Harwell's life, legacy remembered
Baseball community mourns passing of legendary broadcaster
When one of the greatest baseball voices ever heard went silent Tuesday, many around the game raised theirs in fond tribute to Ernie Harwell, universally considered a true gentleman and an icon whose influence extended well beyond the generations of Tigers fans who loved him so.
Harwell's golden baritone clearly was a voice that resonated like few had before.
"All of Major League Baseball is in mourning tonight upon learning of the loss of a giant of our game, Ernie Harwell," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "This son of Georgia was the voice of the Detroit Tigers and one of the game's iconic announcers to fans across America, always representing the best of our national pastime to his generations of listeners.
"Without question, Ernie was one of the finest and most distinguished gentlemen I have ever met. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest sympathy to Ernie's beloved wife Lulu, his four children, his friends and his countless admirers throughout our game."
Harwell's passing at age 92 was not unexpected after he'd made public his terminal cancer last year, but that did not ease the loss, which can be felt nowhere as strongly as in Michigan. That's where he broadcast Tigers games for more than four decades, and that's where he vowed he would spend his last days.
"Ernie Harwell was the most popular sports figure in the State of Michigan," Tigers owner Michael Ilitch said in a statement. "He was so genuine in everything that he did -- from his legendary broadcasting to the way he treated the fans and everyone around him. He was truly a gentleman in every sense of the word. Ernie has a special place in the hearts of all Detroit Tigers fans and the memories he created for so many of us will never be forgotten. Baseball lost a legendary voice this evening, and we have all lost a dear friend."
Many voices would agree and suggest that "we" means baseball as a whole.
Words like class, love, faith and friendship dotted the landscape of reaction from coast to coast when word of Harwell's death made its way around clubhouses on Tuesday.
So did stories of his humanity, how he treated the superstars and those out of the limelight the same endearing way, how he was an esteemed colleague to his peers in the Hall of Fame and a trusted mentor to any young broadcaster who crossed his path.
Named the Ford C. Frick Award winner in 1981 -- a Hall of Fame voice 20 years before he retired -- Harwell's popularity among his peers may have been unparalleled.
"He was such a lovely man," Dodgers Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully said during his broadcast Tuesday night. "Everybody loved Ernie. And eventually, he just stole the hearts of everybody in Detroit, in the state of Michigan and, for that matter, anyone who loves baseball."
Scully literally followed in Harwell's footsteps in 1950, when he began broadcasting Dodgers games as Harwell moved across New York to the Giants.
"Ernie was a very gentle man, more than anything else, and so very, very kind," Scully said. "He was extremely kind to me since I was the kid picking up where he left off as best as I could, giving me advice, counseling me and above all just being a sweet, wonderful human being."
The community of baseball broadcasting greats, which lost Harry Kalas just last year, mourned the passing of one of its own with the type of fondness that only can be reserved for a true friend.
"Ernie was a very gentle man, more than anything else, and so very, very kind. He was extremely kind to me since I was the kid picking up where he left off as best as I could, giving me advice, counseling me and above all just being a sweet, wonderful human being." |
|-- Vin Scully, on Ernie Harwell|
"Ernie Harwell, it goes without saying, was one of the greatest in the history of our profession," longtime Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman said. "More important than that, however, he was one of the finest people I've ever known. I was privileged to call Ernie my friend. I will miss him greatly."
Said Astros voice Milo Hamilton: "I've known him since the early '50s, and he would have to be considered one of the greatest broadcasters of all time. Everything's subjective in our business, but there's no way he wouldn't be in the top five. He was a legend in Detroit."
Truly a legend in his field, his illness and now his passing have been felt deeply in broadcast booths everywhere.
"It's very sad. It's been very sad since Ernie had to leave the booth," said Marlins voice Dave Van Horne, who boasts four decades of baseball broadcasting himself. "He put up a long and valiant battle against cancer. The game is missing one of its great all-time voices.
"But beyond just the voice and the storytelling of Ernie on the air, what a wonderful gentleman. A kind man. A man blessed with a great sense of humor. He had a love for this game that ran deep within his soul."
Harwell did not reserve that love and friendship only for those who had been broadcasting for decades. He reached out to any broadcaster he could, encouraging them, counseling them, helping them improve.
