Last year when Ernie Harwell announced that he had been diagnosed with incurable, inoperable cancer, we knew that his time on this earth was coming to an end.
The man, the myth and the broadcasting legend, who was the unmistakable voice of the Detroit Tigers for 42 unforgettable seasons, at 91, finally succumbed to the unforgiving disease.
Harwell will always be remembered for providing the soundtrack to the peaks and valleys of Tigers baseball – which has been a fixture in this city for over 100 years.
Harwell began his broadcasting career with the Atlanta Crackers during World War II. He later moved on to call games for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants during the late 1940s and early 1950s, then found his calling broadcasting Tigers baseball from 1960 to 2002.
A public viewing that lasted from 7 a.m. to midnight at Comerica Park’s Gate was held for the Harwell. The Tigers will fly a flag bearing Harwell’s initials on the centerfield flagpole throughout the season.
I heard some say why all the fuss and if he were calling games today, he would not be thought of in the same light.
I agree that maybe he would not be thought of in the same. But that really does not matter. One has to be judged by one’s time and their peers.
In the years Harwell was manning the broadcast booth there was no ESPN, Fox Sports, Baseball Weekly, et al.
As a kid growing up in the Motor City I had to listen to the radio or go to the games to be involved or keep up with my favorite sports.
Football was still cutting its teeth and the groundbreaking “Monday Night Football” was not eventhought of. Baseball was still king in the ’60s.
Consequently, baseball as America’s pastime ruled, and those that relayed the on-field exploits of our heroes to the eager listeners gained extra acclaim without even trying. Harwell was one of those people.
In Harwell’s era it was a unique time in the evolution of America’s sporting community. The games were played out on a box called a radio. One that introduced me to Harwell at the tender age of about 6 – that’s about as far back as I can remember.
My childhood memories include exceedingly warm summer nights sitting outdoors in the backyard or my grandfather’s small boat fishing on the Detroit River or in the Great Lakes system.
We never argued. Well, that was never going to happen anyway without me getting thrown into the Detroit River. But still in a quiet and young person’s very forceful way tried to get him to changed the radio to the Motown sounds. But oh no, while we sat on his boat in the middle of the St Clair River he always had the radio tuned to Tigers baseball. The voice I heard was Harwell and soon it grew on me and I became a devoted Tigers radio listener.
And so this is how my summers went from age 3 to my teenage years.
Having the opportunity to cover the Tigers as a journalist was like icing on a cake, getting to meet and talk with Harwell on a number of occasions.
Every time I saw him and got to shake his hand, I would think about those wonderful days with my late grandpa. As I got older, remembering my grandpa’s Tigers cajoling, I’d catch the Grand River bus to as many games as my parents would pay for, and that was a lot.
One of the great things about Harwell was being able to sit with him in the Tigers’ pre-game eating area and one could hear him recount his personal history with baseball history that just made you say, “Wow!”
Like in his book when he recalled one of the greatest moments in his long career, saying, “The most significant event in professional sports history came when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line. In my personal corner of the world, Robinson looms large. His powerful presence proved a force in the first inning of my first major league broadcast.
“It was a night game at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field on Aug. 4, 1948 — the Dodgers vs. the Cubs. With two out in the first inning, Robinson danced off third and raced for home. As long as I broadcast, I probably won’t ever see a more stirring moment than when Robinson stole home in the first inning of my first game.”
That first for Harwell ended up being just one in a long collection of memories from his experiences that he told and retold as only he could.