in a growing metropolis called Atlanta. He was a batboy for the minor league Atlanta Crackers when he was 5, and the radio announcer for the Atlanta Crackers when he got out of the Marines.
"The Atlanta Crackers!" his contemporary Buck O'Neil once said to Harwell. "Can you believe they actually called a team the Atlanta Crackers? And you know what's even better? There was once a Negro Leagues team, and they called them the Atlanta BLACK Crackers!"
And the two of them laughed and laughed.
In 1948, the Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber was hospitalized and the team needed an announcer fast. And so Branch Rickey -- a man who always believed a good trade could make all the difference -- dealt a catcher named Cliff Dapper to the Crackers for their announcer, Ernie Harwell. Dapper, Harwell would occasionally mention, hit .471 in the big leagues (in 17 at-bats) and became the manager of the Crackers.
And Ernie Harwell went to the big leagues. To Brooklyn. In the first inning of his first game, he always said, Jackie Robinson stole home.
In baseball, democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rule book. Color merely means something to distinguish one team's uniform from another.
Baseball is a rookie, his experience no bigger than the lump in his throat as he begins fulfillment of his dream. It's a veteran too, a tired old man of 35 hoping that those aching muscles can pull him through another sweltering August and September. Nicknames are baseball, names like Zeke and Pie and Kiki and Home Run and Cracker and Dizzy and Dazzy.
Words. Oh, how Ernie Harwell has loved words. That was the failed newspaperman in him. He did not speak much about numbers on the air. Radio was for words, for splashes of imagination, for poetry. He loved the Sam Walter Foss poem The House by the Side of the Road.
"Let me live in my house by the side of the road/and be a friend to man," Foss wrote.
"He stood there like the house by the side of the road," Ernie Harwell would say after strike three, "and watched that one go by."
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