Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ernie Harwell — 1918-2010

The gentle man who brought baseball — and summer — to millions of people over generations has died.

Harwell succumbed to cancer of the bile duct, and passed away at his home in Novi, Mich. Doctors diagnosed the condition as an aggressive form in August, and Harwell and his family decided against surgery at his age. He explained his situation with an extraordinary sense of peace, both to his friends in the community and to fans at Comerica Park when he made one last visit in September.

“I’ve got a great attitude. I just look forward to a new adventure,” Harwell told the Detroit Free Press when he disclosed his illness. “God gives us so many adventures, and I’ve had some great ones. It’s been a terrific life.”

I cannot count the times I listened to a baseball game called by Ernie; the summer nights on the back porch, the days at the pool, riding in the car going somewhere, be it to work or driving up to northern Michigan, the signal from Detroit’s WJR fading in and out the farther away we got. At night he was a gentle presence lulling me to sleep as I hoped the Tigers would pull it out in the ninth at an away game in Seattle or California.

Unlike a lot of baseball broadcasters, he didn’t feel as if he had to fill each moment on the air with talk; there were times when all you could hear was the background noise of the park as the batter got ready or the pitcher leaned in to get the signal. Finally: “Here’s the windup…. and [thud] he struck him out.” You could see the game through his voice better than any TV coverage, and to this day for millions of baseball fans, the only way to watch baseball is over the radio.

Ernie was there from spring training — when he opened each first broadcast with the words of the Song of Solomon — to the last pitch in October; when the Tigers won the Series in 1968, and when they were at the bottom of the standings. He taught us about baseball and winning and losing and disappointment and joy, and for a man I never met but whose voice is as immediately recognizable to me as my own father’s, I will always think of good times, quiet nights, celebrations and the joy of a game that isn’t won on brute strength alone.

“For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”