Wednesday, May 05, 2010

And so long from the Tiger Stadiums of my mind …

“And the poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, once wrote in his epic poem ‘Ulysses,’ “I am a part of all that I have met.”
Ernie Harwell, August, 1981, Hall of Fame induction speech
I am approaching 58 years of age and if you ask me to be honest, all I ever “wanted” to be was the first starting first baseman for my hometown Detroit Tigers. I never had dreams of being a doctor, lawyer, accountant (although my mother did) … or journalist/newspaper owner.
I wanted to spend my days and nights hovering around the dirt and grass at the corner of Michigan and Trumbell Avenues. But an inability to move faster than the average tortoise and a subsequent football injury eliminated that possibility (which was NEVER going to be possible).
I wanted that life because I heard Ernie Harwell tell me what a wonderful thing it was to play for the Detroit Tigers. And now, as I eventually become a senior citizen, he is gone from us – his voice stilled by cancer at the age of 92 on Tuesday afternoon. As a true Tiger fan, I cannot tell anyone, or express the inner sorrow I feel because the world, not just the sport of baseball of the Detroit community, is NOT better off for his departure. When Ernie was among us, he MADE it a better place to live.
I saw my first game in 1959 (Baltimore at Detroit), but I didn’t start listening to Tiger games until the next season, when Ernie Harwell began his broadcast career with Detroit. And for the next 44 years (save one year when management stupidly thought his time at the microphone was over and the fans expressed such outrage that he was hired back the following season), Harwell WAS the voice of the Tigers and the voice of the Motor City. In fact, I have NO idea who did play-by-play prior to his arrival (from Baltimore after stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers, eventually replaced by Vin Scully and the New York Giants) … nor do I know who does it today.
It doesn’t matter because, for my taste, there was NO baseball broadcasting in Detroit without Ernie Harwell.
Each sport has its iconic voices. As a young Detroiter, other sports had them as well (Van Patrick for Lions football, Budd Lynch for Red Wings hockey, Bob Ufer for Michigan football). But none of them EVER reached the level of worship that Harwell possessed. And he didn’t purposely seek for it to happen that way. It just did because of young boys like me who grew up and maintained that admiration.
He was not a big man, slight in stature, but you don’t measure strength by sheer physical mass. You measure it by character and no one was stronger in that field than Harwell. He gave all his credit to God and his wife of 66 years (at the end), Lulu. No one before, and after his passing, can utter a single word of disdain for Ernie. All the tributes are glowing as they should be.
Even as his illness slowly sapped his strength, Ernie pressed forward; in fact, was to have received an award in New York City today (which he would have strived to have attended except for that small inconvenience called death). The Detroit public packed a downtown theater last winter to hear Harwell’s stories one final time in the name of charity – to help the homeless along with author/sportswriter Mitch Albom. From every account, you’d thought they were all in church – solemn and worshipful.
Last September, he made his final public appearance at the Tigers’ new home, Comerica Park, and it was such a special occasion, they interrupted the game in the fifth inning to have Harwell come to home plate and thank the fans and players for his life. He always made it a point to tip his cap to the Michigan faithful and took pride in the fact that when he would die, it would take place in a place he came to live (despite ALL its massive social and economic problems).
I’ve written often about how, following the disastrous 1967 riots, the Tigers, en route to their first World Series title since 1945, literally saved the city from itself. Instead of focusing on their problems, people of all social, racial and economic backgrounds tuned into their radios and television sets to hear the exploits of Al Kaline, Denny McLain, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich, Gates Brown, Norm Cash, Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup and others. The voice that helped soothe the savage beast was that of a Georgia native who was the only broadcaster in the history of the sport ever “traded” to another franchise for an actual player.
Instead of finding ways to destroy the city during another steaming summer, fans wondered aloud how Harwell knew everyone in the ballpark when he insisted that “a man from Waterford Township caught that foul ball.” Hell, we all knew he was just making that up but it was a badge of honor to have your community mentioned during a Tiger broadcast.
And his stadium “office” inside Tiger Stadium was SO close to the field, and so close to the fans, that people would wave and shout greetings to him between innings. It might be an overused term but it is the only statement which holds total truth in each word: he WAS a man of the people.
Harwell was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame on Aug. 2, 1981 (broadcasters earn that receiving the Ford C. Frick Award, where, on the Hall of Fame website, Harwell’s microphone is the iconic symbol). At that moment, he joined the absolute giants of American sports broadcasting (Mel Allen, Red Barber, Bob Elson and Russ Hodges, his former Giants on-air teammate).
In his speech, Harwell, a published author of scores of books about baseball, his faith and life, beautifully answered the question, “Why is baseball SO special?”
I close with his words, not mine, because his do justice to his talent and his love for the greatest game ever created:
“Baseball is the President tossing out the first ball of the season and a scrubby schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm. A tall, thin old man waving a scorecard from the corner of his dugout. That’s baseball. And so is the big, fat guy with a bulbous nose running home one of his (Babe Ruth’s) 714 home runs.
“There’s a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh 46 years ago. That’s baseball. So is the scout reporting that a sixteen year old pitcher in Cheyenne is a coming Walter Johnson. Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered, or booed. And then becomes a statistic.
“In baseball, democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rulebook. Color merely something to distinguish one team’s uniform from another.
“Baseball is a rookie. His experience no bigger than the lump in his throat as he begins fulfillment of his dream. It’s a veteran too, a tired old man of thirty-five hoping that those aching muscles can pull him through another sweltering August and September. Nicknames are baseball, names like Zeke and Pie and Kiki and Home Run and Cracker and Dizzy and Daffy.
“Baseball is the cool, clear eyes of Rogers Hornsby. The flashing spikes of Ty Cobb, an over aged pixie named Rabbit Maranville.
“Baseball just a came as simple as a ball and bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport, a business and sometimes almost even a religion.
“Why the fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World Series catch. And then dashing off to play stick ball in the street with his teenage pals. That’s baseball. So is the husky voice of a doomed Lou Gehrig saying, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”
“Baseball is cigar smoke, hot roasted peanuts, The Sporting News, ladies day, “Down in Front,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and the “Star Spangled Banner.”
“Baseball is a tongue-tied kid from Georgia growing up to be an announcer and praising the Lord for showing him the way to Cooperstown. This is a game for America. Still a game for America, this baseball!”
God rest this gentle man’s soul; his like will not pass this way again anytime soon.

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