Ernie Harwell has terminal cancer

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.

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  1. Jason @ IIATMS said...

    As an Eastcoaster, I didn’t have the same availability and connection to Ernie as you (and some of the others here).  And for that, I’m a bit jealous.  I have grown to come to admire and respect this man for all of the good things that have already been said about him, here and elsewhere.

    I hope he doesn’t begin his next adventure until many years from now.

  2. Mark Armour said...

    Although I did not have the pleasure of listening to Ernie nightly, as Craig did, I still have my copy of the LP celebrating the 1968 Tigers championship, a record I wore out listening to all his big calls that season.  Then I would hear him on occasion doing national TV or radio games over the years.  A great voice, but also someone who never lost focus of the game on the field.

  3. Alex said...

    “Would I have even been a baseball fan if it was John Sterling’s voice on the radio?”

    I, in fact, did grow up listening to Sterling. I was a Yankee fan in western Massachusetts and in those prehistoric days when you couldn’t see your team on TV and the internet wasn’t too reliable, radio was my lifeline. And yes, I did become a fan, thanks to Sterling. Of course, now I’m in therapy, so maybe it wasn’t all a good thing.

  4. Scarf said...

    @Common Man:

    Yes, and Scully has said that he might retire after 2010. Which will be sad, as the torch will be passed from erudite, literate men calling baseball to…(insert Hank Hill-style shudder) Matt Vasgersian.

  5. Bob Timmermann said...

    For, lo, the winter is past,
    The rain is over and gone;
    The flowers appear on the earth;
    The time of the singing of birds is come,
    And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

  6. Mike Parsons said...

    I remember laying in bed as a child, shoebox-sized AM radio by my side, listing to Mr. Harwell’s broadcasts.  I can still hear him describe a Trammell and Whitaker turning a double play.  Shmucks like McCarver embarass themselves being in the same profession as Mr. Harwell.  I would listen to the man read a phone book.

  7. Craig said...

    Though I never had to good fortune to listen to a Harwell broadcast, I can understand everyone’s connection to the “good ol’ days” of listening to games on the radio rather than suffering through the sensory bombardments and distractions of televised games. Recently I have gotten into listening to Pat Hughes and Ron Santo call Cubs games on WGN radio and I’ve found that I (obviously) very much prefer that experience to watching a Fox/ESPN broadcast, even to watching the local broadcast. (Bob Brenly and Len Kasper… yeah.) When you listen to good broadcasters on the radio, he brings the game alive like a Picasso.

    I envy everyone who grew up listening to Harwell. The sportscasting landscape will miss him dearly.

  8. Mary Ellen Hoerig said...

    I grew up with Ernie Harwell on the radio, and though I have not been a die hard baseball (or any sports) fan, I identify Ernie with the greater days of the Tigers and of Detroit.

    With all that has happened to the economy in Michigan, the joke that has become the Detroit City government, and my own personal search for a job, I am saddened immensely to hear about Ernie’s illness. It feels as if another foundation in my life, and other Michiganders, is crumbling, and soon we will be left with what?  Granholm? Hah! The joke is on us.

    I hope Ernie enjoys the time he has left, with family, friends & his beloved baseball & Tigers. I hope that time is long and filled with joy. And I agree that the Tigers ought to let him commentate whenever and how often he wants.

  9. MatthewA said...

    @The Common Man: I’d add Jerry Coleman to the list, especially since he’s often forgotten with the rest of San Diego baseball.

    But yeah, you could substitute “Bob Murphy” for “Harwell” and that description would fit for most Mets fans. I’ve only heard Harwell on the periodic national broadcast, but growing up with him must have been nothing short of incredible. I only hope he can get a few more innings in before it’s time to finally move on.

