Ernie Harwell: Tigers legend, Michigan's beloved son

Ernie Harwell, who broadcast Detroit Tigers games for 42 years, passed away on Tuesday.

National Baseball Hall of Fame/AP
Ernie Harwell broadcasts a baseball game on the radio in this 1950 photo provided by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

You know how you can tell when a person is from Michigan? If you ask them where they’re from, they’ll hold up their hand, like it was a map of the state, and point to their home town.

But today, you won’t have to ask anything. It should be easy to spot Michiganders, because they’ll be crying.

Ernie Harwell, the broadcasting voice of the Detroit Tigers for more than 40 years, passed away on Tuesday, at the age of 92. As many in the state have noted, Mr. Harwell quite possibly was the most beloved Michigander of all time.

This was due to more than just his rich voice, tinged with hints of his Georgia boyhood. True, Harwell was the soundtrack of summer for a place where summer is all too short. He was a link to the glory years, the 1968 and 1984 World Champions, and the exploits of such famous players as Denny McLain, Al Kaline, Mark Fidrych, and Kirk Gibson.

Mostly, he was nice, not just in a pleasant, surface way, but to the depths of his personality. If you look up “Harwell” in the Almighty’s dictionary, the definition will be one word: “class.”

In the speech he gave upon his induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1981, he said that his life and times can be summed up by two famous quotations. One, from Yankees pitcher Lefty Grove, was “I’d rather be lucky than good.” The other, from the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, was “I am a part of all that I have met.”

“I know that I’m a lot luckier than I’m good,” Harwell told the Hall of Fame crowd.

Harwell was the sort of person who as a famous broadcaster in 2002 took the time to steer a rookie reporter he’d never met around the Tigers' spring training camp in Lakeland, Fla.

He was the kind of person who has long said that the gutsiest performance of the 1984 World Series did not come from a player, but from his broadcast partner, Paul Carey, who carried on in a professional manner despite the fact that at the time his wife had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

In his 1986 autobiography, “Tuned to Baseball,” Harwell said “I believe in miracles.” In one miracle, Harwell wrote, his life was saved when, in April, 1944, he was transferred to the base newspaper at Camp LeJeune two days before his battalion was shipped to the Pacific, where it suffered 80 percent casualties. In another, his career was saved when, in 1956, he met for dinner with a representative of the brewery that owned the broadcast rights for the Baltimore Orioles. At the time, that was Harwell’s job, but he was pretty sure he was about to be fired.

The representative asked for Chinese food. They walked up the street to a Baltimore Chinese restaurant Harwell had never visited. As soon as they were seated, the waiter asked them to sign a petition to keep broadcaster Ernie Harwell on the air.

“You could have knocked me over with a chop stick,” wrote Harwell in his autobiography. Of course, he kept his job.

Harwell ended up spending 42 of his 55 years in broadcasting in Detroit. Generations heard him say, of a player taking a called third strike, “he stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.”

Home runs were “looooonnnnnng gone.” Foul balls were always caught by “a lady from Saugatuck,” or “a young man from Traverse City,” or some other identifiable place. Many fans grew up without knowing that Harwell was pulling those place names out of his hat.

Harwell officially retired in 2002. Told last year he had but months to live, due to illness, he took the news calmly, saying that he had had a good life and was ready for whatever came next.

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Lulu, as well as two sons and two daughters.

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