Ernie Harwell receives a standing ovation Sept. 16 at Comerica Park, as he says farewell to his fans. It was his final visit to a major league ballpark. (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)
Ernie Harwell strode into the Yankees clubhouse, and the ballplayers jumped to attention.
"Hi, Rocket," said Harwell, his voice deep and powerful.
Roger Clemens, dour on nights when he was due to pitch, broke off his pregame meditations to walk halfway across the room, wearing an uncharacteristic grin.
"Ernie, great to see you," said Clemens, 'The Rocket.'
They shook hands.
In the corridor, Derek Jeter stopped Harwell to chat.
"I used to listen to him as a kid," said Jeter, the All-Star shortstop who grew up in Kalamazoo, rabid about baseball.
This was early in the 2000 season, a Friday night, with the Yankees about to play the Tigers. Harwell granted me the privilege of walking along with him, for a Detroit News article, "A Day in the Life of Ernie Harwell."
Harwell had come to Detroit from Baltimore 40 years earlier, a young broadcaster, to replace a legend, Van Patrick, doing play-by-play for the Tigers. It did not take long for Harwell himself to become a legend.
He would become baseball in Detroit.
But to me, Harwell became more than baseball.
He became an inspiration, a friend. He lived his life with faith.
Soon after his illness became known, I phoned him.
"Sir Ernest of Harwell," I said, as I had knighted him into nobility years ago.
His voice was as deep and powerful as ever -- unchanged from 61 years ago when I first heard him doing play-by-play with the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the New York Giants.
"It could be three weeks, a month, a year," he said "I don't think it'll be a year.
"The best thing about it is, I know it's coming and I can prepare for it."
I defy anybody else stricken with cancer to talk with such strength and belief. I'd never heard anybody so upbeat about their destiny.
Harwell spoke during our conversation of the article I had written nine years earlier when we traipsed around Comerica Park together. Because of his fame, the piece had been picked up nationally.
"Thank you," he said.
"No, Ernie, thank you," I said.
He became the foundation of baseball in Michigan.
He taught the game to a million or more youngsters from Monroe to Iron Mountain, down into Ohio, and across into Ontario. Because of him, and his voice, they learned to understand baseball. They learned to love the sport. They learned to respect it.
And the ballplayers and the newspaper journalists learned how to respect baseball, too.
From Ernie Harwell.
Always keeping current
That one Friday night, nine years ago, Harwell had arrived at Comerica more than 3 1/2 hours before the game, eager as a rookie. Only a few of the Tigers had arrived in the clubhouse. The concessions workers were lined up on Montcalm Street, waiting to be checked in.
He was 82 then, when Clemens and Jeter and Paul O'Neill and Joe Torre and the rest of the Yankees greeted him with warmth and respect. These were visitors, guys hardened by the New York media, and they all knew of Harwell. And their greetings were genuine.
Harwell's life was ritual, his routine similar.
He had awakened at 6:30 that Friday morning. He did his calisthenics. He was firm in his belief in the benefits of exercise.
"I jump rope 300 times without stopping," he said.
When the Tigers were on the road, he would venture outside the team hotels and walk the city streets. The Common in Boston, along 42nd Street in New York, Michigan Avenue in Chicago. For years, Sparky Anderson would walk with him.
On this day in Detroit, he had eaten a light breakfast after his jump-rope routine. Then he started his preparations.
"I don't really do much studying," he said. "I've seen these guys. I've been around them. My job is mostly reacting to what happens on the field."
Not much studying, but refreshing his knowledge and keeping current.
"I go on the Internet in the morning," he said. "I checked the New York papers to get the latest on the Yankees."
Then he spoke to Gary Spicer, his longtime attorney and adviser, on the telephone.
He ate a small lunch and then spent time with his wife, Lulu, at their home at the time in Farmington Hills. Before leaving for the ballpark, Harwell nodded off for a brief nap.
As he did most every day when the Tigers played a night home game, he left for the park at 3 p.m.
Nothing fancy about him
There was very little fancy about Harwell except for his mastery of description of what was occurring on the field.
He dressed in casual clothes to go to work. On this day, he wore a checked sweater, slacks and a cap with "The Desert Inn" logo.
For most of 40 years, at Comerica Park and before that at Tiger Stadium, Harwell followed his pregame ritual. After he arrived at the park, he'd stop first in the office. The front-office folks had his daily batch of fan mail ready. He would continue to the broadcast booth, greet his colleagues -- longtime announcer Paul Carey and later Dan Dickerson and Jim Price. And then by 4 p.m., he would take the elevator down to the catacombs -- to the clubhouse and to the field.
As he would walk through the corridors, Harwell greeted everyone. The vendors, now inside Comerica, attendants and ushers. A smile and a friendly "hello."
He led me to the visitors' clubhouse.
"Welcome to Detroit," Harwell said aloud to the Yankees before Clemens broke off his own pregame routine to greet him.
After chatting with Jeter, Harwell walked through the tunnel connecting the clubhouse to the field. He took me into the dugout. He bantered with grizzled Don Zimmer, then a coach.
It was 5:20 p.m. when Torre entered the Yankees dugout trailed by the horde of New York's sports journalists. This was Torre's routine when he managed the Yankees, a specified time for media access. But first, Torre spotted Harwell, who slipped through the mob of writers.
