Tuesday, May 04, 2010

So Long, Ernie

One of the all-time great baseball broadcasters is gone. Ernie Harwell, long time voice of the Detroit Tigers, has died.

Tiger fans had as close a connection to Harwell as any fans have had to an announcer. In one of the most knuckleheaded moves ever, the management of the Tigers' flagship station WJR allowed Harwell's contract to expire at the end of the 1991 season. The outrage from fans was so great that the station brought him back in 1993 and he would broadcast until he retired in 2002.
He's also probably the only announcer to ever be traded for a catcher. That's how he started his major league career in 1948 when the Brooklyn Dodgers acquired him from the minor league Atlanta Crackers. It seems the Crackers needed a catcher and one of the oddest trades ever was born.

When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he closed out his acceptance speech with his own definition of baseball. (Audio) He got it exactly right:

Baseball is the President tossing out the first ball of the season and a scrubby schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm. A tall, thin old man waving a scorecard from the corner of his dugout. That’s baseball. And so is the big, fat guy with a bulbous nose running home one of his (Babe Ruth’s) 714 home runs.

There’s a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh forty-six years ago. That’s baseball. So is the scout reporting that a sixteen year old pitcher in Cheyenne is a coming Walter Johnson. Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered, or booed. And then becomes a statistic.

In baseball democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rulebook. Color merely something to distinguish one team’s uniform from another. Baseball is a rookie. His experience no bigger than the lump in his throat as he begins fulfillment of his dream. It’s a veteran too, a tired old man of
thirty-five hoping that those aching muscles can pull him through another sweltering August and September. Nicknames are baseball, names like Zeke and Pie and Kiki and Home Run and Cracker and Dizzy and Dazzy.

Baseball is the cool, clear eyes of Rogers Hornsby. The flashing spikes of Ty Cobb, and an over-aged pixie named Rabbit Maranville.

Baseball just a came as simple as a ball and bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport, a business and sometimes almost even a religion.

Why the fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World’s Series catch. And then dashing off to play stick ball in the street with his teenage pals. That’s baseball. So is the husky voice of a doomed Lou Gehrig saying, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”

Baseball is cigar smoke, hot roasted peanuts, The Sporting News, ladies day, “Down in Front”, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and the Star Spangled Banner.

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. This is a game for America. Still a game for America, this baseball! Thank you.

So long, Ernie. We'll miss you.

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