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On Sunday afternoon, Detroit Tiger fans who tuned in to WJR—760 on their radio dial—heard Ernie Harwell say in the first inning of the Tigers' game in Baltimore, "Here we are for the final game of the year and the final game at Memorial Stadium."
Ernie didn't say it was his final game as the Tigers' radio broadcaster, but, then, he didn't have to. His listeners knew it. After spending 32 of his 73 years with Detroit, Ernie was being put out to pasture. No more "two for the price of one" calls to indicate double plays, no more "there's one for a fan from McBain" after a ball went into the stands.
"I remember the first game in Memorial Stadium," Ernie is telling his listeners. "It was a day much like today. Rained on the parade in the morning, but when we got to the ballpark, the sun came out."
Back in 1954, when the Orioles debuted in Memorial Stadium, Ernie was the team's play-by-play man. Before that, he broadcast Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giants games. On Oct. 3, 1951, he called the Shot Heard Round the World for television while his Giants partner, Russ Hodges, made the famous radio call. Ernie always brings a little of that history to his broadcasts, and a lot of the Southern charm you would expect from someone who was Margaret Mitchell's paperboy.
"I've been asked to read a marriage proposal, Paul," Ernie says to his longtime partner, Paul Carey, who is also calling it quits after the game. " 'Rachel Rozmys, will you marry me?' I wonder if she knows from whom the proposal is coming. Anyway, we await the outcome."
Why in heaven's name would the Tigers and WJR want to get rid of a man this fine, an announcer so good that he's in the Hall of Fame? Of course, the Tigers are showing a distinct lack of class these days. None of the team's executives bothered to show up at a pregame ceremony honoring Ernie before a home game on Sept. 29. The Orioles, on the other hand, do things right. They had their own moving tribute to him on Friday night. During Sunday's game, the Baltimore fans were again asked to give him a big hand, which prompted Ernie to doff his trademark beret—"my hidden-bald trick," he calls it.
It's not much of a game—the Tigers will win 7-1—but Ernie makes it interesting and even educational: Did you know that a Cub groundskeeper invented the bat rack? Former running back Calvin Hill, a Baltimore native who is an Oriole executive, stops by to wish Ernie well. "You make me feel young when I hear your voice," Hill tells him during a break.
Also in the booth is Paul Parravano, a Tiger fan and a good friend of Ernie's who has come all the way from his home in Boston for the game. Parravano, who is blind, says he wanted to make sure he heard Ernie one last time.
Normally, Ernie takes a breather during the middle of the game and isn't scheduled to get back on the air until the seventh inning, but in the bottom of the sixth he plops down behind the mike to read a bulletin: "The young lady said yes. Rachel Rozmys will marry you, John Miller."
That drama having been resolved, Ernie settles in for his final three innings as the Tigers' announcer. The only hint that an era is drawing to a close comes when Carey asks him what he plans to do with the old houndstooth overcoat he keeps in the booth in Detroit. "I don't know," says Ernie. "I tried to give it to the Salvation Army, but they wouldn't take it."