When I heard the news on Friday that Ernie Harwell had cancer and decided not to operate or treat it, it didn’t hit me all that hard at first. I guess this was the rational part of me rather than the knee-jerk reaction I would’ve expected. He is, after all, 91 years old. You can’t really claim such news for someone that age is a tragedy or a surprise unless you consider the human experience itself a tragedy.
I also knew a thing or two about Harwell from reading a number of interviews and stories about him and hearing him as a guest on broadcasts. He seemed thoroughly and genuinely happy with the way his life had turned out and grateful for the life he had been able to lead. He had been able to be around professional baseball for sixty years and has amassed an impressive resume of calling some of baseball’s most historic games. He had earned the Ford C. Frick Award, which is the award given to broadcasters by the Baseball Hall of Fame and is what causes people to consider broadcasters Hall of Famers.
I don’t think any of that touches on what Harwell means to Tiger fans, though. For thousands and very likely millions of Tiger fans, his voice was Tiger baseball. He called the game masterfully and thoughtfully, mixing in signature calls (“stood there like the house by the side of the road” or “caught by a young man from Saginaw”) with conscious efforts to let the audience hear the sounds of the stadium. All of this was done with a strong voice that hinted at Southern roots and left few complaining back in the days when many games weren’t on television.
You’ll hear plenty of these types of biographies of Harwell. There will be a lot of people who knew Harwell who will be able to tell his story and accomplishments and share personal anecdoteis highlighting how special a person he is and was much better than I ever could. I will just tell a couple of personal stories that show what he has meant to some of us Tiger fans.
Back in 1990, when I heard the news that the Tigers were going to let Ernie Harwell go, I was furious. Even then, the idea of forcing Harwell to move along from Tiger baseball on anything but his own terms was offensive to me. As a Wolverine detractor I wanted to blame Bo Schembechler, but I didn’t know who was actually at fault. I wrote a letter and sent it to everybody who may have had anything to do with it. I was 14 at the time, and this was the first letter I had written to anybody who wasn’t either a relative, a pen pal or a potential girlfriend.
I chastised the people who made this decision, telling them I didn’t know who was responsible but I was confident that anybody who had a part in it wasn’t as deserving of their job as Mr. Harwell was of his. I closed by telling them they were making a terrible mistake and that when they lost their job, I still hoped they would be treated better than they were treating Ernie Harwell.
I should clarify here. I was a pretty lazy kid. I would get ideas to do this type of thing all the time and I sometimes would even make steps toward following through. But then I’d realize there were no stamps and that I’d have to write it multiple times to send it to everybody I wanted to send it to and eventually other things would capture my attention.
Not this time. I wrote the letter enough times to send it to the Tigers, WJR, Channel 4, Channel 7, and even ESPN. (This makes me laugh now because I actually had daydreams of it being read on air.) When I was finished, I made sure each was properly addressed and stamped and sent them along. I was sure to follow through, because this was important to me. I loved Tiger baseball and Tiger baseball to me meant Ernie Harwell was calling it. Looking back, I only wish I would have thought to write another letter to Ernie to tell him how much we the fans had appreciated the years he had given us as the Tigers’ broadcaster.
But I would be foolish to focus on that shameful part of the Tigers’ history when it comes to Ernie Harwell. I don’t recall him ever saying a bad word about the Tigers because of that incident, and it is that class and character that was part of why so many people love him so much.
One of those people was certainly my mom. I think it was back in the late 80s when my mom needed to go to the Tigers’ Group Sales Office to pick up some tickets to a game a bunch of us were going to attend.
When she had gone to pick them up, the man she spoke with told her there was somebody he thought she might like to meet. When he came back, it was with Ernie Harwell. Now my mom isn’t one to get to taken with celebrity. She will casually tell about the time she shook hands with John F. Kennedy and when she was young she didn’t get caught up in the teen crazes of the day. But she told whoever would listen after this meeting, “This was Ernie Harwell!”
She was stunned to be able to meet this man, who she described as a giant in Detroit, and in his gracious way when they were introduced, he said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Patricia.” How much did this mean to her?
The man from the Group Sales Office gave her a pen that day shaped like a baseball bat. She cherished that pen so much as a memento of the day she met Ernie Harwell that all these years later, my sister and I had assumed Harwell himself had given her the pen. But it was just the pen somebody else gave her on the day she met Ernie Harwell. I love that.
A couple years later she was the victim of a purse snatcher. Knowing there wasn’t a lot of cash in there and nearly all the contents were replaceable, she was most upset when she realized—almost instantly—that the pen had been in the purse.
I’m sure Ernie Harwell knows he is loved by Tiger fans, and I hope these stories help him to realize just how much and how deeply that love goes. Of course, that’s another one of the great things about him. He knows we love him and he constantly expresses skepticism that he deserves it. Can you imagine?
This is a man who has been around baseball for sixty years. He’s seen every player in the league come and go. He has no doubt seen despicable men who were miserable human beings treated like kings every time they stepped out of the dugout.
They gained this acclaim for being able to run down grounders, hit the ball far or throw it through a wall. For him to see these flawed men, never say a bad word about them, and point to himself as the one undeserving of our adoration. Well, that should give us all an idea of why he will be missed so dearly when he moves on to his next adventure.