FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. - Now it can be told. Does Ernie Harwell, longtime voice of the Detroit Tigers, possibly the most beloved sports figure in Michigan history, regret his decision to finally retire at the end of last year?
Does he miss the broadcast booth? Ernie smiles, and looks a bit mischievous: “No. Not really. I loved it, but it was time to do something else.” This was not, mind you, any ordinary retirement. The last time a summer went by without Ernie Harwell broadcasting major league baseball, President Bush was a year old. Harwell became the voice of the Detroit Tigers back when Dwight Eisenhower was president, hit records came with a fat hole in the middle, each league had only eight teams, and no Tiger made even $100,000 a year.
Thirty years on, management fired him. That was after the 1991 season, and the fans reacted as if burqas had been made mandatory at the ballpark. There were huge protests. Fans denounced the new announcers. Many defiantly listened to Ernie broadcast CBS' game of the week.
Eventually, the replacements were broomed. The ownership changed; the management structure that fired Ernie was fired, and at length Harwell returned to the booth, where the tacit understanding was that, if he wanted, he could stay there, as one columnist suggested, until his teeth fell out.
But now he really is, as he said when a player hit a home run, loooong gone. Last year he decided on his own that it was time to go. Ironically, he stepped down at a time when his distinctive voice and massive store of baseball lore were virtually the only reason to listen to the appalling Tigers, who are, to general horror, even worse this year.
Yet how can he really not miss doing what defined him? We live in an era where retirement is something sports stars seem to do mostly so that they can stage a comeback.
Broadcasting baseball games is what he did all his adult life, beginning before World War II. OK, so he is ... 85 years old. What's the big deal? George Burns was still working, sort of, at 100. The last time Ernie didn't show up for work was for one game in 1981, when he had to attend his own induction into the Hall of Fame.
How can he feel the breezes of summer and not feel the call to the post? Well ... because he doesn't. Not that he is sitting in front of the tube. “Ernie is busier than a hive of bees,” his wife Lulu says, chuckling. He zips all over the state making speeches, and goes down to the ballpark to schmooze a bit with season ticket holders.
Harwell still writes a weekly column and is in great demand as a pitchman. This year he became a spokesman for Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
Earlier this summer he was in Brooklyn, where he was honored at a semi-pro game and visited a rundown housing project that was once the site of Ebbets Field, home of the long-gone Brooklyn Dodgers, where on Aug. 4, 1948, he made his major league debut, substituting for Red Barber, who had a perforated ulcer.
They wouldn't get him to put down the microphone until two years into the next century. Along the way, he had a career like no other. He broadcast, on the fledgling technology called television, Bobby Thompson's miracle home run. He was in the booth for Willie Mays famous basket catch, and for innumerable All-Star heroics.
Ernie Harwell called pennant races, playoffs, and two World Series wins by his beloved Tigers. He interviewed virtually every famous figure in the history of the game, from Ty Cobb and Connie Mack to Roger Maris and Mark McGuire, with the possible exception of Abner Doubleday.
Earlier this month, some Detroit fans were surprised to find him on ESPN, guest-broadcasting four innings of a Yankees game, wedged between two announcers who gushed more about being with Ernie than what was on the field.
This fall, the Harwells are moving into a retirement village, and Ernie, a pack-rat by nature, is wrestling with downsizing. His office equipment, however, will have a room of its own. Retirement Harwell-style is likely to mean merely giving up lawn care.
Though always a diplomat, he doesn't dispute that this year's Tigers are the worst major league team he has ever seen. The local bad joke is that he really retired in order to avoid being forced to play second base. He just might be able to do it. But if he ever proves mortal, has he ever thought about his epitaph?
Ernie pauses. “How about, ‘He was a guy who showed up and did the best he could.'”
Would that we all could do as well.
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