Friday, January 25, 2008

Happy 90th Birthday, Ernie Harwell

Today is Ernie Harwell's birthday. And it's certainly a milestone, as he turns 90 years old. If you don't know who Harwell is, he was the broadcast voice of the Detroit Tigers for 42 years. That work earned him a place in both the Radio and Baseball Halls of Fame. To call him a legend in his field wouldn't be an overstatement, though Ernie might think that was a bit much.

My mother sent me an e-mail this morning, upon hearing the news, and asked me if I could find out how he's lived so long. Fortunately, I don't think it's any big secret. John Lowe detailed his vigorous exercise routine earlier this week in the Detroit Free Press. (I plan on e-mailing that back to Mama Cass, if for no other reason than to see her try lunges, deep squats, and jumping rope. Coming soon to YouTube.) The energy and enthusiasm with which Harwell approaches his life is truly inspirational.

Most every Detroit Tigers fan can recall happy memories of listening to Ernie call ballgames on the radio, whether it was while driving in the car, sitting out on the porch, putting in a late night at work, or at the ballpark. As strange as it might sound, I fondly remember listening to Ernie while doing homework in junior high and high school. For whatever reason, Ernie's broadcast was the perfect background noise. His voice sounded warm coming out of an old Sony radio my dad passed down to me. I could pay attention to the ballgame and still concentrate on my studies. He was never a distraction.

Going into the sixth season since his retirement in 2002, it occurred to me this week that with the Tigers' recent success, there is going to be a whole generation of fans that will have grown up following the team without having listened to Ernie Harwell call play-by-play. (That's presuming that they'd listen on the radio anyway, of course.) It's difficult for me to imagine being a Tigers fan without having Ernie's voice and signature calls woven into your memories.

One more memory from the high school scrapbook: I remember Ernie appearing at the Michigan Union bookstore one Friday afternoon in promotion of his book, Diamond Gems. But the signing was at 2:00 p.m., during my English class. And I loved that class, so I didn't want to skip it. But I had to meet Ernie Harwell. So the day before, I told my teacher, Mrs. Gray, that I wasn't going to be in class on Friday and why. She smiled and said, "That's fine with me. Everyone should have a chance to meet Ernie Harwell. Just write about it for me, okay?"

I believe most of the one-page essay I wrote was about how thrilled I was to hear Ernie say "Hello, Ian" after I introduced myself and said who I'd like him to sign the book to. He also autographed a baseball, which I gave to my father. (I didn't tell Dad that I skipped class to get it, however. He wouldn't have been too happy about that.)

I haven't seen that English teacher since I graduated high school, but if I did, I'd tell her she was right: Everyone should have a chance to meet Ernie Harwell. Wherever you are these days, Liz Gray, thank you.

Happy 90th Birthday, Ernie.

▪▪ Tom Gage talks to Ernie about each of his 10 decades in this life.

▪▪ Check out The Detroit Tiger Weblog's interview with Ernie from three years ago.