Jonnie On The Spot
I am a Detroit Tigers fan.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit. After all, the Tigers haven’t had a winning season since my brother and I were dressing up as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
So I’ll make up for that with something I’m very proud to say.
I am an Ernie Harwell fan.
How could I not be? When you grow up in Michigan and have one of the greatest radio broadcasters ever calling Tiger games, you can’t help but love Ernie.
You can tell just how many people feel that way by making note of the countless tributes presented to Harwell this season, his 42nd and final one with the Tigers.
Simply put, Harwell—as energetic as ever at 84 years of age—has been baseball in Michigan for nearly half a century. After all, he missed just two games during his tenure in Detroit.
Think about that. For every 21 seasons he worked, Harwell took one day off.
What made Harwell such a great broadcaster was his ability to bring anecdotes and memories from years past—he was, for example, on the call for Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” in 1951—while staying young in heart and mind, prompting Red Sox broadcaster Joe Castiglione to call Harwell the most contemporary octogenarian he’s ever known.
Some of his most endearing qualities are as timeless as his voice, including the many phrases that were uniquely his.
When a foul ball sailed into the seats, for example, Harwell would say, “And a young fan from (insert random Michigan town—maybe Ishpeming, Port Austin or Essexville) will take home that souvenir.”
When I was young, I really thought he knew where every fan at Tiger Stadium was from. As a matter of fact, I still wouldn’t be surprised if that were true, given his amazing memory and captivating way with people.
I had heard for years about how personable Ernie is, and I’m fortunate to say that from personal experience now.
In June, I was lucky enough to go to a Tigers game with John Lowe, who covers the team for the Detroit Free Press. I went with John as he talked with players and managers in both clubhouses, and as we were walking back to the press box John spotted someone he wanted to introduce me to.
It was Ernie.
I actually didn’t even know it was Ernie at first. I was looking down at the ground as we walked, and when John stopped me I was expecting to shake the hand of another writer or maybe a Tigers official.
Instead, it was one of my heroes.
John may have begun introducing me, but if he did he certainly didn’t have to. I was busy jumping back in time about 10 years.
“Mr. Harwell, I’ve been listening to you since I was three,” I said. “You’re just the greatest …” And so on.
Ernie smiled back at me and asked about my interests and how things were going. We chatted for a few minutes. I can’t remember the exact details of the conversation—probably because I was in awe—but I can remember feeling that Ernie had a genuine interest in me.
There he was, a legend, and he took a few minutes of his time to talk with me.
Countless other people had experiences with Harwell just like that. It’s that ability to appreciate human nature that will continue to define his life and his legacy among those who listened.
As a broadcaster, Harwell’s smooth Georgia accent was unmistakable. As a man, his kindness and generosity are unparalleled.
And as far as memories go, he gave me one to last a lifetime.