We recently lost a genuine hero. The majority of you probably won’t recognize his name. He definitely doesn’t fit the usual depiction of what we consider a “hero” … but he more than fills the bill!
His name was Ernie Harwell, and he was the longtime voice of the Detroit Tigers on radio and television. But wait … this is NOT a baseball story. Not by a long shot. It’s the story of a very unique 92-year-old man who spent the majority of his life loving the world of baseball like no other could possibly do. Note that I didn’t say the game of baseball. I instead used the word “world” … and for good reason.
I’ve watched the city of Detroit and its proud citizenry lose a lot over the past few decades. The Motor City lost thousands of jobs, Motown Music, the Pistons, Tiger Stadium, a corrupt city hall, prestige among the Big Three, and a sense of pride … and now, Ernie Harwell, the “Voice of Summer.”
Yes, Ernie was a very unique man. He loved everything that had anything to do with the game of baseball: holdouts, lockouts, strikes and steroid scandals … fans, stands, stadiums and beer … players, managers, umpires and bat boys. Ernie loved it all. And, as a result, the world soon grew to love Ernie as an intricate part of the world of baseball. That’s why strange things happened in Detroit last week.
Tens of thousands of fans of all ages lined the sidewalk outside of Comerica Park in downtown Detroit to pay their final respects to this cherished broadcaster. The large groups included past and present ball players from many different major league teams, government officials, several rock stars and movie stars, children and seniors.
Hundreds of fans began lining up before midnight the night before in order to view the open casket bearing their Tiger “hero.”
Ernie was dressed in his signature hat … his casket positioned behind metal barriers just inside the stadium’s front gate.
The casket was placed near a life-sized statue of the Hall of Fame broadcaster, microphone in hand and several large portraits and memorial bouquets adorned the area.
Three city parking lots offered free parking for all of those paying their respects. That’s unheard of in Detroit.
Restaurant and theater marquees all over the city spelled out farewell messages to this special “Detroiter.”
Both the Tiger general manager and owner greeted mourners for hours after they paid their respects.
A half hour after the viewing began, the cool morning air was filled with plaintive tones of a trumpet outside the stadium, pointed in Harwell’s direction, playing taps. Nary a dry eye could be seen.
Ernie’s family and Tiger officials promised the stadium would remain open until the last Tiger fan paid his/her respects. It was a beautiful day in Detroit … for so many reasons, including the weather.
Why was this man so beloved by so many? It actually had little to do with baseball and much to do with the fact that Ernie was a “class act” who loved his team, his fans, his city, and his state with deep pride and great respect!
I could ramble on for pages sharing the many stories of this legend. Instead allow me to briefly state a few of the many reasons Ernie was cherished by so many for so long.
- The man possessed a humble sweetness appreciated by all who knew him or even heard his voice on the radio.
- Young Ernie Harwell had a speech impediment which he corrected by taking weekly lessons with an elocution teacher.
- Ernie is the only announcer in baseball history to be traded for a player!
- He was a Hall of Fame radio and television broadcaster who entertained millions of fans for 60 years for five different teams … 42 years for the Tigers.
- Ernie was a songwriter, producing 46 songs that have been recorded.
- He was a poet who would talk about baseball the way Thoreau talked about the woods.
- Ernie was a member of your family as you were growing up.
- He was the voice of your imagination when you couldn’t see the game.
- Ernie was your own special connection to baseball’s glorious past.
- Ernie was a man of devotion, sharing 68 years of marriage to his lovely wife, Lulu.
- Ernie possessed an unshakable belief in every good thing baseball wants to believe about itself—the game as a metaphor for life. He believed life began anew with Spring Training, and would quote the Song of Solomon before the season’s first pitch.
- His voice was rich and grew richer with time. His diction was precise, a smooth Georgia drawl, with a near-exaggerated articulation.
- Ernie was cherished not simply because he was part of fans’ lives, but because the fans were part of his.
- Millions of fans everywhere knew Ernie, and felt like he knew them.
- Ernie was a symbol of America—an America of unaffected optimism, and quieter, more confident heroes.
It’s sad indeed to think that generations to come will more than likely never experience a baseball game as millions have with Ernie. His “class act” has brought joy, happiness, content and memories to his legion of faithful fans who will miss him dearly. Having lived in Michigan most of my life, I can’t remember the last time Detroit has shed this many tears.
Maybe Ernie’s death will remind those in Michigan what unites them and why saving the spirit that Ernie endeared is so important. He was indeed a “hero.”