  10. Ron said...

    God Bless You Ernie.
    I have been a lifetime Tigers fan since 1954 when I went to old Briggs Stadium with my dad and saw the one player who has been my idol and favorite player to this day Al Kaline. We moved back to metro boston in 1957 so I was unable to listen to Ernie regulary except those few instances with clear air waves I was somehow able to get the Tigers on my radio some 750 miles from Detroit. I would go to see my Tigers every year when they played the sox at fenway. But some years later I was finally able to see Ernie. I was at a game to see our Tigers play boston at fenway, and was at the area where the Tigers buses brought them from the hotel. The bus pulled up almost perfectly in front of me wearing my Tigers away cap. Players got off the bus, Tram, Lou who nodded and smiled, Jim Northrup was with the team as a coach or announcer in a suit, and then this smiling little man stepped down the bus steps.
    I said “Hi Ernie, so nice to see you, Hope our Tigers win tonight.” Ernie smiled and extended his hand to shake mine, and said he was glad I came out to see the Tigers. Seeing and talking to Ernie for that minute and a half was better than anything else that night. Ernie talked to me like he had known me for years.

    We can only hope that the Tigers can overcome the odds and win this year not only for our own patience since 1984, but as a tribute and thankyou to the 2 great announcers, Ernie and George Kell, and for Mark Fidrych the charismatic young player who was like a meteor star for that magic season he pitched in 1976, and for the old classic ball park Tiger Stadium that holds so many memories for us.

  11. Joe Distelheim said...

    I still have a yellowing copy of the Detroit Free Press of Dec. 20, 1990.  Front page top headline over that day’s Mitch Albom column: “A GENTLEMAN WRONGED.” The Tigers had decided that Ernie Harwell’s time had passed.  That team has made a lot of mistakes over the years, but that was the biggest.

    It’s hard to overstate Ernie Harwell’s importance to the Tigers, to baseball and that region.  The Detroit of the past several decades has been a place without much to hold it together in common bond.  Ernie Harwell is the exception.  Everyone identifies with Ernie Harwell.

  12. The Common Man said...

    This is unbelievably depressing.  I hope the Tigers institute some kind of “Ernie Rules” for the rest of the season, so that when/if he feels up to it, Ernie can kick those other jokers out of the booth and do what he does best for a few innings.

    This will leave Vin Scully as the last of the old school, will it not?

  13. Levi Stahl said...

    Sad, sad news. I hope Harwell is able to live out the days left to him in comfort and peace. He’ll be missed; I, too, remember that 2006 ALDS game, and marveling at just how good he was—and how without meaning to he showed up all the jokers in the Fox booth.

    And I know what you mean about that connection, Craig: I felt much the same way when Jack Buck died. That bond with an announcer is magical.

  14. george said...

    Almost whomever you grew up listening to, you may retain some special memories: for me, Vin Scully and not long thereafter, Dick Enberg… now, I get no greater joy than hearing Ronnie sweat out Cubbies’ 9ths. Worth the annual $15 for MLB audio, all by itself.

  15. Harrison said...

    Count me among those who fell in love with baseball listening to WJR as I fell asleep so many summer summer nights.  The 2006 ALDS when Ernie came into the booth actually made my allergies act up as I was overcome by a sudden watering of the eyes.  I don’t think I feel a stronger connection to any person I have not personally met.  The class and dignity he has lived his life with is an inspiration and whatever time we have left with Mr. Harwell is a blessing.

  16. Michael Caragliano said...

    I do work as a free-lance radio engineer. The second assignment I ever had was a Yankees/Tigers series in September 2002- Mister Harwell’s last time ever behind the mic in the Bronx (no added pressure- ha!). So, as I’m setting up my equipment Friday afternoon, I hear the door to the booth close behind me. I turn around, and see Mister Harwell walking down the steps. He glimpsed at my press credentials for my name, and said, “Well hello, Michael, it’s a pleasure to meet you. And how are you? It’s a pleasant night in the Bronx, isn’t it?”, as though he’s known me for years. My brain had to remind the rest of me to say hello back. But that simple intro made me relax the whole weekend.

    After the final game Sunday, we talked for about three minutes, on things ranging from SABR (we’re both members) to the Lions to Judy Garland to the Bronx County Courthouse (having been on jury duty there, Mister Harwell asked me how it feels to look out a courtroom window and see Yankee Stadium right down the street).

    Those three games were the only chance I ever had to hear a true master at work. His home run call (that one is looooooong gone), his calls on a K looking (he stood there like a house watching the traffic go by), even the story of his first glove as a kid (it was a Bill Doak model)- all brilliant without sounding rehearsed. Just a consummate professional, and a true gentleman. I wish Mister Harwell all the best.

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