“People ask me what I do in the winter when there is no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” – Rogers Hornsby
When I got the news that Ernie Harwell had died, I was, appropriately, at a baseball game. I looked at the message on my phone and then heard the distracting crack of a bat. A five foot, ten inch, 215 pound, left-handed, designated hitter for a university team had just gotten the better part of a high and outside fastball. The baseball appeared to rise into the cloudless evening sky of Central Texas and hang there in the light that shimmers between the ending of a day and the arrival of night. Momentarily, though, the ball rose on a gentle breeze before spinning to the ground in a bullpen beyond the fence in left field. I had no other thought than to contemplate how Mr. Harwell might have described that home run.
If America had a voice, it would sound like Ernie Harwell. He was resonant and reassuring without being intrusive. Listeners heard confidence and kindliness as a subtext to his descriptions of baseball games. We thought we knew Mr. Harwell but he definitely knew us. Harwell understood that there was an almost sacred connection between fans and their teams and he always gave us reason to believe in happy outcomes. If only we got one more runner on and the tying run came to the plate, who knew what might happen? This was the optimism with which he lived his life and it is narrative he told so well in Michigan, a place where hope can be a transient thing. He spoke the story of America in the metaphor of baseball. Learn to lose with grace and win with humility and never stop trying.
Mostly, though, the Tiger’s legendary broadcaster sounded like summer and when I heard him describe a bounding ball to second there were visions of watermelons and picnics and the lake in front of my eyes, almost dancing over the melting Michigan snow banks. Mr. Harwell’s voice on the radio meant that the sun was moving northward across the equator and all the rhythms of the world were swinging sweetly to a song of vacation and ninth inning walk off homeruns. As soon as I heard him broadcasting each spring, I became convinced I had seen my last snowfall of the winter. Mr. Harwell was the boy eternal who never quit loving his childhood game and refused to think there was anything more important than being a kid excited about stolen bases and strikeouts and the beautiful line made by a well-struck ball. Who can say he was wrong?
We lived among the southern families that came up from Dixie to work in Michigan’s car plants and there was an overgrown field on the edge of our neighborhood we turned into a diamond. Our worn out baseball was covered with electrician’s tape and our wooden bats were usually taped and tacked where the handles had been broken. We shared a few gloves and when we played the game we dreamed of making the clutch hit or the diving catch in the big leagues, usually for the Tigers, and always with Ernie Harwell describing our great achievements. On days that there were little league games, we would play catch near the radio, which had been placed next to a back door, and we listened to Mr. Harwell call the Tiger games until it was time to leave for our own contest.
Ernie Harwell’s voice was the mood music to those lovely Michigan days when cottony clouds drifted overhead, dandelions bloomed on lawns, and almost anyone who wanted to work had a job. He was the texture to a world where cars were coming off of assembly lines and families were buying homes and people from California were trying to get to the Midwest to be a part of Motown. The jobs and the technology and the music were all being made in that magical place and the Tigers were leading the Yankees in the chase for the pennant. Al Kaline and Norm Cash were giants but Ernie Harwell sent them out to live in our houses and cars and made us feel a part of a rush to greatness.
I do not recall a summer day of my youth where I did not hear the voice of that good and gentle man. I never knew Mr. Harwell but I had heard that he was moral and humble and always had time for the fans that loved him as much as they loved the players. On my visits back to Michigan as an adult, when I heard him on the radio, I was able to close my eyes and go back instantly to the days when I dreamed of replacing Rocky Colavito in left field for Detroit. I believed in the place that was implicit in the sound of Ernie Harwell’s voice and it was hopeful and responded to effort and led to success. As a homesick professional broadcaster living on the Texas border, I once wrote a letter to Mr. Harwell and told him how I aspired to become the Tiger play-by-play man when he retired. Predictably, he sent back a gracious note wishing me well and thanking me for being an unfaltering fan.
The year Detroit caught fire with race and riots the only voice that I thought was informed by reason was Mr. Harwell’s. In 1967, when Americans were fighting with each other over differences in skin pigmentation, I hid in baseball and was comforted by the constancy of the game. Tiger baseball brought us back together and Mr. Harwell’s voice stitched us into a single city. The next year we triumphed when the hometown team won the pennant and the World Series in the last year of division play. I was beside a radio and can still recall the description by Mr. Harwell. “Swung on and there’s a line drive base hit to left field. Wert is rounding third; he’ll score and the Tigers will win the pennant. Let’s listen to the bedlam in Tiger Stadium.”
I choose to believe there is a place where baseball is always being played; the sun shines perpetually, there is a gentle breeze to left field, and the players are eternally young and strong. The stadium is filled with fans and excitement and there is a gentle voice on the radio telling everyone who is not there to, “Come on out to the ballpark. There’s still a lot of great baseball to be enjoyed.” Those of us who have not made it to the game yet can still hear Ernie Harwell describing how wondrous things will be as soon as we arrive and look out on that perfect green diamond.
We are still listening, Mr. Harwell. We always will.