Ernie Harwell kept Detroit warm for years
Former Tigers radio announcer Ernie Harwell is being remembered warmly today after news of his passing Tuesday evening at the age of 92. Tracee Hamilton's fine column on her memories of Harwell can be found here, and Matt Schudel's obituary can be found here.
I can't claim to have had the relationship with Harwell that Tracee did. But as someone who spent his first 28 years in Detroit and still keeps the sun off his face with a faded Tigers hat, I can share a little bit of what Harwell meant to the people who had the pleasure of listening to him regularly.
Growing up in Detroit during the 1970s and '80s, I didn't realize what a treasure Harwell was. For the first few years of hearing him, he was merely the soundtrack to summer -- and after enduring Detroit winters that were invariably long if not always bitter, that alone made his voice special.
In his final signoff to the 2002 season, his last in the radio booth, he said, "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 back yard. 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 have been a very large part of mine. And it's my privilege and honor to share with you the greatest game of all."
As I re-read that transcript, I see all the examples he rattled off and think, "Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. And check."
As usual, in his own understated selfless way, Harwell put it better than anyone else could.
But what Harwell was far too modest to tell anyone is what a gentleman that voice emanated from. After multiple years of being the background narrator of so many cookouts and weekend trips, one could take on a larger-than-life stature as the Provider of Good Memories (the Tigers' results weren't always all that positive, but "Hey, turn on Ernie" meant that at least it wasn't sleeting -- usually). But Harwell never capitalized on his beloved status. Sure, he did a few local commercials, one in which he self-deprecatingly recalls being gushed over by woman who thinks he's George Kell, a former third baseman and then the Tigers' television voice.
Mostly, though, Harwell took the adoration and returned it tenfold. I remember first encountering him when I was a kid attending a celebrity golf tournament. My friend and I collected plenty of autographs of dubious significance that day, and while I don't remember anyone being particularly ungracious, only Harwell took the time to have what felt like a real conversation. Only Harwell made you feel comfortable enough to approach him later in the morning with a slip of paper asking if he could read your names on the radio that night.
So there I was listening to a meaningless August midweek game for a Tigers team headed toward another fifth-place finish, when I heard, "Two great Tigers fans from Dearborn, Michigan: Rob Sekulich and Matt Rennie. And we'd like to thank you fellas for supporting the team."
I haven't spoken to nor heard of Rob Sekulich for more than 25 years, but I'd wager that, wherever he is, he may be remembering those same words today. We had been incorporated into the lyrics of that summer's song.
Ernie is remembered nationally today for his passion for the game and his memorable calls and signature lines, but he'll be remembered in Detroit for what he did when the mike was off.
Thanks to the World Wide Web, I can follow the Tigers nearly as closely from the Washington area as I could from Detroit. As powerful a signal as WJR ("the Great Voice of the Great Lakes") had, I doubt I could have picked it up in Takoma Park on a regular basis. But the overwhelming number of voices means there will be fewer and fewer Voices.
Harwell belonged to Detroit, and he belonged to baseball fans. But he belonged to an era, too, when making yourself heard didn't mean shouting the loudest, when a single voice could represent several of your favorite pages in the calendar.
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