For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. (Song of Solomon 2:11-12)
Thus did Ernie Harwell, long-time radio voice of my beloved Detroit Tigers, begin every baseball season, at the beginning of his first broadcast from Spring Training in Florida.
This morning's news brought word of Ernie's death, at the age of 92. He announced last September that he had incurable bile-duct cancer, so those of us who have 'known' him have known for a while that his end was imminent.
Even so, his passing is a great sadness for me.
Ernie Harwell's voice has been a major part of the soundtrack of my life. He started broadcasting for the Tigers in 1960, when I was four years old, even before I was paying much attention to baseball, or the Tigers. Before he came to the Tigers, he'd worked for the Baltimore Orioles, and before them, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the New York Giants - and just the locations of those two teams tells you how long he was 'in the business'. He actually had the TV call for Bobby Thompson's famous home run, but in 1951 not many people had TV sets yet, and Russ Hodges' "The Giants win the pennant!" call on the radio has long since become a part of baseball's iconography.
Before I even hit double-digits in age, I would listen to Tiger games on the radio. Living way Up North as I did, the opportunities to go to an actual game were relatively few and far between, so the radio was pretty much what there was for us (in those days, there were only 30 or 40 games a year on TV - about one or two a week). Many were the times when the Tigers were playing on the West Coast, that I went to bed with my transistor radio (remember them?) tucked under my pillow, awakening the next morning with dead batteries.
And Ernie Harwell. How do I explain to those who never (or rarely) heard him, the pure, homespun charm, and calm dignity of the man, and his broadcasting style? His gentle southern accent, with the tiniest hint of a lisp that remained from his boyhood days. Of course, his 'signature call' was, ". . . and it's LOOOOOONNNGGGG gone!" when a Tiger hit a home run. Or, "He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by," when the batter took a called third strike. I think my favorite 'Ernie-ism' was when a batter would foul a pitch back into the stands, and he'd call out some obscure small town, such as, "a young man from Paw Paw caught that one." Of course, when I was young, I always wondered how he knew. I nearly jumped out of my chair the time I was listening, and a young man from my hometown of Alpena caught the ball (and the next day in school, we were all trying to think of who we knew that might have been at the game the night before). Once, when the Tigers were playing in Baltimore, I heard him call out a young man from Havre de Grace; which was memorable because, up till then, I hadn't known how to pronounce 'Havre de Grace' (for that matter, I think I've forgotten in the meantime).
And the stories; Ernie Harwell was, above all, I think, a story-teller. Every game he called was just another story of baseball to be told. And his broadcasts were always filled with wonderful stories of Baseball Past - of Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial, and Jackie Robinson and Bob Feller, and all those wonderful old players whose careers had ended before I was paying attention. Now that I think about it, Ernie is probably largely to blame for my obsession with baseball history. . .
One of my favorite Ernie-stories (which is a story about Ernie, rather than one he told) is one he sometimes told on himself, from one of the West-Coast trips I mentioned above. I think I even remember the game from which the story arose, but for reasons which will soon become obvious, I don't remember the incident itself. The Tigers were playing a night game against the Angels in California, which meant that the game began at about 10 o'clock Michigan-time. As it happened, the game went deep into extra innings, finally ending in the 15th inning or so, when the Angels scored the winning run on a close play at the plate. Bill Freehan, the Tigers catcher, was irate, and pounded his glove on the plate to demonstrate how he'd tagged the runner. And Ernie's call on the radio was, "Freehan is beating his meat - his MITT - on home plate!" But, because it was about 3AM back in Michigan, hardly anyone heard it; which, as far as Ernie was concerned, was probably just as well. . .
Ernie was the voice on the radio for two World Series - first in 1968, with Al Kaline and Norm Cash and Willie Horton and Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain. I was twelve years old at the time, and that entire season, I was in pre-teen-boy Heaven. I virtually memorized Ernie's call of Don Wert's pennant-clinching single in the bottom of the ninth, against the Yankees, on September 17, 1968 -
"And the windup, and the pitch. . . He swings - a line shot, right field; the Tigers win it! Here comes Kaline in to score, and it's all over. . . the Tigers have won their first pennant since nineteen hundred and forty-five! Let's listen to the bedlam here at Tiger Stadium. . ."
And then again in 1984, with Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris and Lance Parish and my fellow-Spartan Kirk Gibson. I was 28 by then, married and the father of a two-year-old daughter. In such ways do we mark the passage of time in our lives. But Ernie was still there, steady and calm and homespun-charming. . .
Ernie was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981. For those of you who love baseball, there are very few things any more evocative of that love than Ernie's induction speech. . .
As I grew older, and came into my own Christian commitment, I came to know Ernie also as my brother in Christ. He was one of the founders of Baseball Chapel, which holds small prayer services for the players of both teams, before games, and many players and former players have spoken of the quiet way that Ernie influenced them to persevere in their faith, or come to faith in the first place, in an environment that often isn't particularly supportive of faith. . .
He and his wife Lulu celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary last summer. Which boggles my mind, all by itself. . .
Since the announcement last fall, Ernie hasn't been much in the public eye, except on a couple of occasions to reassure his fans that he wasn't fearful in approaching the end of his life, that he was hopeful, even anticipating, of the adventure that yet remained for him. I only hope that I can approach the end of my own days with such grace. . .
So finally, all I can say is - thanks, Ernie. In ways that I'm not even particularly clear on, and certainly he himself wouldn't know, he has been a wonderful influence in my life, of grace, and faith and dignity and character. And, to a large degree, he has given me the gift of Baseball. And of his own life. For which, inadequate as it is, I can only say, "Thank you."