Monday, May 10, 2010

Farewell to a treasured voice of the game

For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of the birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
~ Ernie Harwell from Song of Solomon 2:11-12, which he recited at the start of each baseball season

I was saddened by news of the death of Ernie Harwell last Tuesday evening. With the passing of Harwell, 92, beloved, legendary broadcaster of Detroit Tigers games to generations of fans, baseball has lost one of its most treasured voices.

Harwell was a wonderfully gracious gentleman and truly a citizen of the game. I'm envious of fans throughout Michigan ~ from the Upper Peninsula to Saginaw to Kalamazoo and Detroit ~ who were able to listen to Harwell's pleasant and authoritative voice, whether as kids or as adults, or both, throughout his storied career broadcasting Tigers games. I'm simply grateful for having had a chance to listen to him a few times late in his career via the Internet with my Game Day Audio subscription.

Harwell spent 55 years broadcasting Major League baseball games, breaking in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, and he was inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1981. His ascent to the Major Leagues was recalled by longtime Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, another golden voice of the game, who masterfully wove a tribute to Harwell into his own broadcast, during the second inning of the Dodgers-Brewers game last Tuesday evening.

"There's a great story about Ernie, who established a record before he ever got to the big leagues. In 1948, the Dodgers were in Pittsburgh on an off-day. Red Barber was going to play golf at the Pittsburgh Field Club, and instead he hemorrhaged (a bleeding ulcer) and was rushed to an emergency hospital. The Dodgers had one announcer -- a good one, by the name of Connie Desmond -- but one announcer with a full season ahead is pretty tough.

"Now, Branch Rickey, who ran the Brooklyn Dodgers, had a friend by the name of Arthur Mann, who ran the Atlanta Crackers in the Sally League. So Branch Rickey called Arthur Mann and said, 'I need your announcer.' And Arthur Mann said, 'I need a catcher.' So a deal was set up. The Dodgers sent a catcher, Clint Dapper, to Atlanta. And the Atlanta club sent Ernie Harwell to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ernie was the first and only baseball broadcaster to be involved in a trade."

After stints with the Dodgers, New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles, Harwell joined the Detroit Tigers for the 1960 season and went on to spend 42 seasons with them, including the World Series championship years of 1968 and 1984. He retired at the end of the 2002 season at the age of 84 after calling more than 8,000 games.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Harwell said that most of his signature calls that Detroit fans came to love, such as describing a batter taking a called third-strike, happened by accident.

"The one that I used the longest was 'stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched it go by.' That was from an old poem written by Sam Walter Foss back in the 1880s, that when I was a tongue-tied kid and I tried to do recitations, my teacher made me recite that poem, 'The House by the Side of the Road.' And it was in my mind somehow, and it just came out one time when I was broadcasting in Atlanta. So that's how that one started."

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I only saw the Tigers play once in old, historic Tiger Stadium, on July 19, 1998. Along with my wife and our long-time friends from Seattle, I was part of modest crowd of 21,018 who saw the Tigers beat the Boston Red Sox 2-1 on a dry, 70-degree summer Sunday afternoon. Unbeknownst to me, my visit to Tiger Stadium would turn memorable even before the first pitch was thrown.

Arriving early enough to take photographs throughout Tiger Stadium, and before settling into our upper deck seats located just to the third-base side of home plate, I spotted Ernie Harwell in the lower-deck corridor. He had just left the field and was headed upstairs to his catbird-like seat in the Tigers' broadcast booth.

Luckily, I had just purchased a program and scorecard for the game because, soon, it would come in handy for something else besides keeping score.

Along with my wife, I approached the nattily attired Harwell, said "hello," and, like a kid, asked for his autograph. Polite and gracious ~ and also wearing one of his signature caps ~ Harwell said "hello" to us and willingly autographed my program with a Sharpie pen he carried with him for such occasions. It became a very cherished souvenir.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ernie Harwell called his last Tigers game in 2002. After the game ended, he signed off, saying: "It's time to say goodbye, but I think goodbyes are sad and I'd much rather say hello. Hello to a new adventure. I'm not leaving, folks. I'll still be with you, living my life in Michigan -- my home state -- surrounded by family and friends.

"And rather than goodbye, please allow me to say thank you. Thank you for letting me be part of your family. Thank you for taking me with you to that cottage up north, to the beach, the picnic, your work place and your backyard. Thank you for sneaking your transistor under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers. Now, I might have been a small part of your life. But you've been a very large part of mine. And it's my privilege and honor to share with you the greatest game of all," he said.

Many in baseball have paid tribute to Harwell since his death, both in print and on air, including Dodgers Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully. "Probably the best word, he was gentle." Scully said. "And it came across. He just cared for people and he loved baseball. You can understand how the people in Detroit just loved him. I followed him into Brooklyn (in 1950), and then I followed him into the Hall. He was such a lovely man. However that word is defined, that was Ernie."

The Tigers brought Harwell back to their current ballpark, Comerica Park, on September 17, 2009, after he had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, to allow him to have closure with the Detroit fans and give a farewell speech.

One of my friends, Corey Seeman, perhaps summed up Harwell's passing most eloquently by posting on his Facebook page: "You were the perfect part of every summer day. Thank you for sharing your voice with all of us."


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