Skip to content

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. jim l - Sep 4, 2009 at 9:22 AM

    Ernie is a treasure to many and I can only wish him and his family the best. There will never be another Mr. Ernie Harwell.

  2. John - Sep 4, 2009 at 9:34 AM

    As a kid growing up in Detroit with Kaline playing and Harwell & kell calling the plays. That will be how i remember Tiger Baseball

  3. Rodney - Sep 4, 2009 at 9:56 AM

    Each summer as a kid, I would spend time at my Grandfather’s house in Auburn Hills. Grandpa taught me all that he could about baseball and the most important thing he shared with me was…Ernie Harwell. This is a sad day

  4. John - Sep 4, 2009 at 10:14 AM

    I remember listening to Ernie living in Pittsburgh. He is the greatest baseball announcers I have ever listenend to besides Vin Scully. May Ernie live through all of this and live to 100+ years. There is nobody like em in all of baseball.

  5. shelly - Sep 4, 2009 at 11:13 AM

    First George Kell, now Ernie. This is a sad day for not only Detroit and it’s fans, but for the entire baseball community throughout the country. I admire Ernie’s upbeat attitude towards his illness, but we all know the inevetable outcome. Being a lifelong Tigers fan, I am happy and proud to say that we had him… and he is one of the brightest treasures Detroit ever will have. Ernie is truly one of a kind, and baseball will never find another to come close to him.

  6. Allen - Sep 4, 2009 at 12:53 PM

    I had the same experiences growing up in Detroit. I used to go to sleep listening to Ernie Harwell and the Tigers. I used to tape a transister radio to the handlebars of my bike and ride around on Saturday afternoons listening to the Tigers. Godspeed to Mr. Harwell.

  7. JeffH - Sep 4, 2009 at 12:59 PM

    Summer nights growing up with Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey was as close to heaven on earth as you can get. God Bless You, Ernie.

  8. JFlakes - Sep 4, 2009 at 1:35 PM

    My father was stationed at Kincheloe AFB in the UP of Michigan in the early 60’s and I would listen to
    ernie almost everyday! he is am important and special memory for me – one of my good one’s -which make him all the more special! It is not wrong to say” I love him” because i do and will always. thank You Sir for being you!

  9. DustinE - Sep 4, 2009 at 1:56 PM

    Ernie is a great man who is often left off the top broadcasters list when people refer to the greatest of all time, but those who heard him in Detroit know he is one of the few greats. He is already missed on the broadcasts, and will be missed when he passes.

  10. Laura D - Sep 4, 2009 at 2:07 PM

    I had decades, from childhood into adulthood, of Harwell’s voice and homey personality joining me as I lived and died by the Tiger’s fortunes. He is truly history on two legs and the best baseball announcer ever, IMO.
    One on my sons gave me Ernie’s book in audiobook form, read by Harwell himself, and though we will lose him one sad day, I will always have his voice to listen to and remember.
    God bless and keep you, Ernie. You will always be a treasure to me and to other Tiger fans.

  11. Matt S - Sep 4, 2009 at 2:17 PM

    3 men on 2 men out, game tied 1-1 in the 9th. McDaniel checking the sign with Jake Gibbs. Here’s the pitch, Wert swings it’s a line shot, base hit center field, here comes Kaline to score. And the Tigers have won their first pennant since 19 hundred and 45, let’s listen to the bedlam here at Tiger Stadium. (Tigers clinch the pennant in ’68 paraphrased from my memory).
    Ernie Harwell – simply the best

  12. Paul P - Sep 4, 2009 at 2:47 PM

    Harwellisms: Foul ball down the third base line, and a young man from Houghton Lake (or fill in the blank) will take that souvenir home.
    Strike three, he stood there like the house by the side of the road.
    He was the best, it wasnt’t until I was almost an adult that I realized he had no idea who caught those foul balls.

  13. Mark - Sep 4, 2009 at 2:55 PM

    The voices of the game today just don’t match guys like Ernie Harwell, Bob Prince, Harry Kalas and Jack Buck. I miss these guys on the air…

  14. Jay - Sep 4, 2009 at 2:58 PM

    Im not a Tiger fan, I’m a Jays fan and remember the 80’s with some degree of pain.
    However, I also remember listening to Harwell in those games versus the Jays and it didnt take much time to realize how great this guy is.
    Guys like Harwell turn baseball games into baseball culture. Tiger fans are very, very lucky to have had him.

