What We Learned from Ernie Harwell
When you heard him on the air, it was a sign that a Michigan Winter was truly over. Open your window on a warm Summer evening, and you were likely to hear his voice echoing through the neighborhood, from the radios in countless convertibles, the kitchens in a hundred different fast food restaurants, from garages, living rooms, sailboats, and even during the glorious Summer sunsets on the Lake Michigan beaches.
His broadcast career in Detroit encompassed the era before Keener when WKMH had Tiger radio rights and Fred Knorr was part of the baseball management team. But we’ll always remember how he sounded with WJR’s 50,000 watt’s behind him.
Growing up in Ann Arbor, we little leaguers would envision Ernie calling our singles and doubles when Big George’s Home Appliance Mart played Coca Cola. He was our companion for Sunday trips to visit our grandparents. And in 1968, he even took over the PA system in David Mastie’s science class at Slauson Junior High when the Tigers were battling the cards in that historic pennant race.
Our unconditional love for Bo Schembechler evaporated when he let Ernie go for one disastrous year in the early 90s. And we all bought Little Caesar’s Pizzas when Mike Ilitch brought Ernie back the next year.
As an adolescent insomniac, Ernie was my closest friend when the Tigers made their West Coast swings and his comfortable Southern tones helped me drift off to sleep.
He was a class act from start to finish, and as he left us for what he called, “the next great adventure” this week, I pondered what we’ve learned from Ernie Harwell.
Introduce yourself first and remember names – He was, without a doubt, the most famous voice in Michigan. Yet when you met him, he would extend a hand, smile and say, “I’m Ernie Harwell.” For those of us who try to file a thousand faces in our mental Rolodex, there is nothing more gratifying then having someone you think you should already know shake your hand and gently remind you who they are. And there is nothing more personal than our own name. It always sounded more important when Ernie said it.
Live your passion – For as long as Ernie could remember, he wanted to be involved with baseball. He described himself as a “failed sports writer”, but through a career where a change in sponsor often meant losing your job, he never wavered from what he truly loved.
Be prepared – Ernie always made it look easy, but behind every carefully chosen sentence was a brain filled with a million facts. Ernie devoured baseball’s numbers and it felt like he could recount every key moment in every game.
Tell a story – I always loved it when the Tigers would change pitchers, because the warm-up period would invariably give Ernie the opportunity to dip into his personal history book, pulling out just the right memory for just the right context. This was especially true during a Tiger milestone, like the day Denny McLain won his 31st game. Ernie could talk about the last pitcher to do it, because he had watched Dizzy Dean in his heyday. His economy with words never failed to paint a vivid picture that always made those of us on the other end of the radio feel like we were there.
Remember the girl who brought you to the dance – Ernie and Lulu’s 68 years together sets the standard for the rest of us. And even during that uncomfortable year after Ernie was fired by the Monaghan administration, he never had a bad word to say about the management who sacked him.
Make the other guy look good – Whether it was George Kell, Ray Lane, Paul Carey, or the person who introduced him as a banquet speaker, Ernie always amplified your best. In his book, Tuned to Baseball, his first story isn’t about himself. It’s about Paul Carey, who Ernie called “the bravest man I know” as he carried on through an entire season while facing a family health issue.
Be Humble – Ernie could easily have nurtured an ego to go with his stratospheric talent. He never did. Ernie never took himself too seriously and always made everyone he was with feel better about themselves as a result of their time with him. He was one of the few media superstars who was just as nice and just as genuine off the air as he was when amplified by WJR’s gargantuan reach.
Have Faith – You would never know that Tiger baseball’s greatest broadcaster fought a speech impediment. Ernie called it “being tongue tied”. He was my personal hero when, early in my undistinguished radio career, many of the people I respected told me my speech would never be good enough for prime time. Ernie’s Christian faith was always at the forefront. It sustained him as a Marine during the Second World War, gave him courage during the few instances when he found himself between jobs, and made him fearless, even joyful as the inevitability of his death became clear.
Know when to leave – Ernie’s retirement was a poignant moment for us, but an affirming experience for him. He left still loving his job and had a long list of things he still wanted to accomplish outside of the game. He proved again and again that baseball was only one dimension of his extraordinary life. Author, songwriter, poet and inventor were all part of Ernie’s resume. Instead of retreating to the recliner, he continued to work out every day and was just as connected, engaged and busy until he was ready to shuck a tired body for a set of wings.
One of gifts of age is the gift of perspective. Time helps you realize the things that made life worth living.
How lucky were we who were able to live a life with Ernie Harwell in it.
In the end, it didn’t really matter whether the Tigers won or lost. Hearing Ernie Harwell’s voice on the radio brought a reassuring continuity to a world that won’t be the same without him.