How would you like to be remembered? “In the will of some rich guy, do you know any?” This was the humble sweetness of a man everyone in the state of Michigan mourns today. Legendary Tigers baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell died yesterday, at the age of 92.
People outside Detroit might be sympathetic but might not fully know the loss felt. He was a Hall of Fame radio broadcaster, yes. But he was more. He was a poet who would talk about baseball the way Thoreau talked about the woods. He was the voice of your imagination when you couldn’t see the game, giving a crisp soundtrack to the images of Alan Trammell circling the bases.
Ernie Harwell was a member of your family growing up. When my dad would take us to the games at beloved Tiger Stadium, there were times when circumstances required leaving early. Traffic. Work. A 9-1 lead in the bottom of the 8th. But it wasn’t punishment to get in the car. It was like having a sweet lullaby to end the perfect day. Hurtling down the Lodge Freeway, Ernie would let you know that the bullpen had done its job, and your eyes grew heavier.
If you moved out of the state, his voice calling a game on TV or radio was as familiar a heartwarming welcome as hearing your family on the other end of the phone line, or coming home for the holidays.
Ernie Harwell was a connection to baseball’s past. For younger Tigers fans, he would convey the emotion of seeing Al Kaline hit his cutoff man from deep right. Mickey Lolich battling Bob Gibson in the ’68 Series. Cecil Fielder hitting a ball so far out of the stadium, that loooong gone required a few more o’s. Kirk Gibson rounding the bases in 1984.
Ernie Harwell was your neighbor. When a foul ball would go into the stands, he would report that a “lady from St. Clair Shores” had caught it, or a man from Ferndale. Of course, Ernie didn’t know who caught the ball, but the idea that he did was captivating, and realistic. Everyone knew Ernie, and felt like he knew them.
In 1991, shortly after taking over as president of the Detroit Tigers, another beloved Michigan icon, Bo Schembechler presided over the firing of Ernie Harwell. This was not a decision that split the state like a Michigan-Michigan State game. Ninety-seven percent of those polled wanted their voice back. Diehard Michigan football fans wore shirts saying less than kind words about the old coach. In 1993, Ernie came home. Bo was gone.
Ernie Harwell was a man of devotion. For 68 years, he stood by the side of his dearly loved wife Lulu. The type of marriage that you hope for on your wedding day. He also stood by the side of his Lord. He had a way of evoking his religion that didn’t isolate those who didn’t share his faith. He simply let you know that his humbleness, his grace, his friendship and his courage was a testament to his faith in God.
Detroit is losing a lot lately. It’s losing jobs, an economy, a sense of pride. Detroit lost Tiger Stadium, which Ernie tried with every last ounce of energy to save. Yet, even Ernie couldn’t fight a corrupt city hall. Tiger Stadium was razed last summer, and its vacant lot sits among thousands of others, reminding Michiganders of the glory days of summer.
Losing Ernie almost seems like too much. When thousands of mourners file into Comerica Park this week to witness him lying in state, it will play out like a city-wide funeral. Everyone finally grieving around something that binds every person in the region, regardless of age, race, religion or class. It could even be cathartic. Maybe Ernie’s death will remind those in Michigan what unites them, and why saving the spirit that Ernie endeared is so important.
Luckily with Ernie, he will never be gone for those who hung on his every word, or his deliberate silence. When you hear the crack of a bat, you’ll remember how he let you hear the game, rather than try and fill every minute of air. When you see a batter watch a called third strike, you’ll know he was sitting there “like a house on the side of the road” and you may even know that the phrase entered the Hall of Fame broadcaster’s lexicon when conquering a speech impediment as a child. Ernie said “let’s play” when others may roll the tarp on the field and be happy with a delay.
Ernie loved Michigan because of its inherent values, which he shared. Hard working, affectionate, loyal and strong. Ernie loved baseball. Ernie loved Detroit. We loved Ernie. May God bless him, and may Lulu take comfort knowing that everyone is better for having heard his voice.
Below is Ernie Harwell’s definition of baseball, made famous in his 1981 Hall of Fame baseball induction:
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 running home one of his (Babe Ruth’s) 714 home runs.
There’s a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh forty-six years ago. That’s baseball. So is the scout reporting that a sixteen 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 becomes a statistic.
In baseball democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rulebook. Color merely 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 thirty-five 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.
Baseball is the cool, clear eyes of Rogers Hornsby. The flashing spikes of Ty Cobb, an over aged pixie named Rabbit Maranville.
Baseball just a came as simple as a ball and bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport, a business and sometimes almost even a religion.
Why the fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World’s Series catch. And then dashing off to play stick ball in the street with his teenage pals. That’s baseball. So is the husky voice of a doomed Lou Gehrig saying, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”
Baseball is cigar smoke, hot roasted peanuts, The Sporting News, ladies day, “Down in Front”, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and the Star Spangled Banner.
Baseball is a tongue tied kid from Georgia growing up to be an announcer and praising the Lord for showing him the way to Cooperstown. This is a game for America. Still a game for America, this baseball!
Rory Cooper is the Director of Strategic Communications at The Heritage Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @rorycooper.