Celeste Headlee, The Takeaway
Celeste Headlee, is a former co-host of The Takeaway.
"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." - Ernie Harwell at his National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony (August 2, 1981)
Before I start writing about Ernie Harwell, I feel the need to again to say that I am not a native of Michigan. Harwell wasn't either; he was born in Atlanta and worked as a paperboy there, even delivering the daily rag to novelist Margaret Mitchell. It was his southern roots that give Harwell that distinctive twang in his voice, something he never lost through 55 years of calling baseball games. But by the time he died this week, he had two hometowns: Atlanta by right of birth and Detroit by bonds of love and true loyalty.
Ernie Harwell started out writing for The Sporting News at age 16 but he found his true vocation when he leaned in to the mic at WSB radio calling games for the Atlanta Crackers (no one is quite sure what the origin of that name is, by the way). And what happened next is part of baseball lore; Dodger announcer Red Barber fell sick, and the New York team wanted Harwell to replace him. But the Crackers didn't want to let him go, so the Dodgers sent catcher Cliff Dapper to Atlanta and Ernie Harwell became the only broadcaster ever traded for a player in 1948.
And then, another famous incident with long-lasting effects on the game. Harwell decided to go to the Giants for the 1950 season, and the Dodgers chose Vin Scully as his replacement. Ernie called Scully's promotion his greatest contribution to baseball, in his typically humble style. While he was with the Giants, he called the famous home run heard round the world in 1951 when Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson crushed the Dodgers pennant dreams. Ernie's shout of "It's gone" was overshadowed by Russ Hodges' famous cries of "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" Later, Harwell said, "There was no replay on TV, no film of what i said, and only me and Mrs. Harwell know i was on TV that day." Ever a self-effacing, modest man.
It was in Detroit, though, that Harwell found his home. Detroit is perhaps best known for its cars and its music, but here's something you may not know about the Motor City: this city loves its champions. When Steve Yzerman retired as captain of the Red Wings, an enormous photo of him was hung on the side of a downtown skyscraper. It read, "Born: Cranbrook, BC, 1965, Adopted: Detroit, MI, 1983." Beloved is a common moniker before the name of many Detroit athletes and artists.
Ernie Harwell was born in Atlanta, worked for years in New York, but Detroit loved him as a hometown boy. In 1991, when Harwell was in his 70s, the Tigers fired him. Michiganians were outraged. But then-team president Bo Schembechler declared that Harwell's firing was "not going to change no matter how much clamor is made over it." Schembechler left the team the next year, and Harwell was brought back. He says he astonished at the reaction of the fans. He said, "I thought somebody'd call the ballpark, say, 'Who was that guy who used to do the game?' "
Ernie Harwell retired by his own choice in 2002. After his final broadcast, he stepped onto the field to say farewell to Tigers fans. For the last time, Ernie took the mic at Comerica Park and thanked the people of Michigan for being the greatest fans in the world: "I think I owe thanks to the people who have listened to me over the years, who tuned in on the radio. They have given me a warmth and loyalty that I've never been able to repay. The way they have reached out to me has certainly been the highlight of my life."
Merriam-Webster defines beloved as "dear to the heart." And Ernie Harwell was dearly beloved. He meant so much more than baseball to the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan. A great man but more importantly, a gentle man. Sleep peacefully, after a life well lived, and loved.