Torre ignored the bunch.
"I was talking about you the other day about growing up in New York," Torre said to Harwell. "I listened to the Giants.
"I'll never forget you."
Soon, Harwell left Torre to his nightly interrogation from the media who follow the Yankees.
He guided me back through the catacombs to the elevator. We were lifted to the press box level. The media lounge is behind the main area, down the corridor from the broadcast booths.
He placed a slab of cheese, a few leaves of lettuce and a slice of tomato onto his plate. He said his routine was to have his main meal at lunchtime with Lulu.
The dinner conversation was all baseball and how he went about his job.
"I have this card-file system that I use," said Harwell, unlocking a secret to how he was able to insert interesting tidbits into his play-by-play. "I keep it up to date, the same thing that you get in the press guide. I do it so I don't have to lug the press guides around.
"To me, the play-by-play's the bread and butter, the score. That's what people want. They want to know what's happened, and the other stuff's a little frosting on the cake.
"You can't just say 'ball one, strike one' for two or three hours."
Harwell made another quick trip to the catacombs. He liked to visit the umpires before every series. The umpires greeted Harwell with the same enthusiasm as the players did.
This was a man who had friends in all professions, all towns. And he was beloved by all the fans.
On this night, one fan stopped Harwell as entered the press box. He handed Harwell a cap inscribed: "U.S. Marine Corps Veteran."
Harwell accepted the cap and put it on.
"Here, take this," Harwell told the man.
Hartwell handed his Desert Inn cap to his fellow Marine veteran.
Traded for a catcher
One of Ernie's favorite anecdotes involved his own trade. That is how he reached the major leagues. It was in 1948 that Red Barber, the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers, took ill. Branch Rickey, the Dodgers president, needed a replacement.
He contacted the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association and asked about Harwell.
The Crackers needed a catcher. So Rickey send Cliff Dapper to the Crackers for Harwell.
Harwell loved to mention he was the only broadcaster ever traded for a ballplayer.
And now, on this night, Harwell's journey through the park ended, about a half-hour before the game's first pitch.
He was about to go to work.
At 6:48 p.m., Harwell took out a grid-lined score sheet. He briskly jotted down the lineups of the Tigers and Yankees.
He stood for "The Star-Spangled Banner" and grabbed himself a cup of coffee before he spoke into the microphone. It was now 7:04 p.m., and Harwell's words were fluid and distinct.
"Hello everybody," he told his audience. "The Yankees are here for a three-game series; here's Jim Price to bring you the lineups."
The first pitch was at 7:07 p.m.
"Knoblauch will lead off," he said. "Chuck's batting .237."
This was vintage Harwell. And so was this in the second inning as Clemens pitched to Rich Becker: "There's a strike on the outside corner, and he stood there like a house on the side of the road.
"Clemens has got a lot of intensity. I don't know if he's doing it tonight, but sometimes he'd wear a mouth guard to keep him from grinding his teeth. ... There's a high foul back of third, and a man from Mount Clemens gets a souvenir."
Harwell worked the first three innings. Dickerson, Ernie's eventual successor, worked innings four through six. Harwell took a break in the press lounge, returned to the booth in the bottom of the fifth. He sat in silence, hands folded atop the Marine vets cap.
He was back on the air at the top of the seventh.
"Now the out-of-town scores," he said into the mic.
The Tigers were beating Clemens this night, then fell into jeopardy in the top of the ninth. O'Neill hit a towering home run into the right-field seats at Comerica Park.
"It's lonnnng gone," announced Harwell, another of his trademark phrases.
Jorge Posada hit a dangerous fly to left.
Harwell's style was not to shriek, not to worry Tigers fans.
"Becker has it at the warning track," Harwell said in his calm demeanor. "The Tigers win 9-7."
The game was over at 10:34 p.m., and Ernie stood up. His broadcast was finished.
"I'm out of here," he said. "I'm going home. If I get a good jump on them, I'm going home."
He went down the elevator and across Montcalm to his car.
The night was typical, a baseball game: Harwell's job for more than a half century with more than 40 of those years enchanting Detroit, introducing the sport to generations.
A standing ovation
Harwell, at 91, stricken with incurable cancer, made his final visit to a major league park Sept. 16, 2009. He went to Comerica Park, sick, but full of vigor, his spirits high, aware of the inevitable, and prepared as always.
He went through his routine -- visiting the clubhouse, the umpires room and the press box -- the "Ernie Harwell" press box. A bunch of journalists listened to him. Some of us in tears.
In the third inning, the umpires stopped the game and Harwell walked through the tunnel. He strode to home plate to a microphone, of course.
That night, 25,400 fans -- most of whom received their first lessons about baseball from Harwell -- delivered a standing ovation.
The Tigers jumped up the steps of their dugout and onto the field. They were led by Jim Leyland, who as a teenager listened to Harwell broadcasting the Tigers on the radio at his boyhood home outside Toledo. Across the diamond, the Royals all applauded, many out of their dugout and onto the field.
Harwell spoke, waved and walked off the field, arms raised.
It was his farewell.
Years ago, I was strolling through downtown Detroit. I stopped to read some graffiti on a red brick building.
The message was simple:
"Ernie Harwell -- the voice of God."