Harwell won fans on, off airwaves

Posted May 05, 2010, at 11:05 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:26 p.m.

As sports fans, we grow comfortable with the play-by-play announcers who broadcast the games that we spend so many hours enjoying.

It doesn’t take long before we find those voices familiar. If, due to illness or a change in personnel, those voices change, we notice. We complain. We feel like we’ve lost a friend.

On Tuesday, the baseball world lost just such a friend, as longtime Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell died at the age of 92.

He may not have been our announcer — there’s not much of an audience for Tigers games in Maine, after all — but baseball fans across the nation recognized his gravelly voice and home-spun humor.

On ESPN, players and fellow broadcasters told their Harwell stories last night. Everyone, it seemed, talked about how nice he was, and how much he meant to the city of Detroit, the state of Michigan, and to the sport of baseball.

Harwell, you may not know, was once traded for a backup catcher. That’s right, a broadcaster, traded for a player. Try that one today.

And you may not know that back in 1981, he was the first active broadcaster to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I learned all that back in 1998, when I had the great fortune of meeting Harwell during the yearly awards banquet of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.

And as I learned later, my interaction with Harwell wasn’t unique. Far from it, in fact.

But when I flew back from North Carolina after the weekend’s events, I had a much greater appreciation for Ernie Harwell, the man behind the big, famous voice.

As you may expect, everyone who attended the banquet knew who Harwell was. Bob Costas was there. So was Al Michaels. And Bob Ryan. But everywhere you went, people wanted to talk to, or about, Ernie Harwell.

One reason, I’m sure, is that it’s a bit peculiar to hear a recognizable voice like Harwell’s say something mundane like “Where’d you get that shrimp cocktail? That looks really good.”

Another, however, was the fact he was simply nice to everyone he met.

I had the opportunity to meet Harwell, and played golf in the group behind his during a weekend tournament.

During a logjam on one hole, our foursome caught up with Harwell’s on a tee box. We waited and chatted for a bit before the fairway cleared.

Then Harwell stepped forward, put a tee in the ground, and took a swipe at the ball.

The shot was a thing of beauty, save for the fact that the course designer made the fairway 40 yards too narrow.

“Oh, man. Look at that!” Harwell said in his signature baritone as the ball flew into the trees well left of the fairway.

Then, as the ball remained airborne, he continued the play-by-play of his own mis-hit, adding a few choice words he never would have uttered on the radio.

His playing partners, as well as the members of my group, laughed heartily.

Emboldened by a past chat with Harwell, I stepped up as he stepped off the tee box.

“Mr. Harwell, can you do me a favor?” I asked.

“Of course, son. What can I do for you?” he replied.

“Can you follow my group around for the rest of our round?” I asked.

“Uh. Well, I could, I guess. Why?”

“Because,” I said, trying not to smile, “My group hits a lot of balls into the woods, and none of our shots sound as impressive as yours just did. If we had you doing play-by-play of our bad shots, I think we’d all just feel better about ourselves.”

Harwell laughed, patted me on the back, and started up the fairway.

“Thanks, son,” he said. “That was a good one.”

After that, for some reason, my group’s play improved. The fact one of our players wasn’t a sportswriter or a sportscaster probably helped. The fact that he was a 2-handicapper who was a member of the country club and lived in a mansion beside one fairway didn’t hurt, either.

In the trade, they call those guys “ringers.”

And our ringer was very, very good for morale.

He hit it long. He hit it straight. And when we’d get to the green, there wasn’t a putt he hadn’t seen many times before.

Our ringer would survey our 20-footer, point at a particular piece of discolored grass, and tell us how simple the game was: Just putt the ball there.

“It breaks more than you think,” he’d say … and he was right.

Ten or 12 birdies later, our group had actually finished in second or third place, and the tournament organizers gave each of us a certificate to cash in for prizes in the pro shop.

Harwell’s group, with its own ringer, also finished in the money, and before we headed back to the hotel he and I browsed through the aisles, side by side.

I had my heart set on a pretty nifty straw hat with the country club’s logo on it. I had enough credit … but the rest of my teammates weren’t as enthusiastic about my choice. They said (or suggested) that it looked a bit odd. Or odd on me. Or both.

Still, I wanted the hat.

So I came up with a way to settle matters once and for all.

“Mr. Harwell, can you do me a favor?” I asked him, once again.

Harwell looked up, recognized me as the troublemaker from the fifth tee, and chuckled.

“Sure, son. What can I do for you now?”

“I just want to know, what do you think of this hat?” I asked, modeling the chapeau for him.

“I think it looks great on you, son. Just great,” Harwell said.

“Thanks. I’ll take it, then,” I said, decision made.

“Really?” Harwell said, knowing full well that the hat was, indeed, ugly. On its own. On my head. Or both.

“My opinion means that much to you?” he asked.

“Well, yes. It does,” I told him. “But this way, if anyone back home makes fun of my hat, I can tell them that Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell told me to buy it, and they’ll have to shut up.”

For the second time that day, I was treated to Harwell’s deep, hearty laughter.

“That’s great, son. That’s great.”

So were you, Mr. Harwell. So were you.

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