We were sitting in Mr. Joe’s in Southfield Tuesday night, and at a crucial moment in the ill-fated Red Wings–Sharks game “Mule” Franzen was threatening to do something he hasn’t done much lately — score a goal — when a reporter from WWJ-Radio approached our table, microphone in hand, to ask our opinions about the death of Ernie Harwell.
I was taken aback — one, because the noise in there, with TVs blaring both the Red Wings and Tigers games simultaneously and a large crowd talking nonstop at the same time. I was also stunned by the suddenness of her request, and was unprepared to respond in what I thought would be a meaningful and worthwhile manner. Stunned too, at the finality of what she said … the awful news that we had been expecting for so long … but so sad anyway.
Because … this was Ernie Harwell she was talking about. And Ernie deserved a special response. Not some throwaway line that they’d boil down to 8-10 seconds of superficial radio observation. And especially because … because how might I say something unique, something unlike all the other praises that would come pouring out in honor of wonderful old Ernie? You could write, you could imagine, almost all of the responses she would receive. He was like a member of our family. He was a substitute grandfather to me. I fell asleep as a child listening to him reporting the fate of the Tigers on the west coast. I, we, met him once in an airport, at a restaurant, and a more decent and kind man you could never find. He was the sound of summer. When I was overseas it was the sound of Ernie’s voice that meant “Detroit” to me. We all felt like we knew him … no, wait … we all DID know him.
Yes, that was Ernie. All of it. But all of it and more? I declined, oddly enough for me, normally a grandstander, the opportunity to talk about Ernie Harwell there amid the chaos in the bar. I didn’t think the surroundings would do him justice. I didn’t think an unprepared and hasty comment from me would do it either. I had met Ernie many times. Working in local TV production, often in a sports and Tigers context, I had worked with him on projects ranging from a 1991 Santa Claus TV special for Channel 2 to the large-scale last-broadcast and special 90-minute tribute to Tiger Stadium of September 1999 for Channel 50. Ernie was rock solid, always dependable, so reliable, so cheerful and easy to work with on any project. That grand and smiling greeting, “Well hiya Tom!” Then, just point the camera and let him be Ernie.
We shot the Santa Claus segment at Ernie’s home (Tom Ryan of local radio and the Thanksgiving Parade as the perfect Santa) and felt, indeed, like we were in our own grandparents’ house as Miss Lulu, Ernie’s fabulous all-time woman, literally filled the place with the smell of baking cookies. Can you believe that? Just like you’d imagine it might be like if you visited their home. We shot the color cover for a newspaper TV Guide in a local studio, in front of a gorgeous Christmas tree, with Ernie sitting, smiling grandly, on Santa’s knee; grinning kids all around. Wow….Santa Claus and Ernie Harwell; presents and kids. You want to talk about the perfect holiday scene?
We caught up with Ernie down at Lakeland, in the wonderful post-World Series spring of 1985, with my parents in tow. And I introduced him to my Dad just before Ernie was to join Sparky Anderson on one of their daily walks through life. “Well hiya Charlie!” Ernie boomed to my Pop, treating him as warmly as he might a baseball team owner or a Hollywood VIP. There was only one speed and one face to Ernie Harwell. And it was warm. And sincere. And smiling and glorious, always as giving and kindly as a human being could possibly be.
Yeah, that was Ernie. And just a few scenes from one life that only occasionally — but fortunately for me — intersected with his. Could I say something remarkably unique and special about Ernie Harwell? Could I find something that rose above the others? Nope. Because Ernie, if he was anything … was a guy without a need to rise above, to be set apart from, his fellows. He glowed and bloomed right where he was, throwing light on everybody around him. In the simplest and most basic and warmest of ways. As a giving and shining human being, the most outstandingly common common-man you could ever want to meet. It was in the very magic that he engendered by being the most natural among us that he set himself apart.
All of those little scenes … from his life; from ours. That was Ernie. If he’d been a priest instead of the best baseball announcer in the world — as we all knew he was — he would have made it as a saint. Instead, we shared him for 50 years as just old Ern, not St. Ernest. He would tell you how lucky he was to have been where he was and done what he did. That was surely true, yet …
We would tell you how lucky we were to have had him … the best Ernie Harwell there ever was … in ALL of our lives.