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May 5, 2010
The Sound of Silence in Tigertown
Ernie Harwell died last night. He was 92.
He had been fighting cancer of the bile duct and an inoperable tumor. He had, in his own words, “a grand life.” Recently, when folks about town asked him how he was doing, he would not say disingenuously “Oh, fine,” or wallow in pity. He would say, appropriately enough and so like him “I am at peace” and discuss his enthusiasm for his “next great adventure.” But the sense of loss in Detroit and Michigan this day is palpable and will be for a long time.
Ernie Harwell broadcast 42 seasons of Detroit Tiger baseball on radio and television. Most of those seasons were behind the microphone for WJR, the 50,000-watt powerhouse whose signal reaches all over the Midwest. On a clear night, a boy visiting his grandparents in mid-north Indiana could pick up WJR to check in on his favorite baseball team and, more importantly, check in on home. For a good many Michigan kids, Ernie was home. God only knows how many boys and girls fell asleep on summer nights to the lullaby of Ernie broadcasting Tiger games.
Ernie reached into the minds and hearts of those millions of listeners in Michigan and the Midwest. His golden Georgian accent described the scenes at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull during a time when but a scarcely few games were on television. He was the source. His catchphrases – “He stood there like the house by the side of the road” or “Called out for excessive window shopping” were not hauled out in the cool, slick manner of the modern broadcaster, but were warm and reassuring, never growing trite.
Because the ballpark was not beamed onto television screens in living rooms at the touch of a button, Ernie perfected the art of silence during the broadcast – he knew just when to let the sounds of the stadium fill the air, so the listener could, with closed eyes, imagine he was in a box seat, before Ernie seamlessly picked up the action without missing a thing. As the old cliché goes, you had to hear it. And it is a pity if you never did.
But Ernie was so much more than a broadcaster. He wrote songs covered by the likes of Johnny Mercer and Mitch Ryder, among others. He was a writer of many books and the definitive prose about baseball, “The Game for All America,” written in The Sporting News in 1955. Have a sample:
Baseball is the president tossing out the first ball of the season. And a scrubby schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm. …
There’s a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh 46 years ago — that’s baseball. And so is the scout reporting that a 16-year-old sandlot pitcher in Cheyenne is the coming Walter Johnson.
In baseball, democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rulebook. And color, merely something to distinguish one team’s uniform from another’s.
Baseball? Just a game — as simple as a ball and bat. And yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes.
For generation upon generation of Tiger players, managers, fans, Ernie Harwell was baseball.
Longevity in and of itself on such a stage as Ernie Harwell performed his craft can ensure a legendary legacy, not soon to be forgotten. Who else could say they interviewed Connie Mack and Ichiro Suzuki? But it was different with Ernie. His legacy is not so much how long he called Detroit Tiger baseball, but the quiet, gentle dignity with which he led his life. His fundamental approach really was the Golden Rule and all who knew him well, or had the briefest brush of fellowship with him, or only heard him on the radio was warmed and enhanced by his presence.
Ernie’s final words on the air as the regular Tiger broadcaster were “I thank you very much and God bless you all.” Well, we who grew up and grew old listening to Ernie Harwell thank God that He blessed us with Ernie Harwell.
Good-bye from a melancholy Motown, Ernie. We shall never see your like again.
Matthew May welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org