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Ernie Harwell has terminal cancer

Sep 4, 2009, 8:20 AM EDT

This is about the worst news I could have woken up to this morning:

Ernie Harwell, the treasured voice of the Tigers for all those years,
has incurable bile duct cancer. In comments to the Detroit Free Press
on Thursday, he said he won’t undergo surgery.

“We don’t know how long this lasts,” Harwell, 91, told the Free
Press. “It could be a year. It could be much less than a year, much
less than a half year. Who knows? Whatever is in store, I’m ready for a
new adventure.”

I know he’s 91 so it’s not like this is some gobsmacking tragedy, but I can’t overstate how important Ernie Harwell has been to my life.

I was a nervous kid, afraid of the dark and afraid of going to sleep myself.  My parents let me turn on the radio at night as I went to bed and the talk, rather than the music, made me feel better.  The voice that gave me the most comfort was Ernie Harwell’s voice on WJR, which I latched onto before I even truly realized it was describing a baseball game.

Ernie put me to sleep most spring and summer nights for several years, teaching me about baseball in the process. He also taught me that I could enjoy it just as much if I could not actually see it, which I can’t help but think is the reason why I enjoy writing up the “And That Happened” recaps every day. I don’t see hardly any of the games I describe, but just because I don’t see them doesn’t mean that there isn’t a story to be told. Information and flavor to be teased out.

Maybe you always have a thing for your first love, but I think I’m being objective when I say that I have never encountered a better baseball broadcaster than Ernie Harwell. How lucky that I had him putting me to sleep when I was four years old as opposed to someone else.  Would I have even been a baseball fan if it was John Sterling’s voice on the radio? Given that I was first tuning in for the delivery and not the product itself, I kinda doubt it.

Ernie had his fastball until the end. FOX brought him out during the 2006 ALDS between the Tigers and Yankees and let him do an inning or two. He stepped in as if it was still his full time job, and didn’t miss a beat.  I recall that whoever FOX kept in the booth with him — I want to say McCarver, but it could have been Zelasko or someone — wanted to talk to him about his history and other such fluff, condescending to him, really, the way people often do to the elderly. Ernie seemed annoyed and deflected the person’s attempts to wallow in nostalgia, obviously wanting to keep the focus on the game. Where it should be.  And he did. And it was wonderful.

Baseball will never see his like again.

  1. Bob Bruce - Sep 4, 2009 at 4:23 PM

    Hi Ernie,
    Always a nice guy and a real pro.
    God bless and be with you through this trail.

  2. BIGBRUCE11047 - Sep 4, 2009 at 4:28 PM

    Ernie Harwell’s name to the Tiger fans in like Vin Scully is to Dodger fans. I’m so terribly sorry to hear that Ernie has this cancer. When he goes it will be a big loss to baseball and a big loss to humanity. I grew up in the Los Angeles area and there was many a night that I fell asleep to the voice of Vin Scully describing the Dodger games. Ernie will be in my prayers daily and nightly.

  3. William Johnson - Sep 4, 2009 at 4:35 PM

    For Lo the Winter has passed, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
    Spring will come next year and baseball will be played.. yet once Ernie has left us it won’t quite be the same. I’m reminded a bit of W.H. Auden to paraphrase:
    He was the North, the South, the East and West,
    Our working week, and our Sunday Rest,
    Our noon, our midnight, our talk, our song.
    We thought the voice would last forever. We were wrong.
    God bless you Ernie. May God be between you and harm in all the empty places you walk.

  4. Timothy Rake - Sep 4, 2009 at 5:18 PM

    What can i say that has`nt already been said about this great man.I`m 54 and when i started following the Tigers it was rare to have games on TV.Mainly weekend games.So, like many others Ernie is the #1 reason that i am still such a passionate baseball (Tiger) fan.What a year, losing George Kell and the grand old ballpark,Tiger Stadium and Ernie all about the same time.If i could have one wish, i hope the Tigers will let Ernie do 3 more innings for us.Maybe let Ernie throw out the first pitch during a post-season game, and let Tiger fans cheer for him one more time.To show him how we feel about him!

  5. waterdoc - Sep 4, 2009 at 5:19 PM

    It is always sad to see a legend broadcaster leave us, as they were the eyes that looked for you as the game happened.
    I am over 50, so hearing baseball games over the radio, was something that most people today, don’t even think about.
    The description of the weather, the crowd, the smell of the newly cut grass… This was all shear poetry.
    We have lost so many great broadcasters of the past during the last decade or two, and they will never be replaced!
    I have to tip my hat to Ernie, as he has had made peace in his life, and respect that.
    No doubt, Ernie will circle the bases and come home.

  6. gary Wolner - Sep 4, 2009 at 5:24 PM

    You stay with us Ernie, as long as you can….Do NOT go gentle! But go peaceful. One more game Ernie….so we can say goodby. HANG IN THERE OLD FRIEND!!

  7. Bobby Townsend - Sep 4, 2009 at 6:56 PM

    Ernie is as upbeat about cancer as he is about everything else. One of his most memorable calls that stands out for me was his call of Dick McAuliff grounding into a game-ending double play against the Angels in the final game of the 1967 season clinching the pennant for the Red Sox. Just the sound of the voice and as disappointed as I know he was, he always tried to put a positive spin on it. He just gives you the game and thats all the listeners want. I can say the same about the Bosox announcers Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien

  8. mike fisher - Sep 4, 2009 at 9:13 PM

    Really the two best, And what the Tigers really dtood for back in the day… I really do miss that voice calling the game and always knowing what city the fans came from.. Be well Ernie.. As for Al he was and is the greatest Tiger. I finally got to meet MY HERO about two years ago. What an honor. He truly is a fans ball player. Thanks to both of you.

  9. Doug Guido - Sep 5, 2009 at 11:53 AM

    This is for those of you who, like me , grew up listening to Ernie. I was listening on my transistor radio – AM only – in ’60 or so when he said of a foul ball hit into the stands: “and a man from Grand Rapids Michigan caught that ball”. Since I was 10 at the time, I couldn’t figure out how he knew that. I guessed that he must have met the fans as they came into the stadium that day and recognized them when they caught the ball. It wasn’t until the next season, and a year older, when I heard him say: “and a man from Saginaw Michigan caught that ball” that I knew he was lying! I had a good laugh at my naivete, (I didn’t know that word then) and forgave him immediately.
    Just one on mnay memorable moments we’ve had with this wonderful man.
    We loves ya Ernie!

  10. Jim Fox - Sep 5, 2009 at 2:28 PM

    I met Ernie at a spring training game in Sarasota FL. I told him that I grew up in the Detroit area living down in FL. now he sat down took time out and sat and talked for awhile of old times when I was a kid. A great guy! Not many guys of his caliber would do that these days.

  11. K Mccraith - Sep 8, 2009 at 10:46 AM

    If you tuned in the game and heard only crowd noise for many seconds… Ernie was probalby calling the game. One of the few who didnt talk just to hear himself talk

  12. Mark Brenner - Sep 17, 2009 at 4:23 PM

    I grew up in Boston, a Red Sox fan, but many times when the Sox played the Tigers, particularly when there was a rain delay, our announcer Ned Martin (also a another great announcer) would have Ernie Harwell come join him in the booth–and I got to listen to him. His love of the game and his down-to-earth decency came through loud and clear. You can’t fake class or sincerity–you either have it or you don’t, and Ernie Harwell had it.

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