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Friday, September 04, 2009
Ernie Harwell has terminal cancerThis 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.
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.
Posted by Craig Calcaterra at 7:30am
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.
Posted 09/04 at 07:43 AM
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?
Posted 09/04 at 07:57 AM
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.
Posted 09/04 at 08:35 AM
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.
Posted 09/04 at 09:05 AM
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.
Posted 09/04 at 11:18 AM
“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.
Posted 09/04 at 11:23 AM
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.
Posted 09/04 at 12:10 PM
Bob Timmermann said...
For, lo, the winter is past,
Posted 09/04 at 12:29 PM
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.
Posted 09/04 at 01:19 PM
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.
Posted 09/04 at 01:35 PM
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.
Posted 09/04 at 01:39 PM
@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.
Posted 09/04 at 02:01 PM
God Bless You Ernie.
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.
Posted 09/04 at 03:36 PM
Beautiful post, Craig. Just so well done.
Posted 09/05 at 04:26 AM
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.
Posted 09/08 at 12:40 AM
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.
Posted 09/08 at 07:10 AM
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.
Posted 09/08 at 01:10 PM