Wednesday, May 5, 2010
By Chuck GarfienCSNChicago.com
I knew he was sick. I was aware his time was short. And yet, it still came as a shock when a producer uttered the words in the newsroom last night.
Ernie Harwell died.
Of the many words in the English language, those are three that will always cause a lump in my throat.
I didnt know Ernie well. But then again, what made the longtime Detroit Tigers announcer so special was that everyone felt like they knew him. For 42 years, his gentle, syrupy voice with that smooth Georgia accent filled the state of Michigan with a baseball soundtrack that told the story of the Detroit Tigers.
During that time, his stories could become a part of your own story, thanks to a voice that left such an impression, it would travel deep into your memory bank and never leave, reminding you of life moments -- both big and small -- and the sound of Ernie in the background.
My introduction to him came when I arrived in Traverse City, Mich., for my very first sportscasting job. I went to this remote spot in Northern Michigan not knowing anyone. But I did know baseball. And very soon I became quite acquainted with this fellow coming out the speakers of my car radio making this below-average baseball team sound like they were dancing the Nutcracker.
His style had a presence and grace to it that was the complete opposite of the two men I grew up listening to in Chicago, Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray. If these three legends ever formed a rock band, Jack and Harry would be at the front of the stage singing vocals and lead guitar, Ernie would be in the background playing bass.
And doing so with a smile as wide as Michigan. Besides the voice, thats what you remember about Ernie. The smile. It was always there.
As I drove from town to town, covering stories in distant parts, Ernie was always there too, talking about bad Detroit Tigers baseball, but acting as a companion on long, lonely trips through the darkest roads of Northern Michigan.
If I visited there today, something tells me I could still hear his words echoing off the trees.
After working in Traverse City for 18 months, I returned to Michigan six years later for a job in Detroit, where I would get to meet the man who I used to travel with so much.
He often wore a baseball cap or beret and liked to bury both his hands in his back pockets as if he was digging for arcade tokens.
The kid in him never left.
And while my job at the ballpark was to cover Tigers players like Bobby Higginson, Tony Clark and Jeff Weaver, whenever Ernie would come around, I always just wanted to follow him.
He was usually the more intriguing story.
One day I asked him if he would sit down with me for an interview. At first, the ever-humble Ernie said something like, It must be a slow news day. But he politely agreed to chat about his career and told stories that he had recounted for years, but delivered them as if they had just happened the night before. Not because the camera was on, but because Ernie truly cherished all of the fortune that occurred in his life, and enjoyed sharing it with others.
One of my favorite Ernie stories is how he got his first job as a sportswriter for the Sporting News in 1934. Living in Atlanta, he wrote a letter to the editor saying that the newspaper didnt have a good correspondent covering the Atlanta Crackers, Ernies hometown baseball team. He felt like he could do a better job.
The editor asked Ernie to mail him some of his work and if it was good enough, hed be hired. Sure enough, Ernie passed the test, and was offered the job. However, Ernie neglected to share one important piece of information.
He was still in high school.
In 1943, Harwell became the play-by-play announcer for the Crackers. How rare was he? Five years later, he would be traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers for catcher Cliff Dapper, becoming the only announcer in the history of the game traded for an actual player.
Ernie later called games for the New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles before coming to Detroit, where he broadcast Tigers games for 42 years.
Along the way he would be known for many catchphrases.
When a visiting player would be called out on strikes, Ernie would say, He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched it go by.
When a patron would catch a foul ball in the stands, youd hear, A fan from Ypsilanti will be taking that ball home today.
But my all-time favorite was Ernies home run call.
That one is lonnnnnnnng gone!
And now, Ernie is too.
Gone, but never forgotten.
Chuck Garfien hosts White Sox Pregame and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet with former Sox slugger Bill Melton. Follow Chuck @ChuckGarfien on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Sox news and views.