Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Harwell enlivened and enriched baseball

DETROIT - When Ernie Harwell's voice first drifted across the region's parks and sandlots, Detroit was the nation's industrial powerhouse, with more than twice as many people as it has now.

The Detroit Tigers played baseball in an enormous dark green concrete structure known as Briggs Stadium. You could buy a bleacher seat for less than a dollar.

General Motors was the richest and most powerful corporation in the world. Nobody had even seen a Japanese car.

Hudson's downtown store was the place to shop. Sometimes, on special occasions, Gov. G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams might come by the Tigers press box.

Michigan was growing faster than most other regions. Baseball was the national pastime. That was half a century ago, when the Tigers hired a new radio and television play-by-play announcer.

Within a few years, Ernie Harwell became more than an announcer; he was a cultural touchstone. His distinctive, deep, Georgia-accented voice became part of the fabric of growing up in Michigan. Long ago, he stopped being merely an announcer and turned into a beloved part of life, a wonderful constant in a world of change.

The Vietnam War ripped America apart. TV viewers watching on July 24, 1967, saw smoke rising above Tiger Stadium. Ernie had been told not to mention a riot was under way nearby.

Fathers warred with sons, Democrats with Republicans, but all listened to Ernie Harwell. When the team was good, kids put transistor radios under their pillows when they should have been sleeping.

Big kids took radios with earplugs to corporate suites, to listen when they should have been working. When the team was lousy, they listened anyway, because he was reason enough.

Ernie Harwell did not change. Batters who struck out looking still "stood there like a house by the side of the road." Home runs were "looooooong gone!"Foul balls were caught by a man from Am-

herstburg, or Paw Paw, or whatever town popped into his head.

By the time he broadcast his last season eight years ago, much of Detroit was a ruin. Tiger Stadium was on the way to becoming the pathetic vacant lot it is today.

But Ernie was still there, a reassuring presence. Some people didn't get this. The worst offender was Bo Schembechler, the legendary University of Michigan football coach who became Tigers president and fired Ernie Harwell in 1991.

"He's just an announcer," the coach said. The anger made New Coke look like a good public relations move.

Soon, the Tigers had a new owner, Mike Ilitch, who restored Ernie. Later, a statue of the announcer was placed at the entrance to Comerica Park. "That's me," Ernie chuckled. "Hollow inside."

Mike Ilitch understood tradition. So did the thousands at Comerica Park who filed past Ernie Harwell's casket yesterday.

He was enormously good. He enlivened and enriched the game with an endless supply of anecdotes. He was also a master of understatement, knowing not just what to say, but when to say nothing.

Possibly nobody else has ever been as beloved in the history of Michigan. In part, that's because the press knewhe was that rarest of all celebrities - someone really as good as or better than his public image. I knew that personally.

Ernie and I were friends for more than a quarter century. He called me "the old professor."

We sometimes talked about baseball, but more often about books. He was a voracious reader, and quizzed me about politics and world events. We had different political opinions. He was a devout Christian; I am not. But that didn't matter to him. He was one of the most genuinely tolerant people I've ever met.

He was also the only man I'll ever know who spanned three centuries of baseball. Ernie was surely the only man to have met Babe Ruth and Geoffrey Fieger. I took Ernie and Mr. Fieger to dinner at the height of the assisted suicide wars. Jack Kevorkian was supposed to be there, too, but was otherwise occupied.

Later, Dr. Kevorkian said: "You know, I thought about being a baseball announcer. Harwell's OK, but I think I could do better."

AndI thought: You don't know, Jack.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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