Sadness hangs like fog over Michigan today: Legendary Tigers play-by-play announcer Ernie Harwell has passed away at age 92. A lifelong radio man who spent over 40 years working in Detroit, Harwell’s career actually took off in New York. His big break came in 1948, when Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey traded an actual player to the “Atlanta Crackers” minor-league team for the rights to Harwell’s services (regular Dodgers announcer Red Barber was sick). Harwell was also one of the men calling the 1951 Giants-Dodgers playoff game; tapped to head NBC’s nationwide TV broadcast, Harwell joked that he felt sorry for his colleague Russ Hodges, stuck working the game for mere local radio, until Hodges’s astonished call of Bobby Thomson’s home run (“The Giants win the pennant!”) became forever linked with perhaps the most famous sports moment in American history.
It’s always strange for outsiders to watch the mourning of local broadcasting legends, like standing in the corner of a wake for someone you never knew; every baseball fan knows who Ernie Harwell was, but very few outside Michigan probably ever heard him call a game. Harwell did work Tigers TV broadcasts later in his career, but retired in 2002, missing out on the Internet and satellite era that has allowed fans across the country to appreciate such old-school titans as Vin Scully, who still calls Dodgers games by himself at age 82. Furthermore, affection for announcers is one of those phenomena that most sports fans probably question themselves about from time to time; it can feel a little silly, taken in the abstract, to have an emotional connection to a stranger who sits in a booth and talks about a game for a living. That sense of misplaced values is only amplified when you’re watching some alien outgroup of fans celebrate the life of someone you’re only passingly familiar with.
But allow this Tigers fan to try to explain it for a second. (I really did grow up listening to Ernie Harwell, sometimes even on a freakin’ transistor radio, in a second-story bedroom of a house next to a cornfield.) Baseball was the real first love of many of our lives — so exciting that it made us feel like we’d won a lottery to live in this particular world. But as we get older, we all learn that the existence of great things doesn’t mean that much without someone to share them with. And listening to the game in the backyard by yourself on a summer night — you can do it alone, physically, but there isn’t a person alive who can do it without thinking of fathers, mothers, sons, friends they’ve known since they were 10, friends they just met yesterday, friends they’ll never see again. We mourn the passing of strangers because for us, Ernie Harwell — whoever your Ernie Harwell is, whatever your baseball is — is, and always will be, one of those best friends. “I am a part of all that I have met,” said Harwell, quoting Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” on the day he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Last night the Tigers happened to play the Twins at the new Target Field. It was one of the first Twins games played outdoors in Minnesota in decades. During the seventh inning, the Twins announced Harwell had died. Moments later, and I kid you not, a rainbow appeared, arching over the outfield and the Minneapolis skyline. Harwell’s body will lie in repose at Comerica Park tomorrow beginning at 7 a.m., and the team will keep the line open until the last person who wishes to pay their respects has done so, all night if they have to, and they’ll probably have to. “In my almost 92 years on this earth, the good Lord has blessed me with a great journey,” he said last September from home plate in Detroit, shortly after the announcement that he had incurable cancer. “The blessed part of that journey is that it’s going to end here, in the great state of Michigan.”
At his Hall of Fame induction, Harwell concluded with a long ode to baseball that he’d written in 1955. “This is a game for America,” he finished, his voice rising. “Still a game for America!” May it ever be thus, and may Ernie Harwell rest in peace.