The Voice Of The Tigers Is Silenced
Wednesday - May 12, 2010
For followers of other sports, or those baseball fans who didn’t have a Red Barber, Vin Scully, Jack Buck, Mel Allen or Harry Carry, it’s hard to understand the relationship radio listeners in Michigan had with Ernie Harwell.
Harwell was the voice of summer when lawnmowers, the laughter of children and Detroit Tiger baseball battled for attention on long, warm days. He was a master storyteller from an age when the subtleties of the game were matched by the poetry of the call.
Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline said, “Ernie is probably the most beloved person who has ever been in Detroit with the Detroit Tigers.”
That’s saying a lot for a team with a history stretching back to 1901 and boasting a litany of players among the game’s greatest ever. But Kaline is right. Harwell was bigger than Cash, Horton, McClain, Trammell, Whitaker, Morris, Parrish and even Kaline himself. He was the embodiment of a team and the voice that brought the game alive for generations of fans who in his gentle, rhythmic style produced heroes to admire and good times to look back on as if listening to a Bob Seger song come to life 162 times a season.
Harwell was much more than just a soothing voice. The man who always described himself as a failed sportswriter was a gifted author who penned stories for, among others, The Sporting News as a 16-year-old, Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and Readers Digest. He wrote 46 songs that have been recorded and has collaborated with a range of musicians including famed Hollywood composer and lyricist Johnny Mercer, Latin and jazz guitarist Jose Feliciano and Detroit rocker Mitch Ryder. And as Lulu, his wife of 68 years, wrote in the forward to her husband’s book, Babe Ruth Signed My Shoe, Harwell “had a racehorse named after him, sang a duet with Pearl Bailey, gave his Christian testimony on a Billy Graham TV special and was baptized in the Jordan River.”
Harwell was born Jan. 25, 1918, in Washington, Ga. His family moved to Atlanta when the family furniture store went bust. He grew up with a speech impediment but overcame it with the help of a teacher and a poem that would become one of his signature calls, The House by the Side of the Road. He got his first broadcast job in 1940 while a student at Emory College. He met Lulu the same year. In 1942, he joined the Marines working in public relations and was transferred to the Pacific, where he wrote for the Marine publication Leatherneck. After completing his service, Harwell began calling games for the minor league Atlanta Crackers, and in 1948 he became the only broadcaster traded for a player when Branch Rickey swapped minor league catcher Cliff Dapper for the young broadcaster.
Harwell was a product of his generation, when broadcasters knew when to remain silent and let the sounds of the game take over. He also benefited from technology that put cheap radios - and baseball - into the hands of young boys, who in their minds got to see their idols on the bright green grass of Tiger Stadium, whether that child was living in the shadow of massive factories near Lake Huron or among the farms of the state’s interior.
No better farewell to the great broadcaster can be found than in the words he spoke following his last regular broadcast eight years ago.
“The Tigers have just finished their 2002 season. And I’ve just finished my baseball-broadcasting career, and 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 have been a very large part of mine. And it’s my privilege and honor to share with you the greatest game of all.
“Now God has a new adventure for me. And I’m ready to move on. So I leave you with a deep sense of appreciation for your longtime loyalty and support.
“I thank you very much, and God bless all of you.”
Thank you, Ernie, and everyone else who made it a career of keeping alive the young boy inside every grown man.
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