Ernie Harwell died Tuesday. He was 92 and had cancer and had prepared everybody – everybody being millions of baseball fans who listened to him on the radio in Detroit for forty years, and colleagues, like Vin Scully, who remembered his gentleness and professionalism.
I found a great shot online of Harwell and his wife Lulu back in the day. Who knew Ernie was kind of a hottie? Lulu did.
I pay tribute to him in a special Off-Ramp podcast that includes Ernie’s voice looking back on his career, and the LP that resides on every Michigander’s record shelf – the 1968 record that commemorates the Tigers’ pennant victory.
Off-Ramp contributor Hank Rosenfeld sent us this letter and essay today.
MAY 5 2010
I know yer probably doing something about Ernie Harwell yourself, but here's something for your blog after I heard the news last night and cried even though I knew a year ago last time I saw him I knew it was coming...
He was an old friend of mine and a radio mentor of course,
May his memory always be a blessing,
THE NICEST GUY IN BASEBALL
The first time I met Ernie Harwell I was 8 years old and he let me sit with him in the broadcast booth, a painted-green wooden overhang between first and home at Tigers Stadium. This was his office, where Ernie did play-by-play for Detroit. It was 1960-something and all of that is gone now: the booth, the stadium, Ernie at the mic. And now Ernie has died at 92. Of course that remains one of the thrills of my life -- as was the lat time I saw him, he came to a book party I had in Detroit a year and a half ago.
I love the first memory not just because I was in the inner-sanctum, a place off-limits to every other fan in the park and the best seat in the house, but also because my dad and I sat right there making sure to be quiet as white-shirt-sleeved Ernie and color man Ray Lane* broadcast the ballgame on WJR 760, "the great voice of the Great Lakes."
And I love the last because Ernie not only showed up and sent me a note after he read the book, and not just because he's probably the nicest man I ever met -- not just because he cut radio promos for me when I would see him again doing Tiger games when they came out to play the Oakland A's...
"Hi everybody this is Ernie Harwell and whenever I'm in the Bay Area, I always tune into K-S-A-N, K-SAN, the Jive 95. The Tigers and everybody else!"
And at 90 he still had that sweet and tangy Georgia peach voice: the one that makes for the best baseball callers. He started down there as a broadcaster and then he became the only announcer ever traded for a player, yep in 1948 when he came north to do Dodger games in Brooklyn with Red Barber, even calling the TV broadcast of Bobby Thomson's shot off Ralph Branca, which was never taped and which Ernie said nobody heard because who had TVs in '51 so everyone heard Russ Hodges on the radio, "The Giants Win The Pennant The Giants Win The Pennant!"
When the Tigers won the World Series in '68 National Bank of Detroit brought out an LP of highlights from the season: Denny McLain's 31 wins, Home runs by Willie Horton and Gates Brown ("It's OUTTA HERE!" was Ernies' home run call then; later he claimed "LONG Gone!").The record also had Jose Feliciano's famous rendition of the National Anthem. Remember, it was 1968, so when he did it um...different...boos rang throughout the stadium. Of course it was Ernie who got the Tigers to give Feliciano the gig.
Ernie was a songwriter, country stars recorded his lyrics. He was a Christian and known as nicest man in baseball.
But to me he was my father's friend, who came into the family shoe store with ballplayers he'd interview before every Tiger game. He ended every one with: "And for being my guest here's a pair of Florsheim shoes from Sibley's! Michigan's largest Florsheim dealer." And then Mantle and Maris, Killebrew and Carew, F. Robby and B. Robby would come into the store and: You betcha, I got their autograph on a 3 x 5 card which my mom had framed as a collection and hung right over my bed.
What more could a kid want?
Now there's a plaque for Ernie Harwell in the new stadium. And I got to sit in the booth there with him once too. He told me it was too far from the action.
Ernie was the voice in the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in the dayroom scenes where the inmates watched baseball on the TV. He was also an accomplished lyricist; His wife Lulu told me he was working on a book called “From Preacher Roe to Ichiro!”
Ernie rounded third a long time ago. He was elected into the Hall of Fame like in the 80s! ESPN used to bring him on to do half an inning and Bob Costas and others did tributes. And now he's home safely. They said on the news he was about to head to New York to accept the Vin Scully Award for announcing when he died. When I heard the news I remembered those times listening to him on weekends driving through Detroit, or on vacation up north in '68, late at night one of those games out in California against the Angels coming in as we're pulling into a crunchy gravel motel parking lot and after my mom and sisters get out, my dad and brother and I we boys stay in the car to catch Ernie's awesome long-distance Voice of God shivering us with every rally, the same voice that made me cry into my pillow a year earlier, the one I kept my 9-volt transistor radio under, when Ernie called a Dalton Jones home run for the Red Sox, killing Detroit's pennant dreams in '67.
For fans, order the comprehensive 4-CD set Ernie Harwell’s Audio Scrapbook, a treasure trove of Ernie, with great calls, tributes from baseball greats, and more.
*The great Paul Carey was Ernie’s partner when –I- was growing up. – Remembering Rabe.