Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | May 5, 2010

Ernie Harwell

“Don’t go!”

I begged my father not to leave. I no longer remember where he was going. I might’ve been six or seven years old at the time, he obviously didn’t have to explain such things. He still doesn’t now. Falling in line with the standard response of most of my childhood, he “had to go take care of some business”, which could mean any number of things. Even in my adult mind, knowing him as an adult, it could be vague and range from going to pick up his check (there was a period of time, particularly in the late 80s, when he frequently worked as a bouncer or private security and therefore his places of employment were often only open at night) to going somewhere to play chess or any number of activities.

What he was doing isn’t important now, and it wasn’t then. He was leaving, and I didn’t want him to go, as was frequently the case when I was that age.

“Here,” he said, and sprayed some of his cologne on my arm.

“Now when you smell your arm it can remind you of me and you’ll know I’m not far away!”

Calming slowly but not yet satisfied, I still asked him not to leave.

“Hold on a minute,” he said, and ran into the other room.

He came back radio in hand, and plugged it into the outlet next to my bed and laid it next to my pillow. The Tigers were playing on the West Coast that night, and my Dad turned the station to WJR, the Tigers radio affiliate at that time.

“When the game comes on, you can listen to the game, that’ll help take your mind off of me. Don’t worry, I’ll be back!” He kissed me on the forehead, raised the covers, told me good night, and left.

I cried. I don’t remember if I cried loudly or not. Probably not, otherwise my Mom would’ve come from the other room where she was sleeping. I distinctly remember crying for what seems in my memory to be a long time, though any time longer than 30 seconds is long for a child.

And then the game came on. And my Dad was right — It did take my mind off of him slightly. At least, it took my mind off of the fact that I was sad. The voice of Ernie Harwell, calling the game, helped to calm me down. I do not remember the Tigers opponent or any specific events of the game. I do remember listening to Ernie’s voice and slowly calming down, periodically sniffling away tears, and ducking my head down to my arm to sniff my Father’s cologne. Me and Ernie made it through that night together, and I finally was able to sleep.

I remember one Summer…..When I started to tell this story, I didn’t remember the year, but I actually looked it up. It was 1986. I remember it was a game between the Tigers and Twins. The only detail I remember about the game is that Dave Engle played in it, which stood out to me as a kid because in those days (and sometimes even to a much, much, MUCH smaller extent still even now) I thought there was something spectacularly cool about a player who played against a team that he used to play for. July of ‘86 is the only time that Engle played for the Tigers against the Twins, so I know it was one of the games in that month. I don’t remember the score, or anything else that happened actually in the game, other than Dave Engle played in it. Memories are funny that way. In any event, the more salient memory for me from that game, was sitting in the den and playing with my baseball cards and hearing the sound of Ernie calling the game. While the memory of the game has not lasted, Ernie’s voice as part of the soundtrack of my childhood, has persisted. I sat there — In front of a radio that was situated in front of a bird cage which housed our pet bird — For hours. Shuffling my baseball cards, copying then information from them on a notepad and organizing them as best as I could at that age in ways that interested me, reading the encyclopedia my parents bought me — All the while listening to Ernie talk to me. When Ernie stopped talking (read: when the game was over), it was time to get up and do something else. In the middle of the Summer, I was more interested in sitting in front of the radio and playing my with my cards with Ernie, than being involved with other pursuits that 5 year olds might find interesting.

Ernie was part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

When I was 21 years old I got to meet Ernie. Twice. In the span of a week. The first time was at Tigerfest 2003, at Joe Louis Arena. My brother and I stood in an incredibly long line waiting to meet him and get our photos taken. To this date, I’d never actually seen him before. Obviously, I’d seen pictures of him in the newspaper and seen him on TV, but I’d never physically seen him before. Not even at Tiger Stadium peering into the broadcasting booth from my seat (until I became an adult, I could probably count on my hands the number of times I‘d seen a baseball game from the lower deck, much less a seat close to the broadcast booths).

When we got close enough to see him, my mouth dropped and I got extremely nervous. There he was. The man who helped me get past my Dad having to go out at night and helped me to stop from crying myself to sleep. The man who played with my baseball cards with me in the den when I was a child. He was there. RIGHT THERE.

We got to the front of the line, and I said “Hi Mr. Harwell”, and he looked and flashed a huge smile, extended his hand and said “Hi! How are you? What’s your name?!”. It was later in the afternoon, he was sitting there a long time, and he had to be very tired. But he looked at us — Me and my brother both — And treated us and talked to us like we were the only people there to see him that day. You always hear from others about how ingratiating he was, but it really was to be experienced. It’s all true. We were only there for about 30 seconds. We took the photo, and it was over. In those thirty seconds, he gave me one of the best moments I was to have that year.

About three days later, it got better. I was a student at Michigan State University at the time, about four months away from graduating. I’d come down to Detroit for Tigerfest, but returned to Lansing the next day. The Detroit Tigers caravan came to Lansing that week and I decided to go. The group that came to Lansing included Mr. Harwell, along with Brandon Inge, Carlos Pena, Dan Dickerson, Eric Eckenstahler, Nate Cornejo, and Andy Van Hekken. Others may have been there, but those are the people I remember.

I went and stood in the line to meet the players. I brought some of my Tigerfest photos to be autographed. I’m not a big “autographs” guy, but I like getting autographs of items that link my personal experience to a player. Like a picture that I took of or with a player. Or possibly a scorecard that I filled out of a game when a player did something amazing.

When I got to Ernie’s spot in line, he looked up, and he said “Hey! Great to see you again!”

I was floored.

I handed him the photo, and he said “Uh-huh, I remember this one, we made quite the team on this photo!” I was unable to do anything but smile, because I was still floored by his initial greeting. I eventually was able to compose myself enough to thank him for signing, and then he thanked me for coming.

And in yet another brief interaction, Ernie brought light to my life.

When the news came that he had incurable cancer, I was very sad. Like many other Detroiters, I made my way to the Ernie Harwell tribute game last September to listen to him address us for one of the last times. In spite of his situation, he chose to spend a lot of time talking about us. Even as the Sun was setting on his own life, he was still pulling a little pocket mirror out to help deflect some of the rays of sunshine onto others.

And now they say on the internet and on the television that he is gone. To me, he will never be gone. So long as I have the memories of ways in which he impacted my life, however subtle, Ernie Harwell will never be gone.

Thank you Ernie.

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Responses

  1. Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing such a personal, touching story. Bill


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