A Voice for All Seasons

As his 59th season as a baseball broadcaster draws to a close, the ageless and unflappable Ernie Harwell is rounding the bases, headed home.

August 21, 2002|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

"Only truth can give true reputation; only reality can be of real profit. Unfounded things never reach old age."

- Balthasar Gracian, 17th-century Spanish Jesuit

We speak in baseball of immortality, of Ruthian clouts, of Mays' catches - even, if gruesomely now, of the mastery of Ted Williams, the Fenway deity whose corpse lies frozen in a cryonics lab, there to "live," perhaps, for a creepy eternity. Mostly, though, we speak of deeds, of acts that will live forever in the collective memory of the game.

Pity, then, in a way, that a man like Ernie Harwell has to grow old.

Harwell, the gracious Hall of Fame announcer with the basso profundo voice, will retire at the end of this season after 59 years. Thirty-seven have been with the Detroit Tigers, the 101-year-old franchise he has come, over the years, to personify.

His "farewell tour" of the American League brought him to Baltimore last weekend, where, at 84, he called games as ever, chatted up friends, sat in on "baseball chapel" and recalled his days as the first announcer for the big-league Baltimore O's.

"We weren't a very good team then," he says with a laugh. "Vern Stephens led in home runs with eight. He led in RBIs with 46! I don't remember for sure, but I think Don Larsen lost 20 games. The team lost 100.

"Things got better after I left here [in 1959], when [former GM/manager] Paul Richards came. He rebuilt things. But we loved it in Baltimore. It has given many gifts to the game."

For Harwell, who knows that baseball, at its best, tends toward the understated, the words "farewell tour" seem oxymoronic. "You must feel like a rock star," a reporter suggests. "I wish I were a rock star," laughs the man who has, in fact, published 55 original songs and sometimes cites Gershwin on the air.

"It may be a little late for that now." Mostly, it's his chance to revisit his favorite part of baseball: the ushers, chaplains, managers and the millionaires who make it up. "That's what I'll miss the most," he says. "The people. I've been blessed to know so many."

In 1999, Harwell was emcee before the final game at 87-year-old Tiger Stadium, one of baseball's gems. He presided over the opening of Detroit's new Comerica Park, which, like Camden Yards, puts fondness of the past on display. For Harwell, a devout Christian who reads from the Song of Solomon to open his first broadcast each year, everything new is old again, and vice versa. Just as it is for his game.

But Ernie Harwell Day, slated in Detroit for Sept. 15, will abash one of the sport's great poets. "I have no idea what's planned," he says, brows furrowed. "It'll be too much. But they were kind enough to plan it, so I'll do what I always do: show up."

`Become a friend'

In baseball, that's half the battle. Four-hour games, coast-to-coast travel and steamy, nine-month schedules see to that. "When I started, there were eight teams in each league," says Harwell. "The westernmost outpost was St. Louis. I'm not one of these `golden-age' types - you know, `It was better in my day' - but it was more intimate then."

Harwell shows why baseball, for all its current problems, still holds the unofficial title of national pastime. It brings out the best in those who love it.

"I'd never have come this far without Lulu," he says of his wife of 61 years. "She's been a good sport. She left Baltimore even though we loved it here. She's the best thing that ever happened to me." That includes, he says, the 1984 Tigers, who started 35-5, stayed in first place all season and easily won the World Series.

He concedes it's fun to announce for a winner - and his "Tiges" have had more lean years than good - even that isn't the point. "The game itself, the intrinsic game, has got so many nuances," he says. "It can be as simple as which team scored more runs. But it's got more layers to peel away than you could ask for."

For Harwell, it's about more than stats and standings. He has always questioned fans who only like a winner. "You can see a great game between two second-division clubs," he says. "The pitching, the strategy, the setting up of hitters - in the big leagues, you're seeing the best of the best."

So are fans who have asked Harwell into their homes, on TV and radio, for almost as long as he's been wed. He thinks it's the office more than the occupant. "Especially in baseball," says the Emory University grad, "and especially on the radio. You're the background to people's lives. They go to the mountains or beaches, into the kitchen or the workplace. The game is a constant. They listen. Their minds can wander, then come back. In that way, you become a part of the family."

Whether you're a Jack Buck in St. Louis, a Harry Caray in Chicago, a Herb Carneal in Minnesota or a Chuck Thompson in Baltimore, "if you're around enough," he says, "they get used to you. You become a friend."

Love of the game

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