If you were paying attention when Ernie Harwell left the airwaves in 2002 or when he announced he had cancer in 2009, chance you are heard the same things said about him that will be said in the coming days and weeks, now that he has passed away at the age of 92.
“Class act.” “A better person than he was a great broadcaster.” “The voice of baseball to me.” “A legend.” All of these things are true, along with every superlative you’ll hear. I can testify first hand.
Ernie Harwell was a truly great baseball broadcaster. Trained in journalism and storytelling, he used the medium to paint a picture of every second of a baseball game in a tone and style that matched his personality, as well as the game itself. He used the pace of the game to share classic stories and provide you with personal information on each player. Ernie had schitck and catchphrases, but it all sounded so natural compared with many of today’s announcers who shove that into your ears. In other words, it was no act – it was just Ernie. Perhaps most impressive, though, was his relationship with his so-called “sidekick,” Paul Carey, a skilled broadcaster in his own right, who called the middle three innings for much of Ernie’s tenure. Ernie treated Paul like a partner – an example for relationships in any facet of business and life.
I first met Ernie in 1993, when I was covering the Tigers for a rival radio station. That was his first season back with the team, when he smoothly handled what would have been an awkward situation for virtually anyone else – working games with his one-time replacements, Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun (who were about as popular as a Toyota and a Honda in Detroit in those days).
The first time I covered a night game, I nervously attended the pregame media dinner in the bowels of Tiger Stadium. Ernie saw that I was new, so when I sat at his table (I really just wanted to hear him talk in person), he introduced himself (as if he wasn’t my professional role model). He then introduced me to everyone seated with him and included me in conversation.
The next year, I was hired at WSB-TV in Atlanta. Remembering that Ernie also had his first “full time gig” at WSB Radio, (I memorized his bio in the Tigers’ programs), my first thought when entering the halls of WSB was “Wow. I’m working where Ernie worked.”
I shared that story with him, over lunch with a mutual friend, six years later, after I had moved back to Michigan. At that moment, Ernie stopped talking baseball and started talking Atlanta – his hometown. He told me stories about working as Margaret Mitchell’s paperboy and covering a premiere of “Gone With The Wind” for Life Magazine – stories he had likely told hundreds of times before, but it sounded like I was hearing it all for the first time. That was the magic of Ernie. His voice may be silenced now but those of us who enjoyed the privilege of listening to him or meeting him will hear him for the rest of our lives.