Ernie Harwell, the longtime voice of the Detroit Tigers, died Tuesday night at around the time the Yankees and Orioles were completing the second inning. Harwell was 92. At that age, time usually is the bringer of death. “Natural causes,” they call it — whoever “they” are. In Harwell’s case, it was cancer.
Harwell’s Wikipedia page was updated faster than news of his death could be disseminated over traditional channels.
For anyone who loves baseball and appreciates the nostalgic element of the game when radio ruled, or for generations of people who either entered sportscasting or just aspired to do so, Harwell was a familiar, relatable, friendly voice. Vin Scully, the man who replaced him in Brooklyn in 1950, described Harwell to the Associated Press in the wire service’s obituary: “Probably the best word, he was gentle. And it came across. He just cared for people and he loved baseball. I mean, he loved it beyond just doing games,” Scully said. “You can understand how the people in Detroit just loved him. I followed him into Brooklyn, and then I followed him into the Hall. He was such a lovely man. However that word is defined, that was Ernie.”
I can attest to Scully’s assessment. I was lucky enough to meet Harwell and spend five minutes with him in the Press Dining Room at the previous Yankee Stadium. It was 2002 and my first year at YES, my first year covering pro baseball. For all intents and purposes, I was a punk. Harwell had been in the business longer than two of my lifetimes to that point. He didn’t have to be nice to me and ask me to sit down at a table with him and Bob Sheppard. He didn’t have to wish me luck when he left the table to prepare for his pregame show in the visitors’ broadcast booth.
But he did, and I’ll never forget that.
In those five minutes I got a sense of exactly who Ernie Harwell was as a person. I’ve worked with a great number of high-profile actors, broadcasters and athletes, and have met others in those fields who were either dismissive or worse, condescending, for no reason. I didn’t know if they were jerks before they achieved their level of perceived greatness, or if fame blew their egos out of proportion. That was not Ernie Harwell. His demeanor, tone, delivery, folksiness; there was nothing phony. He was the same person at the dinner table as he was in the broadcast booth.
Harwell said in his farewell last year at Comerica Park that whatever happened, he’d be “ready to face it.” Now that it happened, are we?
It’s a sad day for baseball. It’s a sad day for the broadcasting industry. But in the grand scheme, that doesn’t really matter, does it? Ernie Harwell will be remembered beyond his achievements and signature calls as simply being a good person. So many people in and out of the sport recognize that — because in some way, Harwell touched all of them. Now, that’s special.
[photo credit: N*ked on the Roof]