I grew up in what is arguably the most bankrupt major city in the US (morally and financially)—Detroit. Actually living in the city for a while and then just outside of it afforded me the opportunity to go to The Corner multiple times a season. I remember attending games and having to wiggle back and forth to see the entire field. Those obstructed view seats seemed everywhere when I was a kid. Blocked views aside, I got to see some of the greatest Tigers play: Kirk Gibson, Mark “The Bird” Fydrich, Jack Morris, Sweet Lou, Cecil Fielder, and on and on. My most prominent memory was getting to watch The Bird, once. 1977. I was 9. Indeed The Bird was “the Word” in Motown. His odd and unique delivery, the argument over whether or not he spoke to the ball, and all the quirks that came with him. It was a show with him. Baseball doesn’t have many outstanding quirky players like this, instead of headlines watching the wackiness of a great athlete, we get inundated with PED reports, of suspensions as a result of the Biogenesis investigation. Mark was refreshing. He was so awkward. And I actually wanted, for a brief time, to be as odd as him, but at my Little League position of catcher. It was a fleeting thought as my knees and eyes starting going, so it was off to a different sport. RIP Bird.
As much as I enjoyed that one vivid moment and watching him on TV, it wasn’t the best or most important part of my Tigers experience. Not by a long shot. The best part of growing up a Detroit Tigers fan wasn’t the players of that era or the past. I knew the storied history of the Tigers. Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, and Hank Greenberg are just a few; the list goes on and on. It wasn’t the storied history of the franchise. It wasn’t how awesome Tiger Stadium seemed as a kid when I went to games. It wasn’t any of that. It was a voice. A golden voice. A calm voice. THE voice of baseball.
THE voice of the Tigers. THE voice of MLB. He was ranked 16th by the American Sportscasters Association a few years ago, but he really isn’t that low on the list. Not to those who grew up hearing the man who introduced the start of each season with “The Voice of the Turtle”.
Harwell had a way of describing the action like no other commentator before or after. He put you in the game. And you enjoyed the game as though you were there. Regardless of where you were in Michigan, you got WJR. And when you turned the dial to 1040 AM during a game, you heard Ernie. Listening to Ernie was like listening to a loving, caring father and how he would talk about how proud he is of his kids. His delivery made you proud to be his son or daughter.
To me, he had superpowers. He knew where everyone in Tiger Stadium was from. He knew all the stats. This was before computers instantly spat out trivia and data for the announcers in a split second; this was when you had to know the facts, because they might not reach you in a timely fashion. There was no retrosheet.org then. He knew every player, every coach, every umpire, every ball boy, every batboy, every vendor hawking their goods in the crowd. And he had a way of making the listener feel as though you were part of this huge family of Detroit. He instilled pride in an increasingly demoralized and ruined city. And only dads, only fathers, knew that stuff.
Like most kids, my father Ernie, was an impressive figure until I hit a certain age; he amazed me until I was 18 or 19 the time when awe in older people you looked up to seems to dwindle and even die. That’s when he got fired by no fault of his own; it’s also when I FINALLY understood his power to know where EVERY fan in the park hailed from. Usually on foul balls, but occasionally on homeruns, Harwell would announce that, “A fan from [fill in the city name] is taking home that ball home tonight” or something very close to it. And he had all sorts of unique signature sayings. I wanted to catch a ball so badly just so I could listen to Ernie say where I am from on the transistor radio of someone close to me. Back in those days old timers brought transistor radios to the game, often just to hear Ernie announcing the game; now people tweet and Instagram throughout the games. I didn’t realize how incredibly disappointed I would be to hear him say I was from Milford, Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Grand Rapids or any place other than my city.
I call Ernie my “other father” because he taught me about the game. I learned more about baseball and the Tigers from him than any book, website or newspaper could. He translated it all into real life for me, there are cheats. I didn’t understand a lot of his teachings as a kid, but 30 years later, writing this, it all hits me. It was through him, not my real father, that I learned about baseball imitating life. In baseball and in life, men battle each other in one-on-one situations. The more prepared person usually wins, but there are cheats. The more practiced, more dedicated, a person is, the better they do. He showed me that life is a struggle. That it is both an individual sport and a team sport at the same time. That the teams change; sometimes the person entering your life is a pinch runner, a reliever, or a defensive substitution. That mentors are your coaches and managers. That friends are your teammates in life. He helped me understand that there are always going to be slumps, but it’s what you do while in them that determines if you will get into the Hall of Fame or be labeled average. That focus and tenacity, though perceived as negatives by most, are better to have than to not have, to be a push-over or an agree-to-disagree attitude, neither of which get you very far. Often, it occurred to me, though Ernie never actually said it as far as I recall, there is no comprise in life; and there certainly isn’t any in baseball.
Ernie taught me that a sacrifice bunt is as good as a hit because it moves the runner into scoring position. I learned the temperaments of various players. But, as I said above, I learned that baseball is like life: In life you hit, you strike out, you score, you win, you lose, but you never stop playing. Ernie helped put life into some perspective to me, unlike how my actual parents did. My biological father never realized how much Ernie meant to me. He thought I was goofing off and not listening to anything. But I was. I was ignoring him and listening to what Ernie was saying.
Like most kids, I didn’t always listen to my father or mother. I did typical stupid kid things, things that get kids thrown in jail now. I grew up when kids got in fights then were best friends afterward. Nowadays, they just kill each other and ruin their lives because they didn’t have a father like Ernie who taught them to battle, but not be a moron. No one taught them manners or how to cope with adversity, they didn’t have the role models I had then. Sure we did dumb kid stuff, just as they do today, but what differs is how we handled the typical dumb kid stuff. Today, too many kids don’t know how to settle things with their bats or their words then forget about it over a pizza, coney or ice cream cone. Now, if you call someone a name, you’re considered a bully. Criticize someone and you’re a bully. Back in my youth, you did that, you usually got hit, or the person generally called you something back. Now you get put in jail.
While hardly perfect, my friends and I all knew that life is baseball. We settle matters with our actions and move on. Most ball players, we learned over the years, went out for a beer after the game with the opposing players. They didn’t shoot theit opponent for beating them. Yes, Ernie even taught me about that aspect of life in some small way and, whether consciously or unconsciously, we emulated our favorite players as we perceived them through Ernie’s voice. I wanted to be Mark Fydrich because of Ernie. I wanted to be Alan Trammel because of Ernie. I wanted to be Kirk Gibson because of Ernie. I wanted to be Rusty Staub because of Ernie. I wanted to be a Detroit Tigers player. Because of Ernie.
His sayings; the emphasis on the “long” when announcing the delivery of a homerun; the slight raspiness in the voice. Whether he really knew the people or not is really a moot point now that I am in my 40s. The bottom line is baseball was real life and real family with Ernie. You were at the stadium. You felt the excitement. You felt a part of a family. And you learned about life. That is all that ever has and ever will matter.
Though they may like to take credit for doing so, these are the valuable lessons my parents never actually taught me, my father Ernie did. And now, looking back 30 years, I am forever grateful that I had Ernie Harwell in my life as a kid. I will forever be a Tiger. Because baseball is life.