Wednesday, September 16, 2009

One of a Kind All Star

Normally, when I sit down to write something it's just my opinions/observations on current events mostly political. I do it because it interests me. I don't fool myself into thinking that this is actually reporting or making a difference. Lately though, I've been considering writing something that is outside of current events, politics. I wrote most of this about a week ago, and decided that I'd put it on here tonight.

Regardless of where you live in this country, you've probably heard the voice of Ernie Harwell. Whether it's on rebroadcasts or on national radio or television just in passing a radio or television that has baseball on it. If you've somehow missed hearing his voice, you've probably heard his songs or heard his voice in several movies.

If you're in Michigan, you couldn't miss hearing Ernie's voice on a summer day. He's never played an inning of major league baseball, but he's been baseball in Michigan and even since his retirement in 2002, when you hear his voice you immediately think of baseball.

Ernie Harwell was a rare baseball announcer. He didn't just call the play by play of the game, but his descriptions could put you in the stands even if you were in the upper peninsula listening to the game on the radio. Listening to Ernie announcing the games, you could almost smell the hot dogs. You always felt like you were sitting right there next to him watching the game.

He would tell you if the defense was in double play depth, or the third baseman was hugging the line. You always knew if the pitcher was pitching with a windup or from the stretch. A double play was "two for the price of one". If an opposing batter was called out on strikes, he "stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by."

Ernie didn't constantly talk like todays announcers do. He'd tell you the situation and then let the sounds of the ballpark take over. He'd work in baseball history into his broadcasts, but he did it with perfect timing and didn't overdo it. He instinctively knew when to say things and when not to say things and just allow the sounds of the ballpark do the talking.

He's a member of the baseball Hall of Fame. He's also a part of baseball history. In 1948, the General Manager of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, traded a catcher named Cliff Dapper to the Atlanta Crackers for the Crackers radio announcer, Ernie Harwell to replace Red Barber who was ill with a bleeding ulcer. Harwell became the only announcer ever traded for a ball player.

A very famous play was during a playoff in 1951. Everyone remembers Russ Hodges call of the "Shot heard around the world" when Bobby Thomson homered to win the game. Russ Hodges screamed "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!". It's the most listened to replay of a play in history. Ernie Harwell was also announcing the game on television. He said "the only one that heard my call of the home run was Mrs. Harwell."

In 1960, Ernie joined the Tigers. In 1967, the Tigers were in the pennant race until the last day of the season. In 1968, the Tigers won the pennant. I delivered papers during those years. We didn't have Ipods in those days. We had transistor radios. The radios weren't little pocket radios in those days. Mine was about 8 inches tall. Two inches thick and about 4 inches across. I used to stick it in the bag and listen to the ballgames as I delivered my papers.

As I walked up to the house to leave the paper in the door or on the porch, if anyone was home, you could hear Ernie's voice through the windows. Nearly everyone was listening to the ballgame. We'd had the riots in Detroit in 1967 and baseball with Ernie Harwell was one thing that nearly everyone could agree on.
If the Tigers played on the west coast their games would start at 10:30 at night. This was back when the Los Angeles Angels were still the California Angels. I'd have my radio tucked under my pillow. No small feat since the radio was so large. Trying to keep it loud enough to hear, but soft enough that my parents didn't hear it.

People were fascinated with Ernie's stories and his knowledge of history. He'd seen alot of it and alot of the players that were no longer around and he told it as if it had happened just yesterday.

Ernie was the perfect radio announcer. He'd make you see with his words what you couldn't see with your eyes. Even foul balls were fun to listen to. "There's a foul ball into the stands behind first base and a man from Livonia caught that ball." Or someone from Bay City, or Westland, or another city in the state.

Ernie spent 55 years announcing baseball. 42 of them with the Detroit Tigers. He's a man of deep faith and was involved in baseball chapel. He's a very humble man. He's a member of the baseball Hall of Fame in the broadcast wing at Cooperstown.

In the early 90's the Tigers decided to replace Ernie in the booth. This did not go over well with the fans of the Tigers. Two years later, the Tigers asked him to come back. He retired for good from broadcasting Tiger games in 2002. Later, Blue Cross Blue Shield signed Ernie to a ten year contract to represent them. He'd finish that contract at the age of 95 and Blue Cross pledged to renew his contract for another ten years at that time.

On September 3 of this year Ernie was diagnosed with cancer near the bile duct. He and his family along with his doctor decided not to go with surgery.

Tonight, the Detroit Tigers paid a tribute to Ernie. They played a video salute to him in the third inning of the game against the Royals. Then Ernie came out and said a few words. When he came out, the Tiger players stepped out and lined up in front of the dugout and the bullpen, and on the visiting side, the Royals players and coaches did the same. Some taking pictures of him. He did not come to say goodbye nor to revel in his many accomplishments over the many years. Instead he thanked the fans, and had words of praise for the people of the state of Michigan.

For two to three hours a day over a six month baseball season, Ernie Harwell helped raise kids throughout the state of Michigan by calling Tigers baseball games. He entertained adults and children alike with his descriptions of the plays, the games and even the ball parks around the country for those of us at home, or in the car, or in the backyard bar-b-que or the kids in bed late at night when they are supposed to be sleeping. Yet tonight, it was him thanking the fans and the people of Michigan.

Mr. Harwell is 91 years old. Still married to his wife Lulu. He still lives in the Detroit area. He was born in Georgia, but he's Michigan's now.
Ernie's Opening Day Speech

That's Baseball
Baseball is the President tossing out the first ball of the season and a scrubby schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm. A tall thin old man waving a scorecard from the corner of his dugout. That's baseball. And so is the big fat guy with the bulbous nose running home one of his 714 home runs.
There's a man in Mobile that remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburg 46 years ago. That's baseball. So is the scout reporting that sixteen year old kid in Cheyenne is a coming Walter Johnson. Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered or booed. And then becomes a statistic.
In baseball Democracy shines its' clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rule book. Color merely something to distinguish one teams uniform from another.
Baseball is a rookie. His experience no bigger than the lump in his throat as he begins fulfillment of his dream. It's a veteran too, a tired old man of thirty five hoping that those aching muscles can pull him through another sweltering August and September. Nicknames are baseball names like Zeke and Pie and Kiki and Home Run and Cracker and Dizzy and Daffy.
Baseball is the cool clear eyes of Rogers Hornsby. The flashing spikes of Ty Cobb, an overaged pixie named Rabbit Maranville.
Baseball is just a game as simple as a ball and bat. Yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport a business and sometimes almost a religion.
Why the fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World Series catch, and then dashing off to play stickball in the street with his teenage pals. That's baseball. So is the husky voice of a doomed Lou Gehrig saying,.."I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth."
Baseball is cigar smoke and hot roasted peanuts The Sporting News, Ladies Day, "Down in front", Take me out to the Ballgame and the Star Spangled Banner.
Baseball is a tongue tied kid from Georgia growing up to be an announcer and praising the Lord for showing him the way to Cooperstown. This is a game for America. Still a game for America, this baseball! Thank you.

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