Depending on one’s generation, there are a handful of moments which etch a timestamp in your soul, never to be forgotten. It’s those times in life, expected or not, you’ll never forget where you were when you heard the news.
The passing of Ernie Harwell on May 4, 2010, is one of those instances Michiganders, and those everywhere fortunate enough to have crossed paths with him, will forever remember.
With his gracious wife, Lulu, of 68 years along with his four children at his side in a Metro Detroit retirement community, Harwell left us for what he described in his farewell speech as his next great “adventure.” Fans knew this day was coming when the gut wrenching news broke of his terminal cancer of the bile duct. That was September of last year but despite the prognosis, nobody wanted to consider this world without Ernie in it.
Listening to various sports talk shows, from local Detroit to national programming hosts the day after he passed, the community he loved mourned together sharing stories of their encounter with one of the true gentleman not just in baseball, but in life. Every single caller shared a recollection of a remarkably kind, genuine, and humbly brilliant man who made people feel as if they were Ernie's best friend, often after just five minutes of conversation.
With a southern twang from his time in Georgia always noticeable in his croaky, pleasant voice, Ernie Harwell respected the game more than many announcers today. He’s the type of person that returned every piece of fan mail sent to him. One woman called into a sports radio station today and recalled the day she received a phone call with a familiar voice on the other end. “Hello [name], thank you for the kind words but I’m not sure what you want me to do with this letter because there’s nothing in here to sign,” Harwell said. The woman had sent an autograph request in which she forgot to enclose the photos of Ernie. She was floored that not only did he take the time to respond but he had to find her phone number based on the name and address to call her to remind her the items were missing. That was Ernie.
A gentle man who lived by his unwavering Christian faith, Ernie took the time to shake your hand, look you in the eye and demonstrate a sincere interest about your background that was the same whether he was talking to Joe Dimaggio or Average Joe.
More than a cherished treasure by both those who knew him and those that did not. More than an icon whose legend is forever stitched in the fabric of our nation’s pastime, Ernie Harwell was the epitome of a ‘salt of the earth’ person. Many of us in Metro Detroit have some of our fondest memories of our fathers, or even grandfathers, futzing around the garage on a cool summer night, slight Great Lakes breeze in the air. Maybe it was a hot, humid day and you were helping Dad with yard work. Chances are the ballgame was playing from an old transistor radio and the sweet, melodic sounds of Ernie doing play-by-play. It’s almost a rite of passage for many and when Ernie left, it’s as if some of those childhood memories went with him.
Some are using this time to remember piling in the family station wagon and remember the dial tuned into WJR (760 AM), on a car ride somewhere, again Harwell saying just enough to feel as if you were there.
When Ernie spoke to the crowd at Comerica Park September 16, 2009, his words and spirit comforted those in attendance still trying to process the grim news they heard earlier that month. Remember, this was a man having been told his days are numbered not long before. Ernie was dying. He knew it. We knew it. Yet, he stood behind the microphone at home plate and thanked the fans and told them not to worry, he’ll be fine.
The best honor a man can receive in this world after he dies isn’t the naming a major award, field or stadium after him. It’s not an expensive statue, either.
Actually, Ernie was far too gracious and humble of a man to ever wish such a thing. It’s not tangible or materialistic either. No, the greatest honor someone can receive is the number of lives they touched, whether the know it or not, and the shared memories and stories that will last for future generations.
Years before, I recall hearing on more than one occasion, close friends and one-time acquaintances of his describing their story when they met the legendary broadcaster of 55 years—42 in Detroit—for the first time. They described their brief encounter like this, “Having met [or ‘known’] Ernie Harwell was a true blessing and I’m a better person now for it.” One day after his death, this notion was repeated once again by scores of people across the country.
If there’s a truer indication than that of the power of humility, sincerity and warmth, I’ve yet to hear it.
Here’s a look back in pictures of Ernie Harwell.