This is about the worst news I could have woken up to this morning:
Ernie Harwell, the treasured voice of the Tigers for all those years, has incurable bile duct cancer. In comments to the Detroit Free Press on Thursday, he said he won’t undergo surgery.
“We don’t know how long this lasts,” Harwell, 91, told the Free Press. “It could be a year. It could be much less than a year, much less than a half year. Who knows? Whatever is in store, I’m ready for a new adventure.”
I know he’s 91 so it’s not like this is some gobsmacking tragedy, but I can’t overstate how important Ernie Harwell has been to my life.
I was a nervous kid, afraid of the dark and afraid of going to sleep myself. My parents let me turn on the radio at night as I went to bed and the talk, rather than the music, made me feel better. The voice that gave me the most comfort was Ernie Harwell’s voice on WJR, which I latched onto before I even truly realized it was describing a baseball game.
Ernie put me to sleep most spring and summer nights for several years, teaching me about baseball in the process. He also taught me that I could enjoy it just as much if I could not actually see it, which I can’t help but think is the reason why I enjoy writing up the “And That Happened” recaps every day. I don’t see hardly any of the games I describe, but just because I don’t see them doesn’t mean that there isn’t a story to be told. Information and flavor to be teased out.
Maybe you always have a thing for your first love, but I think I’m being objective when I say that I have never encountered a better baseball broadcaster than Ernie Harwell. How lucky that I had him putting me to sleep when I was four years old as opposed to someone else. Would I have even been a baseball fan if it was John Sterling’s voice on the radio? Given that I was first tuning in for the delivery and not the product itself, I kinda doubt it.
Ernie had his fastball until the end. FOX brought him out during the 2006 ALDS between the Tigers and Yankees and let him do an inning or two. He stepped in as if it was still his full time job, and didn’t miss a beat. I recall that whoever FOX kept in the booth with him — I want to say McCarver, but it could have been Zelasko or someone — wanted to talk to him about his history and other such fluff, condescending to him, really, the way people often do to the elderly. Ernie seemed annoyed and deflected the person’s attempts to wallow in nostalgia, obviously wanting to keep the focus on the game. Where it should be. And he did. And it was wonderful.
Baseball will never see his like again.