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Published: Tuesday, 9/15/2009

Michigan's classiest man

NOBODY has ever held an election to choose the most popular man in Michigan, but it has been clear for a long time that the hands-down winner almost certainly would be Ernie Harwell, the Detroit Tigers' radio play-by-play announcer who long ago became something more than that in the minds and hearts of nearly all of Michigan.

Beginning in 1960, his distinctive Georgia voice crackled across the state from millions of radios, becoming the voice of summer, hot dogs, picnics, and new hope for American baseball.

Between pitches, he told stories, supplied bits of interesting trivia, and helped bring people together around shared history and their national pastime.

When management committed the public relations blunder of the century and fired him after the 1991 season, the outcry was such that he was speedily restored to the booth, where he stayed until he finally chose to retire at the end of the 2002 season.

Even after that, he remained a prominent part of life in Michigan as a spokesman for Blue Cross/Blue Shield, cheerily inviting older people to exercise and stay fit.

Earlier this month, Harwell, now 91, made a typically low-key announcement that stunned the state. With dignity and class, he informed his fans that he had fast-moving, inoperable bile duct cancer. The odds are that he won't be here for another spring training.

In an age of whiners, he said “Whatever happens, I'm ready to face it.” When an overwhelming outpouring of public grief and support followed, he added, “I think this response is an example of the impact of baseball and the Tigers,” he said.

If people thought he was talented, he added, they should remember that “God put me here,” he said.

It would be nice if the Tigers this fall gave their voice of summer one final World Series to watch.

It would be even nicer if a few of today's boors and egomaniacs learned something from Mr. Harwell's classy example.

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