September 06, 2009

Five Minutes to Ernie

Ernie Harwell announced this week that he has inoperable bile duct cancer. And, in typical Ernie fashion, he's not going to let it slow him down. He's going to confront life the way he knows best: head on.

A legend. The voice.

I first met Mr. Harwell in the '70s at my Grandma and Grandpa Morgan's house on Overlook Drive in Clarkston, Michigan. Grandpa and Grandma were Tigers fans. No doubt about it. That's where I first heard the "voice."

"A fan from Clarkston will take that one home today," Mr. Harwell would say. Or Kingsley, Elk Rapids, or Vestaburg.

"How does he know where they're from," you would commonly hear people say.

"He just knows."

Back in the '70s and '80s, a Tiger game on TV was rare. A Tiger game on the National Game of the Week had even less chance to happen. But, WDIV out of Detroit, channel 4 I believe, would televise a few games a year. And George Kell and Al Kaline were not terrible announcers. But, Grandpa and Grandma would put the sound down on the TV and listen to the radio. To Ernie.

Ernie Harwell: the voice of the Tigers.

He was fired by the Tigers. Perhaps one of Bo Schembechler's worst moves featured the firing of the longtime icon from the Tiger broadcasts on WJR.

"Peña digging in, waiting, here's the set, the pitch...Swing and a miss! And the Toronto Blue Jays win it, the final game of 2002. The final score: the Blue Jays one, and the Tigers nothing."

— Last out in '02 and Ernie Harwell's last out as a Tiger announcer.

Mr. Harwell later returned to a TV gig with the Tigers, then part–time radio, before once again doing the play–by–play for the Detroit Nine from '99 to '02. The voice was back.

I spoke to Mr. Harwell at a few games throughout my years as a Tiger fan. He was always polite and willing to chat. I never felt like he thought of himself as the greatest living baseball voice.

In 2005, I decided to do something special for my Grandpa Morgan's 90th birthday.

In 1989, he had been quoted in Sports Illustrated saying that he worked from about 7 a.m. until "Five Minutes to Ernie." Grandpa told us the quote would be in an upcoming issue of the magazine. When I found it in the library, I was so excited that I left without turning it back in and was too embarrassed to return it later. (Yea, remember "It was 1989, my thoughts were short and my hair was long ... ")

I wrote a letter to Mr. Harwell inviting him to attend Grandpa's birthday party at Morgan's Service in Clarkston. I was driving into Clarkston to visit Grandpa in July that year when my cell phone rang. It was Lori, telling me that one of my friends must be pranking me because someone called claiming to be Ernie Harwell.

I couldn't believe he called me back. He has a BC/BS activity on August 3, but he would be willing to send a letter and picture, if I wanted. He did. We had all of the material framed and packaged in a really nice manner.

We gave the special present to Grandpa on the morning of his birthday and told him that a special phone call would be coming in the afternoon. You should have seen Grandpa light up when he talked to Ernie Harwell on the phone!

Imagine that, a man turning 90 excited to talk on the phone!

Ernie Harwell, radio voice, author, gentleman. He'll be missed. But, for now, he's going to battle. I know another battler who battled right to the end ...

On September 28, Mom, Dad, Uncle John and I will be at Comerica Park to watch the Tigers. It's the annual "Grandpa Game" we call it. On September 23, 2005, Grandpa and I went to a ballgame on a Friday night. We had a great time. We talked, had fun, enjoyed our company. Each year, we go to a game on the date or the closest home game date. This year, it happens to be on the night that the Tigers will honor the 25th Anniversary of the World Champion Detroit Tigers.

It's ironic that it's 10 years and a day from the closure of Tiger Stadium on September 27, 1999. I imagine that when Ernie Harwell speaks that night (and he will) a dry eye will not be left in the house. Life is certainly a journey.

Grandpa Morgan and I visited Cooperstown in 1996. Grandpa introduced me to Ernie Harwell in the '70s.

Ernie, if I can call you that for just a moment, thank you for the memories. I grew up listening to you broadcast games, introducing the Tigers to me and many others. You're an inspiration to many. I'm proud to say that you broadcast games for my team!


Carl and Sally said...

What a great tribute to Ernie and Dick Morgan! May God Bless them both!

Rick said...

Took me a while to figure out where to go with my thoughts. Amber, Lori, and I were talking about it the other day and Amber said, "You'll probably cry when you find out." I said, "I almost am right now." I can't watch his final broadcast (have it taped someplace) because it's quite emotional. I guess when you have something important to say, you can say it without any tears!

Greg Eno said...

Wonderful story, Rick!