Harwell’s voice, Tigers and childhood memories
I can hear him still. Ernie Harwell is telling me how a poor soul from a visiting team stood there ”like the house by the side of the road” and watched strike three go by. I can hear Ernie tell me how a fan from Battle Creek will take home a foul ball, how Jack Morris’ split-finger looks as it heads toward the plate, how far that Kirk Gibson home run ball went. I can hear the voice of Ernie Harwell like I can hear the voice of my mom or my dad. I can hear Ernie Harwell and I can hear my childhood.
Anyone who grew up in Michigan can hear Ernie. He spoke to us, clearly and sweetly, so we felt we understood the game even if we were too young to understand the game. There was no need to wonder what we were missing, because Ernie never let us miss a thing. There wasn’t a need for television. In fact, it was better to turn the TV sound off and listen to Ernie. We didn’t need Google to explain a suicide squeeze or a balk; Ernie told us. He must have told us a hundred times what a balk is. I can hear him now, telling me again.
Ernie took us to the Kingdome and the Big A, late on school nights, and helped us imagine what those places were like. He never sounded tired, but eventually, we drifted off to sleep. We woke up at 3 a.m. and the radio was still on. Did the Tigers win? We waited up until we heard a highlight at 3:30 – we waited until Ernie, by then asleep in some hotel, told us what happened.
Ernie was with us in our parents’ cars, on the porch, in our bunk beds. He was with us when the Tigers won and when they lost. He was with us when we got good grades and bad colds. He was with us when we went to our soccer games and when we went to our proms.
We eventually grew up and learned fancy stats like WHIP and OBP. We learned about steroids and labor deals. We learned that players have complicated lives off the field. They don’t just wait at the ballpark until Ernie gets there to turn Tiger Stadium on. We learned that the sports world isn’t as pure or polite as Ernie made it seem.
But we learned Ernie was pure and polite. We learned he was a kind, Christian man who makes time for everyone he sees. We learned that although childhood goes, and players go, and seasons go, we learned that Ernie’s voice never goes. I met him once, briefly, in the Comerica Park press box. He sounded like he did on my transistor radio, on my first car radio, and in my memory.
Ernie is gone now, dead Tuesday at 92, but he leaves behind so many images: Chet Lemon going back to the wall, Sweet Lou Whitaker turning two, Lance Parrish watching one sail over the digital clock in left field. He leaves behind Tiger Stadium, cold and austere under the lights in April or hot and rumbling under the sun in August. He leaves behind the smell of Ball Park Franks and the doodles we drew of the Olde English D. He leaves behind the sport we fell in love with because of the way he loved it so much.
Ernie Harwell leaves behind one of America’s greatest treasures: his gentle voice. We will never have to mourn its passing. We only need close our eyes, and we will hear it still.