May 7, 2010 at 8:57 am

Ernie Harwell: 1918-2010

Thousands say farewell to Ernie Harwell

George Blaha, the Pistons and Michigan State football play-by-play man, pays tribute to his fellow broadcaster, Ernie Harwell. (Brandy Baker/The Detroit News)

Detroit

Baseball's merry air and human grief aren't, at first blush, a likely mix. For that matter, little that happened Thursday at Comerica Park was conventional, or even plausible.

Ernie Harwell, though, would have loved it. The serene expression as he lay in repose hinted he might be doing just that Thursday.

All those people shuffling by his mahogany casket, some in tears, some smiling, each as individual in their wardrobe and background as one of those 10,000 games Harwell broadcast during his 60-years plus as one of America's landmark baseball announcers.

On crutches, in wheelchairs, in cutoffs, business suits, bib overalls, motorcycle jackets, jeans, T-shirts, and any other imaginable combination or representation of Detroit's baseball audience, they gently stepped past Harwell's open coffin. An American flag, testifying to his Marine Corps service, lay at his head. Flower arrangements of orange, white, blue, and red flanked the community treasure who died Tuesday at 92.

Piano and violin music streamed from speakers at just the right volume, as soft as Thursday's breeze, as soothing as Harwell's radio voice. The man who made Tigers broadcasts a kind of audio heaven for fans from Detroit, across Michigan, and deep into a baseball-loving nation, lay in tranquility as thousands of his friends and fans -- there was little difference in Harwell's world -- said goodbye.

As of 11 p.m., Tigers officials said 10,000 people had gone through a line that extended from Comerica Park's front gates, on Witherell, around the corner and up Montcalm.

"He basically was the high priest of baseball in Detroit," said Jim Hebler, a software marketing representative who lives equal parts of the year in Detroit and Tampa, Fla. "He was one of those pillars of the game, like Jack Buck or Vin Scully.

"Ernie pulled us through some tough times and reminded us why baseball is such a great game."

Harwell might have been surprised by how many people turned out, but not by the way the farewell was staged.

He had been involved in it since September, when he learned he had terminal cancer. Together with his attorney and friend, Gary Spicer, and with the Tigers, headed by owner Mike Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski, the team's general manager, Harwell prepared for a sendoff that would be faithful to his stunning masses of listeners and friends.

Rather than force his family to deal with the enormity of a public funeral or memorial, Harwell had preferred a private service with a community visitation. His casket, resting next to the bronze statue that memorializes his 42-year reign with the Tigers, would remain open. The viewing would enable everyone to say a more intimate goodbye, fittingly at Comerica Park, Harwell's workplace.

The Tigers did more than cooperate. They worked for months, delicately and behind the scenes, to ensure a beloved man's life and death would be treated with dignity, and with an appropriate sense of celebration.

Tigers brass greets mourners

Dombrowski provided Thursday's flourish. From the moment Harwell's first mourners walked past his casket, at 7 a.m., Dombrowski stood to the right of the casket and line, shaking hands with each person in the fashion of a family member thanking and acknowledging a personal expression of sympathy.

"You're a person first," said Dombrowski, who at long intervals was replaced by executives such as Duane McLean, Steve Harms, or Mike Healy. "People are coming into our home. We're thankful."

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch appeared at midday with his wife, Marian, to pay respects, to speak with Spicer and Dombrowski -- and to shake hands with various people who had completed their pilgrimage.

"If you think too much about it, you get carried away and you can get very emotional," Ilitch said. "The fans have been telling me what a great man he is, how much they're going to miss him, and thanking us for having this."

Every fan has an Ernie story

The mourners defied any description but one: They were baseball fans who loved Harwell.

As many women as men -- including a broad range of ethnicities -- arrived for their place in a line that, routinely, could be completed in a half-hour.

Economic status appeared to be as diverse as the apparel donned by Harwell's faithful. Many men and women came from their jobs. Road workers showed up in fluorescent orange and green jackets. Nuns arrived in habits. Military personnel were covered in camouflage.

Overall, most wore what they might have worn while listening to one of Harwell's broadcasts.

"I think baseball's got the biggest mixture of fans of any sport," Ilitch said, smiling afterward. "You got all types of individuals, and they're just so affectionate and appreciative, with more passion than any of them."

Informality, of a kind Harwell loved, was the rule.

"I just respected the man," said Helaina Barker, a pharmacist from Novi, and a "sports fan in general" who said she was inspired by Harwell's devotion to his faith.

By mid-afternoon, Dombrowski had shaken several thousand hands. Many who spoke with him as they left the park told personal stories of Harwell's imprint on their lives.

One man's experience, the Tigers general manager found particularly memorable.

"He asked Ernie if he would propose to his wife for him," Dombrowski said. "He was a shy guy, so the three of them got together for dinner and Ernie proposed on behalf of the man."

Others were there simply because Harwell's warmth and Georgia baritone had become for them a personal companion.

"So many people said," Dombrowski recalled from his visits with the mourners, "I never met him, but I knew him."

Rick Zaremski of St. Clair Shores and Bud Neil of Southgate worked together in sheet-metal construction ahead of Neil's retirement. Each was committed to be at Comerica Park early Thursday, as a morning chill gave way to sunshine and what Harwell might have described as "a beautiful day for baseball."

They thought it was only appropriate the Tigers were off Thursday.

"Maybe Ernie planned it that way," Zaremski said. "He was always thinking of someone else."

Thursday was no different. Harwell said goodbye to his friends by allowing them, amid their grief, to offer a loving, lavish farewell to him.

Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski contributed to this report

Exhibit honors Ernie

 On Saturday, the Detroit Historical Museum will open a special display dedicated to Ernie Harwell.
 The tribute will feature artifacts from Harwell's life, including a ceiling tile from the radio booth at Tiger Stadium, photographs and a signed microphone. Visitors will be able to hear a selection of classic Harwell calls of great moments in Tigers history, as well as catch screenings of the documentary "Michigan & Trumbull: The History of Tiger Stadium," which Harwell narrated.
 The exhibition comes down May 30.

Mary Boulier, 76, of Mount Clemens, talks with Tigers owner Mike Ilitch ... (Todd McInturf/The Detroit News)
Rosa Gracey of Clinton Township cries as she passes Ernie Harwell's ... (Brandy Baker/The Detroit News)
David Masha of St. Clair Shores reads the paper in line about 6:30 a.m. ... (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
Fans file past the open casket of Ernie Harwell, which was placed right ... (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)