I was going to blog about getting injured last weekend and going on the disabled list this week, but that all changed last night when I heard about Ernie Harwell.
Before I played my first game with Detroit, I expected to hear a lot of questions about Tiger legends like Al Kaline, Ty Cobb and Willie Horton. But I soon learned when I got to Detroit that the legend I needed to meet was Ernie Harwell. He had a celebrity in the state of Michigan that was unrivaled by anyone and everyone wanted to know about him. Millions of people grew up listening to Ernie as the play-by-play man for the Tigers, and when you listen to them talk about him, you know that Ernie played an integral part in their youth. The next time you visit Comerica Park, notice that there's a statue of Ernie inside the main gate. Enough said.
The first time and last times I was around Ernie were drastically different circumstances. When we met, we were both asked to be part of a panel at The Henry Ford Museum celebrating Jackie Robinson Day. We were to discuss the impact of Jackie Robinson on baseball and also the growth of minorities in the game as a whole.
I found that his memory of specific events within the game of baseball was astounding. He could recall a regular-season game in 1965 and even a particular situation in that game. It didn't even have to be a historic situation, hit or home run. He just remembered every play. To listen to him talk that day about baseball and the history of the game had me speechless. I almost felt like I could light a campfire and just sit there listening to him talk for hours — about anything.
That day, Ernie told me he loved the way I played baseball and the work I did within the schools in Detroit. He encouraged me that no matter what happens with my career, I should always find time to give back. Those words resonate with me to this day.
When I came to Detroit, Ernie was nearing the end of his road. He wasn't able to show up at the ballpark as much due to his declining health. You would hear of an Ernie Harwell sighting, or find out he was going to join one of the broadcast partners in the booth for an inning or two, and there would be a different buzz in the stadium. Old men and women were turned into little kids, and it gave them a great chance to tell their own kids about the man Michiganders called "the voice of summer."
In April, 2008, I was able to sneak in a private tour of Tiger Stadium just days before it was officially demolished. A section of the stadium had already been torn down and I really wanted to see that deep center-field fence. The construction company that was giving me the tour took me all through the stadium, and it seemed like no matter where we went — the outfield, the dugouts, the clubhouse, the concourse — Ernie's name came up. It was strange because even though I never heard him call a game, I could almost hear him announcing while we were in there.
It was fitting, because Ernie fought so hard to find a use for Tiger Stadium and the grounds it stood on. I think that lot is still empty, so perhaps something can be done there to remember this legend.
The last time I spoke with Ernie was last September. He announced that he had inoperable cancer and the Tigers honored him at Comerica Park. Before he stepped on the field, though, he privately met with the team in the clubhouse. He spoke of his love for baseball and of his love for the Tigers, and also said it would most likely be his last time at Comerica Park. While it wasn't a sad meeting, it was emotional. Rarely do you see those sorts of emotions in a clubhouse before a game. That speaks volumes about Ernie the man, since at that point probably half the team had never even met him.
When you met Ernie he made you feel like you were the only person in the room. It would be impossible for him not to know how loved he was, yet he never used that to his advantage. He was one of the most humble people you could meet. And this for a broadcaster who was actually traded for by the Brooklyn Dodgers. The team gave up a catcher for Harwell. How many play-by-play men can say that?
It is unfortunate that future players in Detroit will not have the chance to meet Ernie Harwell as I did. But I have no doubts that his legend will live on through the Tigers organization.
Ernie was not only a legend in Detroit, but he was a legend in broadcasting, a legend in baseball and a legend in life. He is the type of person we should all strive to be. While he wasn't the biggest man in the world, he was truly larger than life.
Ernie, you will be missed.
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Curtis Granderson plays for the New York Yankees and his blog will appear regularly on Yahoo! Sports' Big League Stew during the 2010 season. Make sure to check out and support his Grand Kids Foundation.
Read his previous posts here.