Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Voice of Baseball

I was 14 years old when I first met Ernie Harwell. It was a day that would ultimately shape my future – a strange statement considering he was a hall-of fame baseball broadcaster and I was a skinny junior high kid from rural Ohio.

The event was a book signing at a Toledo department store. I was awed by Ernie. He was so genuine, you just wanted to pull up a chair and listen to him talk. His voice was intoxicating. Even at 14 I sensed that Ernie was something special. There seemed to be an aura about him, I can’t explain it but it made you want to be a better person.

Michael John and Tina With Ernie Harwell, circa 1991.

Like many Detroit fans, I grew up listening to Ernie call Tiger baseball. The "Voice of Summer" they dubbed him, he of the faint southern drawl and whimsical storytelling. I loved closing my eyes and listening to Ernie as I fell asleep. "He stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched that one go by", he used to say. I loved how a homerun was "loooooong gone" whether it was in the first row or the last.

Ernie always had an interesting story to share… but it never disrupted the flow of the game. He’d talk about Lulu (his wife) or of days gone by. Sometimes he’d tell a story you’d heard a million times, yet you were at the edge of your seat waiting to see how it ended.

But if you ask me, one of the best things about Ernie was how well he knew baseball. Between all the stories, all the laughter, he always managed to tell you the score, or the pitch count, or who was on deck right when you needed to know. Ernie loved baseball unconditionally, and it is one of the many reasons why I loved him.

My first face to face encounter with Ernie was around the time when the Tigers fired him. It was a tumultuous time for Tiger fans and baseball in general. Oddly enough I had recently written a paper for a junior high English class about the fate of Ernie. I took a copy with me to the book signing and gave it to him. A few weeks later I received a handwritten letter in the mail. He thanked me for my support and wished me luck in school. I still have that letter.

The next summer I wrote an essay about Ernie in response to a contest in the USA Today publication Baseball Weekly. They wanted kids to tell them who their favorite baseball announcer was and why. Now in the 8th grade, I had firmly set my sights on a journalism degree (assuming I made it through high school) and told the editors of Baseball Weekly all about my first meeting with Ernie and how I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

Baseball Weekly liked my story. Before I could comprehend what was happening, a reporter called to interview me for a feature article. We talked about Ernie, about my ambitions and about the possibility of the Tigers building a new stadium (I was against it). The article was published along with a photo of my brother, Ernie and I at the book signing.

Now, back in those days you were able to walk up behind the press box at Tiger Stadium nearly all the way to the broadcast booth. So the next time we were in Detroit, I took a copy of the Baseball Weekly article with the intention of giving it to the security guard to give to Ernie.

Mom and I trekked up to the stairs to the press box and, after chatting with guard, showed him the article. I asked the guard if he would mind giving it to Ernie. The guard looked at the article and asked us to wait a moment. He went into the booth and then came back out and said "would you like to give it to Ernie yourself?"

And then he escorted us inside.

It was a surreal moment. We were in the famous Tiger Stadium broadcast booth. It was so close to the field you could feel the game (and it was only batting practice). We stood in shocked silence as Ernie cheerfully came in to say hello.

He was, as you can imagine, very gracious. So gracious in fact he tried to find something to give us as a thank you for listening. Eventually he came up with a copy of a cassette tape documenting his "greatest hits". It was just another example of how classy Ernie was.

Time went on. I graduated high school and went on to study journalism at Ohio University. As a freshman I entered the broadcast news program with every intention of someday fulfilling my dream of becoming the next Ernie Harwell. I soon learned, however, that radio and I didn’t mix. I missed writing and, quite frankly, was better at it. So I switched to magazine writing and eventually earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism.

I last spoke to Ernie during my senior year of college. Dad and I went to Florida over spring break to catch some Tiger spring training games. Once again I made my way up to the broadcast booth. This time I came empty handed, no essays or newspaper articles, but I wanted to tell Ernie thank you. It seemed the journey I was about to complete was just as much his doing as it was mine.

As always Ernie was a class act. I’m sure he had no idea who I was, but when I re-introduced myself he was very pleased to see me and honestly interested in what I was doing. Always the gentleman, Ernie also introduced me to his handpicked successor in the Tiger broadcast booth. It was a neat moment and probably not unlike that of many other Detroit Tiger fans.

With Ernie at spring training, 2000.

Ernie passed away this week after a long battle with cancer. He was 92 years young. His death wasn’t unexpected (he famously said goodbye to Tiger fans last year) and he hasn’t been in the booth full time in several years… yet it’s unimaginable to think of Tiger baseball without Ernie Harwell.

His kindness touched the lives of many, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that Ernie was a great baseball broadcaster but an even better man.

You may be long gone Mr. Harwell, but you will not be long forgotten.


Josh said...

That's so cool, dude. Thank the Lord for people like that guard who invited you in -- those little things are huge.

Scott Mortimer said...

What year was your Baseball Weekly article? Chances are that newspaper showed up in the Mortimer mailbox in NH. Congratulations about 20 years afterward!