The Wonder Of Being Ernie
In 1939, Lou Gehrig called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Like the Iron Horse, another man of honor now faces a final inning. You will recognize the name, have heard his lyric verse. We are the lucky men and women to have known broadcaster W. Earnest Harwell.
Gehrig died of infantile paralysis. Last month Harwell, 91, announced he has inoperable cancer of the bile duct, shocking, a writer said, “his countless friends, admirers, and listeners.” For half-a-century, Ernie was radio’s beach bud, camp counselor, pillow pal: mythy and sweetly rural, his voice falling lightly on the ear.
Listing much, biography call tell too little: born, 1918; World War II veteran; announcer, 1948-2002, mostly with the Tigers; best-selling author; lyricist, 70 songs; contributor; Collier’s to Reader’s Digest; creator, baseball’s greatest essay, A Game For All America. Like Ernie’s plaque, it now hangs in Cooperstown.
Living one of these lives would be exceptional. Extraordinarily, Harwell has lived them all. Even more, as Red Sox radio prosopopeia Ned Martin once said: “The wonder of Ernie goes far beyond being so talented behind the microphone.” The musical Peter Pan sang “I’ve got to crow.” Having much to crow about, our friend never has.
I met him in the late 1970s, Ernie kindly writing a blurb for my first book, on Dizzy Dean. Later we staged series at the Smithsonian Institution and Baseball Hall of Fame. Out of the blue, he would call about a project, a certain game, another season, doing this, I think, with hundreds of people: each day a “new adventure,” as he now calls being “ready for whatever God’s got.”
At 6, he had been Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell’s paper boy; 8, minor league batboy; 20s, sports editor, Marine magazine Leatherneck. Talking, you wouldn’t know. Ernie sang a duet with Pearl Bailey, spoke at a Billy Graham crusade, invented a bottle can opener, had a race horse named after him, wrote for Sammy Fain and Johnny Mercer, and calmed Motown in 1967 after rioting killed 43. You had to find it from someone else.
Harwell donated the world’s largest private baseball book collection to the Detroit Public Library. He became the first sports Voice to air coast-to-coast TV, be baptized in the Jordan River, and be traded for a player. He called the Tigers “Tiges” and a double play “two for the price of one” and how “a batter just stood there like a house by the side of the road”: language-made-literate, making the complex simple. He was always there.
Ernie understood radio v. television: TV, still life; the wireless, a sonata. He grasped our two major sports: “football, packaged for the screen; baseball, the mind.” He even made the impersonal (foul ball) personal: “It’s snagged,” he said, fictively, “by a guy from Alma, Michigan” — or Grand Rapids or Detroit. As a boy, I told Mom that Harwell had a lot of friends. He did.
In December 1990, ex-football coach-turned-Tigers president Bo Schembechler fired W. Earnest, the Grinch stealing Christmas. Bayed the Detroit Free Press: “A gentleman wronged.” Rightly rehired, he was later named by Sports Illustrated Voice of baseball’s all-time dream team. Always learning, Ernie now has much to teach: How did he do all this with such magnanimity and grace?
Wife Lulu of 69 years became Harwell’s best friend. Their four children, reading, and exercise kept him young. Raised in Washington, Georgia, he distilled a small town’s rhythm and ritual and sitting on a front porch and “hearing Mom and Dad” talk about the people of their place. Finally, Ernie would tell you, he believed in The Kindly Light That Led.
In 1973, Harwell wrote the tune Move Over Babe, Here Comes Henry as Hank Aaron prepared to cross a most Ruthian line. Each Sunday Ernie sang more timeless songs: Rock of Ages and Amazing Grace and Abide With Me. In a sense, his voice was itself melodic — gentle, beckoning — redolent of the South’s lulling, siren past.
Baseball’s man of honor says he has “maybe a year or half-a-year left. Maybe two months. Maybe less.” Oscar Wilde penned The Importance of Being Earnest. Harwell’s life shows the Wonder of Being Ernie. God bless him, and He will.