Among the many who cherished that experience, Rangers broadcaster Josh Lewin got all that and dinner, too. Lewin worked with Harwell in 1998-2001, and said Harwell was the first to call him up and welcome him. In fact, the very first night he arrived at Spring Training, he was introduced to the kindness of the Harwells.
"He invited me over to his condo so that Miss Lulu and [he] could cook me dinner," Lewin said. "I went over there with my knees shaking. He was an idol of mine growing up. I thought I'd be over for maybe an hour, but I was over there for five hours. He didn't talk about himself at all. He asked about my dreams and aspirations. It was just a great gesture and made it easier for me in Detroit."
"He was a great citizen of the game and everywhere in baseball -- not just Detroit, but everywhere -- figuratively at least flags should be flown at half-mast, because this was a great citizen of the game who's passed on." |
|-- Bob Costas, on Ernie Harwell|
While players are obviously busy when a broadcaster is plying his trade, Harwell had a profound effect on many who played for the Tigers during his time behind the microphone.
Kirk Gibson, however, was fortunate enough to grow up in northern Michigan, listening to Harwell's calls of "two for the price of one," and home runs as "looong gone!" growing up, so he came to know him on many levels.
"It's sad, but he had 90-plus great years," said Gibson, the MVP on the 1984 World Series Tigers and currently bench coach for the D-backs. "I talked to his advisor, Gary Spicer, every day this week and knew what was going on. He says he was ready to go on Monday. He's in a better place. He was the guy that was loved by everyone and for good reason."
Cubs bench coach Alan Trammell played 20 years in Detroit and became very close to Harwell during that time.
"He'll be sorely missed. A lot of people will be mourning, but he didn't want any of us to feel that way," Trammell said. "A great life, 92 years old, and I think we all could hope we could live that long. He did it with class, with dignity. It's sad. We shed a tear tonight. He's a great man."
Said Twins broadcaster Jack Morris, who pitched for the Tigers from 1977-90 and was the ace on the '84 club: "I think he was so well-connected to the game. He had passion for the entire game of baseball, whether it was the fans, the players or just the game itself."
Harwell's baseball life included the rarity of being traded for a player so he could replace legend Red Barber on Dodgers broadcasts in 1948, and only three years later, announced the Shot Heard 'Round the World -- Bobby Thomson's National League pennant-winning homer. His life away from baseball was blessed with a wife of 68 years in Lulu, and he served in the Marine Corps in World War II. He loved writing poetry.
"He was a common man. That's what he was," said Jerry Coleman of the Padres and a fellow Marine. "He wasn't a stuffy guy. He didn't think he was better than anybody. He was the people. He was one of the best baseball broadcasters in baseball, period."
Now that this voice of the Tigers is no longer heard in this land, it's clear baseball has lost more than a broadcaster.
It has lost a great friend.
"Ernie was so engaging," said David Dombrowski, president, CEO and general manager of the Tigers. "He had such a genuine gift of making people feel like he was your friend. Ernie made you feel good about life and brought a smile to everyone he knew. His passion and wisdom during each broadcast gave you insight to his love for the Tigers, and for the State of Michigan."
And there was the love of baseball, which came through to everyone within earshot.
Said Orioles voice Gary Thorne: "I always said, if there was ever a rocking-chair broadcaster, it was Ernie Harwell. You could sit there for 20 innings and listen, and never got tired of what he did on the air."
Longtime national broadcaster Bob Costas conducted the last extensive interview with Harwell last November on the MLB Network, and the depth of the love of baseball and life Harwell shared with fans was still vibrant in his voice.
As Costas said Tuesday, that is a love that was very much returned by so many who share Harwell's passions.
"Someone like Ernie Harwell could not possibly have met all the millions of people he touched," Costas said. "But those millions of people didn't just admire him. They honestly thought he was their friend, and they felt tremendous fondness for him.
"He was a great citizen of the game and everywhere in baseball -- not just Detroit, but everywhere -- figuratively at least flags should be flown at half-mast, because this was a great citizen of the game who's passed on."
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. Several reporters and contributors for MLB.com contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.