Remembering the great Ernie Harwell

I was fortunate to have been introduced to baseball during its golden age.  Mays and Mantle were the M&M boys and listening to a game on the radio was as common as seeing someone talking on a cell phone today.  Baseball and the radio were made for one another.  Many will join me in agreement that baseball can be “seen” on the radio far better than on television.  Prior to the days of cable, baseball came into our homes through the recognizable voices of broadcasters who were unapologetic in root, root, rooting for the home team.  

On clear summer nights, the family Philco or the car radio was tuned to stations from New York to Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Baltimore to Detroit and to St. Louis. 

The Scooter, Harry Kalas, Bob Prince, Chuck Thompson, Harry Caray and Jack Buck brought the game to life with their unique styles, so unlike the plain vanilla that we see in today’s national broadcasts.

Last week, we lost the last of the great broadcasters that brought major league baseball into my childhood.  The great Ernie Harwell lost a battle with cancer at the age of 92. 

Harwell retired in 2002, ending a 40-year career with the Tigers.  A native of Atlanta, Harwell first worked for Branch Rickey in Brooklyn before moving on to Baltimore.  To a whole generation, however, he was The Voice of the Tigers.

On Aug. 2, 1981, Harwell was inducted to The National Baseball Hall of Fame.  I remember the date because it was my birthday, and I was there!  Fortunately, my wife is a good sport and also a fan who was more than happy to travel to Cooperstown for the induction of the great Bob Gibson.  We went for “Hoot,” but the day’s treat was the speech delivered by Harwell.  With your indulgence, I’d like to share the definition of baseball that he penned in 1955 – the year of my birth.  I hope you’ll enjoy it.

“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 714 homeruns.

“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 a 16-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 it becomes a statistic.

“In baseball, democracy shines it’s 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 35 hoping that those aching muscles can carry 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 Dazzy.

“Baseball is the cool, clear eyes of Rogers Hornsby.  The flashing spikes of Ty Cobb, and an over-aged pixie named Rabbit Maranville.

“Baseball, just a game as simple as a bat and ball.  Yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes.  A sport, a business, and sometimes almost a religion.

“Why the fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World Series catch.  And then dashing off to play stickball in the streets 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 the 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.”

Then, at the Hall of Fame Induction, he added this: “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 is baseball!”

Thank you, Ernie.

Fore!

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