Justice Is Served

May 4, 2010 10:17 PM

Ernie, thanks for decades of Tigers memories


Wait awhile, and bad things will happen. And one of those bad things happened yesterday: Ernie Harwell died.

If one man's death made this a lesser world, Harwell's would rank high on anybody's  list. Harwell, 92, was all that was good in a human: kind, generous and unpretentious. The adjectives select themselves.

And, oh, could Ernie Harwell call a baseball game.

In an era of golden voices, of broadcasters like Red Barber, Mel Allen, Jimmy Dudley, Harry Caray, Bob Prince, Harry Kalas, Vin Scully, Jack Buck and Jack Brickhouse, Harwell had a voice of platinum.

For 42 years, he was as much a Tigers legend as Al Kaline, George Kell, Mickey Lolich, Willie Horton, Lance Parrish, Norm Cash, Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris. The successes and failures of those "Ti-guhs" were chronicled in Harwell's low-key Southern twang.

Unlike the new breed of radio broadcasters, Harwell brought his listeners more than the game. He knew everybody, and everybody knew and liked him. He was the consummate storyteller, and his 55 years in radio left him with thousands of baseball vignettes to share.

He turned each game at the corner Michigan and Trumbull, streets that rung old Tiger Stadium, into a short story, one rich with specifics and color and atmosphere.

Maybe no broadcaster who ever lived wove those stories into his narration of the game as seamlessly as Harwell. A young Caray was good at it; and so were Scully and Barber and Allen and Dudley and Buck and ... the list isn't that much longer.

But Ernie Harwell did it as well as anyone else. He put you in Tiger Stadium, even when you were listening from Southfield or Saginaw or Saigon.

Throughout the game's history, baseball has had hundreds of radio voices, and it will have hundreds more before the final out in life. But it counts its greats in the tens now. And for the elite of the elite, the count is in the handfuls.

It might be hard to distill a list this short to a Top 5, because Harwell wasn't the only announcer with long ties to one team. Regardless how short the list gets, it might be impossible to leave Harwell's name off.

Was he simply the best, Harwell? The question is one to debate over cold beers at the Anchor Bar near the old ballpark. It won't take but a millisecond, sober or otherwise, to reel off the names of those who might have been better.

To conclude that Ernie Harwell, who was told he had incurable cancer in September, was the best there ever was shouldn't offend anybody who has listened to radio voices from the East Coast to the West Coast and to stops in-between.

His was an unforgettable voice; he was an unforgettable personality.

Think back to 1991 when the men in charge of the Detroit radio home of the Tigers dumped Harwell, who didn't decry the injustice. They claimed he had lost his edge, and they wanted someone with a more contemporary bent to sit behind the mike.

They soon discovered what baseball fans everywhere knew: Their sport isn't a fad; it doesn't blow in the direction of the winds; it puts more stock in the past than it does in the present.

Harwell, 70-something at the time, might not have been as sharp, but he was better than his replacements. To push him out of the radio booth drew outrage none of the decision-makers in the station's front office had expected.

They did an about-face, returning Harwell to the booth. They let him decide when to head off into the broadcast sunset. He did in 2002. He called his final ballgame Sept. 29, though Harwell made cameos as a fill-in in subsequent years.

He maintained his folksy style. Nobody will ever replace Ernie Harwell -- not in Detroit. He will be remembered there, as he should be remembered elsewhere. As he put it, "He took his cut, and now he takes his seat."

His seat in baseball heaven.

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