• Marc Johnson

The Great Ernie


harwell

It was a cold, wet night at Safeco Field in Seattle on Tuesday and the Mariners played like they would rather have been sitting by a fire sipping a toddy. Their shortstop made three errors, their clean up hitter proved again he is an expensive mistake and, like I said, the raw wind off Elliott Bay was cold.

It was cold for another reason. Ernie Harwell’s mellifluous, calming baseball voice has been silenced. What little bit of warmth I felt on Tuesday at Safeco was the moment of silence baseball fans observed before the first pitch in memory of the 42 summers Ernie called Detroit Tigers games. Harwell died on Tuesday after a battle with cancer. He was a very young 92.

Harwell once said of baseball, “I love the game because it’s so simple, yet it can be so complex. There’s a lot of layers to it, but they aren’t hard to peel back.”

I’ve been a Tiger fan since 1968 when the boys from the Motor City beat the great Bob Gibson to become one of the few teams to recover from being down 3-1 in the World Series. Harwell said his greatest thrill in those 42 seasons behind the mike was Jim Northrup’s two-run triple in Game Seven of that series. That’s a good memory, but even better is sense of place that Harwell could create in even the most routine baseball game, sort of like Tuesday’s game in Seattle.

“On radio,” says Jon Miller, my choice for the best of the new breed of broadcasters,”we could tell a story about a player’s house in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the listener goes to that house. On television, you tell that story and you don’t go anywhere, because you see things that don’t match the story–the third base coach flashing signs, the pitcher getting ready. On TV, I caption what’s being shown. On the radio, it’s my story. As Ernie Harwell says, on TV, you get the movie version. The game on the radio is the novel.”

The New York Times obit for Ernie is a gem and reminded me that the guy could write, too. His Hall of Fame induction speech in 1981 is classic Harwell.

“Baseball is Tradition in flannel knickerbockers,” Harwell once wrote. “And Chagrin in being picked off base. It is Dignity in the blue serge of an umpire running the game by rule of thumb. It is Humor, holding its sides when an errant puppy eludes two groundskeepers and the fastest outfielder. And Pathos, dragging itself off the field after being knocked from the box.”

I only saw Harwell once in the flesh. It was the last season of old Tiger Stadium. When I showed up at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull to see a game on that piece of hallowed baseball ground there he was. Seated just outside the stadium, signing autographs and copies of his book and talking baseball with the fans – his fans. You couldn’t talk to Ernie Harwell, or listen to him, and not smile and think of the complexity of life and baseball and how marvelous he could make a simple game on a summer afternoon.

Good call, Ernie.

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