Opinion: Run in with Ernie Harwell


At the gift shop of the Louisville Slugger museum (cool place, you should go, and here endeth the plug) in (duh) Louisville I ran into an old friend: Ernie Harwell.

“But Mike,” you say, “That’s impossible. Ernie Harwell, the radio voice of your beloved Detroit Tigers for more than 40 years, died in 2010 at age 92.” (You knowledgeable baseball fan, you.)

True. But I didn’t say I ran into him in person. No, I found Ernie on a boxed set of DVDs showing four important games from Tigers history. Yay.

On a disc of the World Series championship game from 1984 (Tigers beat San Diego, 8-4, but you knew that already) there’s a bonus track – Ernie’s description as broadcast over WJR radio.

What a trip, nostalgia and otherwise.

The nostalgia part is easy to understand. Ernie’s broadcasts were a big part of why I was a baseball-crazed kid (as opposed to the, baseball-crazed adult I have become) growing up in Northern Indiana. Many were the summer nights I would lie in my stifling bedroom thrilling to his exquisite descriptions of Tigers games, on a transistor radio turned low so as not to disturb those who were engaged in less-interesting pursuits, such as sleeping.

Ernie was also on the soundtrack later in my life. I have fond memories of being with my softball buddies (the legendary Owens Sunoco team of the Sturgis, MI recreational league), gathered around a car, doors and windows open, the radio tuned to the Ernie’s broadcast, drinking our post-game beers.

And then there was a short, sweet period later in life when you could listen to Major League games on your computer – for free – and there was Ernie, calling the play-by-play for the Tigers. I’m not saying I ever did this at work but I will say I was grateful for the invention of headphones.

That wraps up the nostalgia part of our program. The other part of the trip comes from listening to Ernie and realizing how much things have changed in baseball announcing. I watch a lot of ball games and just like with my transistor radio, I keep the sound turned down as low – not because people are sleeping, but because the announcers are so annoying. It’s as if someone passed down a rule that said each second of airtime must be filled with blather, subject not important. You end up learning as much about where the color man had dinner as you do about the game.

Ernie Harwell and the announcers of his era – guys like Red Barber, Mel Allen, Jack Buck and Vin Scully – knew that they didn’t have to talk constantly to describe a game. They understand the importance of the silences between the sentences. And they knew that the game – not their take on it, but the game itself – was what mattered. About the only guy who comes close these days is Bob Costas, and he still has a thing or two to learn.

Which is why it was nice to run into Ernie down in Louisville the other day. Listening to him took me back and reminded me of how I came to love baseball so much – in no small part because of a voice coming through the tinny speaker of a transistor radio on a hot summer night. Ernie’s voice.


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