  15. Gman - Sep 4, 2009 at 3:12 PM

    Summer night under the sheets with a transistor radio plugged into one ear a flashlight and a score book/pencil in hand listening to the most wonderful full voice in the world describing my heroes. No matter how long he has, or how long I have, I will never forget those peaceful wonderful nights listening to Ernie Harwell. God bless you Ernie. I say the Tigers should win the world series for you and off to the good night.
    Go Tigers…

  16. kelley - Sep 4, 2009 at 3:22 PM

    i seem to recall ernie reciting something from the “song of solomon” every first broadcast of spring training… something about the turtle coming out of its shell, he made baseball poetry to listen to.
    God Bless you Ernie!

  17. Murray - Sep 4, 2009 at 3:25 PM

    Ernie is truly “one of a kind”…one of my most cherished memories,is of Ernie at spring training in Lakeland Florida… it would take him about 1/2 hour to get fom the ground to the broadcast booth, everyone wanted to chat and shake Ernie’s hand and ask for his autograph and when I moved to Windsor,on my own in 1968,listening to Ernie made me a Tiger fan forever.

  18. Joe M (Formerly of Detroit) Lakeland - Sep 4, 2009 at 3:32 PM

    How sad indeed…
    As most of you have said, Ernie will be missed for sure. A pillar of the community, a baseball legend, and a overall nice guy.
    I was looking forward to seeing him in Lakeland, Fl, as I just moved down here from Detroit.
    Selfishly, I would love to see and hear him one more time… But, know how cancer can ravage the body, I hope that he doesn’t suffer long…
    You will be missed Ernie…

  19. Clif - Sep 4, 2009 at 3:37 PM

    His voice will echo in my mind and heart for the rest of my days on this earth !
    And when my time is up here and upon my passing , I hope to hear .. He’s Loooong Gone !
    God Bless and keep Ernie Harwell !

  20. Duane - Sep 4, 2009 at 3:39 PM

    I grew up a tiger fan, i will always treasure those nights listening Ernie and George calling tiger games on WJR. I loved it when they had him on t.v. as a guest during a tiger game. I hate when things change and we lose such wonderful people. His calling of tiger games made me feel like i was there. I still have the transistor radio that i used those many years ago. I hope Ernie knows how many lives he has touched through the years. I am proud to say he made a great impression on me!!!!!!!

  21. Ben Bonner - Sep 4, 2009 at 3:40 PM

    Living in Philadelphia I grew up listening Phillies announcers By Saam and Harry Kalas. After moving to San Francisco, I listened to Giant’s announcer Lon Simmons. All three of them excellent radio play by play announcers. I live in the Northwest now and was driving down the freeway a number of years ago and listening to post season baseball on the radio and kept asking myself “Who is this announcer? This guy is GOOD.” It turned out to be Ernie Harwell. Tiger fans, you guys were lucky to be listening to one of the best.

  22. Keith - Sep 4, 2009 at 3:54 PM

    As blessed as those of us on the West Coast feel about having Vin Scully, I know what a blessing it was for baseball fans in Michigan to have had the the gift of Ernie Harwell calling Tigers games. I was fortunate enough to have heard some of Ernie’s work on trips to Detroit as well as the one season we were honored to have him calling Angels games. A true gentleman and a tremendous voice of the game. Who can forget his classic “game for all America” – hear it at
    God Bless You, Ernie.

  23. Phil Anderson - Sep 4, 2009 at 3:56 PM

    I grew up with Ernie and George and the others, and all I can say is that while we seldom had the good team, we always had GREAT announcers!

  24. Keith - Sep 4, 2009 at 4:02 PM

    The direct link I cited doesn’t seem to work. Try

  25. Eric - Sep 4, 2009 at 4:14 PM

    I’m in my 20s but i listened to Ernie from the year i was born to 2002. I was at his last game as an announcer and i remember the chant of Ernie’s name and seeing these people in their 30s and up tearing up as he drove around the field at Comerica Park . I remember during the 2006 ALDS I was in my dorm room and Ernie came on. I can’t recall who was pitching or batting but a yankee player struck out looking and Ernie’s call was “He stood there like a house on the side of the road and watched it go by.” I called my house and before the first ring finished my dad picked up and said i knew you were going to call after that one. It’s those memories that Ernie gave me and for that I say thank you Ernie, you will be missed by fans young and old.

Leave Comment

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!

Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. G. Stanton (2675)
  2. C. Correa (2626)
  3. H. Ramirez (2612)
  4. G. Springer (2595)
  5. B. Crawford (2394)
  1. M. Teixeira (2386)
  2. H. Pence (2325)
  3. J. Baez (2305)
  4. J. Hamilton (2236)
  5. Y. Puig (2211)