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Ernie Harwell

May 5, 2010

John Stroba-Writer


Everyone knew it was going to happen. That this was one battle that Ernie Harwell was not going to win, though some of us did hope there would be some miracle. After all, Ernie was not quite mortal. That voice is Tigers Baseball and summer afternoons. Some people say that Ernie is the most beloved person in Michigan. I do not think that is quite true. I think that for every Tiger fan that Ernie was an intimate part of our family. He was part of that and those that listened and knew him for years, it was something that went beyond friendship and beyond family. And that is why it is so hard to let him go even though he is in a better place (and if anyone could ever argue for a Heaven, Ernie Harwell is example A of what it should exist).

When I think of Ernie, like nearly everyone else, I go back to my childhood. Days of mowing the lawn and snapping my walkman on the side of my jean shorts. Tugging on the lawn mower and making sure the walkman was loud enough that I clearly hear Harwell's southern voice and Paul Carey's deep baritone. Many a time, I had to stop the mowing the lawn and fix the walkman lost the signal. A boy does have to have his priorities after all.

There would be other lazy summer afternoons usually on a weekend when I would in charge of grilling the hot dogs. Those times I would my GE 9 volt battery radio and a cheap plastic and metal folding chair park it underneath the shade of an elm tree. Listening to the game in between half innings, I would get a board and pick up some of these hard green things that would fall from the trees. I would toss it up and swing the board one handed and try to hit as hard and as far as I could.

I remember when I would go up north to stay with my granny. I was about 8-10 years old, at least when seem to remember this, and my granny was a Tigers fan as well. Many nights the Tigers game would be extend past my bedtime and my granny would make me go to bed. This was usually done with saying my mom would be upset if I didn't get to bed right now. Eventually, my granny would win the argument and i would be in bed. However, she would leave the radio on in the living room and leave my door open. That way if my mom called, then my granny could say I was absolutely in bed (of course, i was not sleeping). My granny passed away in April 1996. Now, I can picture her listening up there to Ernie Harwell calling the game.

Like many people, I was amazed how Ernie Harwell knew where everyone was from and what seat they were sitting in when they caught that foul ball. And when you would hear other people talking about Ernie and how he knew everybody even if he met them once years ago, and it just lent more credibility to him knowing that. Even finding out that he made that up, it does not take away from that magic. And instead I still choose to believe that he knew everyone was from and what seat they were in. That is truly magic.

I finally got a chance to be like Ernie when i was in high school. Unfortunately, it was not baseball that I got to call, but rather HS basketball (mostly the girls because the boys team sucked). It was nothing fancy just one camera on a tripod and I would speak into a microphone that was wrapped around a post several times hanging down in front of my mouth. And doing that I would gain a new respect for how hard the job really and how great Ernie must be for making it look so easy. How many of us grew up wanting to be play by play guy for the Tigers or even in the minor leagues or just be in sports because of Ernie?

And even beyond that, Ernie Harwell was the kind of man that no one ever said a bad thing about him. He always had time for anyone. Whether it was showing a rookie Tigers blogger Jason Beck all around the Tigers complexes in Lakeland, or getting a kid sick with cancer into the clubhouse and getting signed ball of all the Tigers in the clubhouse that day. Everyone that met him said that even if he met you for the first time he had this way of making you feel like you just made his day better, and that you were a light in his life. That is an extremely rare quality these days.

Perhaps the best way to describe him is to apply what Sparky Anderson used to say that being nice is the easiest thing in the world. Ernie Harwell certainly did embody that sentiment. Sorry, there was something in my eye there. It was such an easy philosophy to follow but how many of us truly to do it? There was no duplicity within the man. Even if some of us were only privileged to know him through the radio knew him to be the man we should all strive to be. No, Ernie you were not a small part of our lives. I do not know if you could have known your impact upon all of the Detroit Tigers fans and Michigan. Changing lives. How many of us started walking and taking our health seriously, because Ernie Harwell was promoting (for Blue Cross and Shield) walking for our health.

For many people, especially men, it is not easy to share our emotions. And yet, this is Ernie Harwell, a father/friend/favorite uncle/grandfather to us depending on the age we are these days. Always with us during baseball season. And always the radio was on when a Tigers ballgame was on. For me, back in the day on Saturdays, I would watch Michigan football on TV but I would also have the Tigers game on the radio. After all, there was no way I was not going to listen to the Voice of the Tigers. It did not matter what place the Tigers were in. I had to listen to them. Right now, I hear the Ernie Harwell bits on the radio and I tear up again. Maybe it was because both grandfathers I had died before I was born and he filled a need.

I want to thank you Mr. Harwell for allowing many of us to feel like you were right there in our backyard talking to us. For touching mine and many other lives. For making our lives better. For allowing us a glimpse, into your life, as we the houses by the side of road watching your life go by.

Tomorrow, Ernie Harwell is going to be lying in state at Comerica Park. Gates will open at 7am and stay open as long as people are coming. I will go to that to say goodbye to the man that I never met and yet taught me so many lessons not only in baseball and how to broadcast, but in life as well. This is going to be long and deep loss that, for me at least, goes down into my core being. It will take a long time to heal if it ever does.

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