Ernie Harwell: Saying goodbye as only Ernie can

Ernie Harwell, legendary Detroit baseball announcer calls the Historic Championship Game at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan in 2007. Photo courtesy; Brenda Hendricks

Ernie Harwell, legendary Detroit baseball announcer calls the Historic Championship Game at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan in 2007. Photo courtesy; Brenda Hendricks

If you’ve ever heard the voice of sports announcer Ernie Harwell, it’s hard to forget his distinctive tone and style.

Meet the 91-year-old Harwell in person and you’ll never forget his twinkling eyes, buoyant optimism, class and curiosity about life.

Ernie Harwell’s life is coming to an end.

Harwell recently announced that he has an incurable tumor around his bile duct.  Harwell says he will not undergo surgery, chemotherapy or radiation treatment.  Instead, Harwell is staying home, spending time with family and friends.  In typical Harwell fashion, Ernie described to the Detroit Free Press how he looks at the closing chapter in his life.

“We don’t know how long this lasts,” Harwell said in the interview where he announced his condition. “It could be a year, it could be much less than a year, much less than a half a year. Who knows?

“Whatever’s in store, I’m ready for a new adventure. That’s the way I look at it.”

I count myself among the many fortunate people who call Ernie a friend. During my years as a TV news anchor in Detroit, our paths  crossed at charity events and Tigers baseball games.  I can only guess how many thousands of charity events Ernie was part of over the years.  He gave so much of himself. He has always been encouraging. No matter how early or late, Ernie has always been there when it matters.

Ernie always made everyone feel like family, even if we only knew him from his Tigers baseball play calling for four decades.

Harwell spent 55 seasons broadcasting in the Major Leagues, the last 42 of them in Detroit. He became known as the radio voice of the Tigers through generations of fans, from the 1968 team that won the World Series to the ’84 club that did the same. He was honored with the Ford C. Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, and was honored by the Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1989.

What makes Ernie Harwell such a great person?  He always acknowledges friends, family and admirers. “I’d like to thank them for their loyalty and support over the years,” said Harwell of his many fans, adding, …”And their affection, which I don’t know whether I deserve or not, but I accept it.”

Ernie Harwell is also great writer of prose.  Eleven years ago, I was guest hosting a morning show for Lansing radio station WJIM.  Baseball season was about to begin. I called Ernie Harwell at home with a request;  Would he read his closing remarks from his 1981 induction speech into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY?   Like he’s done so often, Ernie obliged.

Below is what Ernie said in his Cooperstown speech.  But listen here and you’ll delight at how Ernie said it differently for our radio audience 11 years ago.

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 likeZeke 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 doomedLou 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!

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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