Most of us have memories of Ernie Harwell’s voice wafting through the summers of our lives. But those who didn’t grow up here may puzzle: Why he was so important?
Sure, he was an enormously good broadcaster. He enlivened and enriched the game with a seemingly endless supply of historical anecdotes. He was also a master of understatement, knowing just what to say, and when to say nothing at all.
He had also long ago ceased being merely an announcer; he was a cultural touchstone. His distinctive Georgia-accented voice became part of the fabric of growing up here.
The voice of Ernie, as we called him, attended our family picnics, floated across summer lakes, and informed paying customers at the corner gas station. Long ago, he became a beloved part of life, a wonderful constant in a world of change. When he became a ‘Great Voice of the Great Lakes’ in the spring of 1960, Detroit was the nation’s industrial powerhouse, with more than double the population it has now. The Tigers played in an enormous dark-green cavern known as Briggs Stadium. You could sit in the bleachers for less than $1, and drink Stroh’s Beer.
General Motors was the mightiest, richest, and most powerful corporation in the world. Nobody had a Japanese car; few had even seen one. Hudson’s downtown store was the place to shop. And sometimes on special occasions, Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams would stop by the stadium press box.
Michigan was still growing faster than most other places in the country. Baseball was still the national pastime. Michigan Central Depot was still a real train station.
And then things began to change. Our state changed. The city changed. Baseball changed. Vietnam ripped America apart. TV viewers watching the Tigers on July 24, 1967, spied smoke rising above the ballpark; Ernie had been told not to mention that a riot was under way.
Baseball added games; nearly doubled the number of teams; and added playoffs and designated hitters and inter-league play.
Fathers warred with sons, Democrats with Republicans; but all listened to Ernie. When the team was on a roll, kids tucked transistor radios under their pillows. Big kids took radios with earplugs to corporate suites. When the team was lousy, they listened anyway — because Ernie was reason enough to listen.
Ernie did not change. Batters who struck out standing always “stood there like the house by the road.” Home runs were “loooooooooog gone!” Foul balls reaching the stands were caught by a man from Troy, or Paw Paw, or whatever town popped into his head.
By the time he broadcast his last season eight years ago, Detroit was suffering major decay. Stroh’s had brewed its last Detroit beer. Downtown Hudson’s was gone, as was the Hudson’s retail name.
Tiger Stadium, the house where Al Kaline and Ty Cobb played and Ernie talked, was on its way to becoming the vacant lot it is today.
But Ernie was still there, a reassuring presence, a reminder that we were still us. Some people didn’t get it.
Worst of them was Bo Schembechler, the University of Michigan football coach who became Tigers president and fired Harwell in 1991. “He’s just an announcer,” Schembechler said. The outpouring of shock and anger made New Coke look like a smart marketing move. Soon, the Tigers had a new owner — Mike Ilitch — who speedily restored Ernie. Later, for good measure, he had a statue of the announcer placed at the entrance to Comerica Park. (“That’s me,” Ernie chuckled. “Heavy, but hollow inside.”)
Ilitch understood tradition.
So did the thousands who stood in line at Comerica Park to file past Harwell’s casket on May 6. It’s quite possibly true that nobody has ever been as beloved in the history of Michigan. That’s partly because the press knew he was that rarest of all celebrities: someone who was truly as good or better than his public image. I knew that personally.
Ernie and I were friends for more than 25 years. He called me “the old professor.” When we got together, we talked about baseball, but also about books.
He was a voracious reader, and quizzed me about politics and world events. He loved gossip. We had different political opinions. He was a devout Christian; I’m not. None of that mattered. He was one of the most genuinely tolerant people I’ve ever met.
He was also the only man I’ll ever know who spanned three centuries of baseball. He knew Connie Mack, born during the Civil War, and Ty Cobb, who never stopped fighting it.
And I’m sure Ernie was also surely the only man to have ever met Babe Ruth — and Geoffrey Fieger.
I took them both to dinner once, at the height of the assisted-suicide controversy. Jack Kevorkian was supposed to be there, too, but was … otherwise occupied.
Later, Kevorkian told me, “You know, I thought about being a baseball announcer. Harwell‘s OK, but I think Jack Graney (a long-forgotten Cleveland announcer) was better.
“And I think I could do it better.”
Guess what. You don‘t know, Jack.
Editor’s note: When Detroit marked its tricentennial in July 2001, Hour Detroit invited a roster of metro Detroit personalities to pen their 300th birthday wishes for the magazine. They included Ernie Harwell, who wrote: “When a baseball hits 300, it’s great. When a city hits 300, it’s even better. Happy 300, Detroit.” Most would agree that Harwell’s grace, professionalism, and mere presence made this city “even better.”