Thought you'd be interested in a column I was asked to write for my old newspaper, the Traverse City Record-Eagle. I sure don't miss that old deadline pressure, but it was a pleasure to write about a true gentleman who will be missed by millions.
Harwell a class act in every respect
Extraordinary. In a word, that was Ernie Harwell. In a me-first world where celebrities often play by a different set of rules, Harwell proved just how extraordinary he was simply by refusing to believe he was anything special.
Of course, we all knew better. In fact, I’m sure there were a few people who thought he just might live forever. And in a sense, he will.
Harwell, who died of cancer on Tuesday at the age of 92, was the voice of the Tigers for 42 years. Millions of baseball fans in Michigan, Ontario and northern Ohio would be hard pressed to separate Harwell’s rich, Southern voice from their fondest childhood memories.
That’s because Harwell was always there for us each summer. We invited him along for picnics and cookouts and road trips and games of catch. And if you were lucky – as I was – you didn’t even have to sneak a radio under your pillow for those late-night games on the West Coast. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
Harwell had an effortless way of describing the action on the field. He always said the game came first. He was fair to both sides and often reminded himself that fans turned on the radio to hear the game, not Ernie Harwell. He was so wrong.
He created phrases that brought joy and comfort to us year after year – “Looong gone!” when a Tiger slugged a home run, “He stood there like the house by the side of the road” when a batter took a called third strike and “Two for the price of one!” when the Detroiters (as he often called the Tigers) turned a double play.
When a fan caught a foul ball, Harwell would tell us, “A man from Traverse City (or whatever city popped into his mind) will take that one home.” When I was a kid, I used to think, “Wow, Ernie Harwell knows EVERYBODY.” The truth is, everybody knew him.
I had an opportunity to interview him many times and loved every minute of it, but my favorite moments were those when I had no intention of putting pen to paper – when we chatted about family … mine and his.
He somehow managed to remember my first name and that I was from Traverse City, and he always greeted me like a friend. Of course, he made everyone feel that way, which is amazing, considering by his own estimation, he broadcast over 8,000 major league games. That’s a lot of names and faces to remember. But he had more than enough class to go around.
Commissioner Bud Selig said it best when he described Harwell as a “distinguished gentlemen.” I know I have never met a nicer person.
He once wrote me a note, thanking me for being so kind to him in the paper. “I have always appreciated your support,” he wrote, and I was both honored and dumbfounded. One of the greatest broadcasters of all time – the subject of hundreds of stories throughout his career – was thanking me. Extraordinary.
If you remember nothing else about Ernie Harwell, remember this:
He loved baseball; he loved his children; he loved Lulu, his wife of 68 years; and he loved God – in reverse order.
Sure, this is a time of mourning. But it’s also time to celebrate. There has never been anyone like Ernie Harwell, and certainly there never will be again.
How fortunate we are to have shared his life, day after day, season after season.