Ernie Harwell: A Baseball Giant Goes Silent


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His voice was rich and grew richer with time. His diction was precise, a smooth Georgia drawl, with the near-exaggerated articulation bred into broadcasters back when radios were big wooden boxes with one tiny speaker and lots of static.

Ernie Harwell, the longtime Detroit Tigers radio announcer who died on Tuesday, sounded relaxed in the booth, but he never pretended to your buddy at the next barstool. Pretending wasn't Ernie's way. He was a broadcaster and sounded like it—a man taking joy in his work, but always a professional, first and last. Ernie wasn't chatty. Where a contemporary like Harry Carry or Phil Rizzuto might fill a game's slow moment with a joke or story, Ernie would drop an obscure statistic about the 1943 St. Louis Browns. He kept the focus where it should be: on the game.

Ernie's appeal, though, went much deeper than abundant booth skills and a self-effacing style. There have been other baseball broadcasters with rich, low voices and modest demeanors. Others have vividly described the game, yet they didn't become legends. Nor does his longevity alone, stunning as it is—he was 92 when he died, and his career spanned 55 years before he retired in 2002—explain fans' mass adoration. Ernie was cherished not simply because he was part of fans' lives, but because the fans were part of his. He may have been happily married for 68 years, but he carried on a lifelong, passionate love affair, and invited every one of us to watch. The truth can be told: Ernie Harwell was completely, hopelessly, unabashedly, head-over-heels, puppy-dog in love with baseball. He couldn't hide it if he tried. And he never, ever tried.

His most famous love letter, "The Game for All America," is a much-read essay Harwell wrote in 1955 and quoted decades later at his own Hall of Fame induction. The prose, filled with cute kids and dated slang, might sound mawkish to postmodern ears, but that's too bad for postmodern ears. The essay's charm, as with Ernie's, is the total lack of ironic distance. His sincerity is complete, like a groom gazing on a new bride. You feel the delight he takes in listing everything grand or silly he adores about the game.

Ernie Harwell seemed to possess an unshakable belief in every good thing baseball wants to believe about itself—the game as a metaphor for life, as a pastoral refuge, a part-time religion. He believed the sport's odd rhythms and mix of individual and team play symbolized something vital and wonderful about America. He believed life began anew with Spring Training, and would quote the Song of Solomon before the season's first pitch. Harwell, too, was a symbol of America—an America of unaffected optimism, and quieter, more confident heroes. Come what may—holdouts, lockouts, strikes, and steroid scandals—Ernie inevitably saw through to whatever remains good and pure in the game, even if it was only a blue sky.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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