Ernie Harwell and the moment

When it was announced that Ernie Harwell would be a trip to Comerica Park to address the fans my first instinct was that I should look into tickets. I hemmed and hawed and after reading a wonderful article by Tom Gage I decided that I simply had to be in the stadium that Wednesday night. I don’t know that I’ve ever described myself as melancholy before, but that was an apt description that day. During lunch I found a single ticket in the second row on StubHub and I pulled the trigger. I’d be in the park for Ernie’s Thank You/Farewell.

The night was somber in so many ways. It was a celebration of the greatest generation and World War II veterans. A celebration, but hardly a party. A time to honor those that were there and remember those that weren’t.

Plus there is something about late season games. The park just feels different. There is a little chill in the air, the park darkens more quickly than at the height of summer, and the end of summer as dictated by baseball’s 162 game season is palpable. The anticipation and build up that fans feel starting in February is coming to a close and the thought of a long cold winter looms. The setting was appropriate for the greatest Tiger of them all to once again step-up to the microphone.

Before the bottom half of the 3rd inning the Harwell video tribute played on the big screen. It was some of the highlights of Ernie’s career, punctuated by his Hall of Fame acceptance speech featuring his “Baseball, A Game for All America.”

I expected to be a mess when Harwell started talking, yet the tears didn’t come. Something about seeing Harwell burst on to the field with his arms high made me happy, not sad. Harwell stepped up to the microphone and didn’t deliver a speech. There were no notes or teleprompters. It was just a man saying thank you to his ultra extended family, and a chance for said family to say you’re welcome.

The speech was brief, and articulate, and the content not especially memorable. In other words it was vintage Harwell and I mean that as the utmost compliment.

It was never the big moments that Harwell made special in his career. Go back and watch the tribute video and the highlights. Ernie called everyone of those plays straight. There was excitement sure, but there weren’t especially memorable sound bytes or phrases. It was a simple and accurate description of what was taking place. Harwell let the moment be the moment. When something big was happening it never needed embellishment.

What made Harwell great in his career and differentiated him was all of the small moments. That’s when people stood there like by the house by the side of the road and watched one go by. That’s when they got two for the price of one and were out for excessive window shopping. There was talk of the Tigers looking for instant offense, but that was before the fact when that offense was a hope. It was the stories that Harwell weaved effortlessly and unobtrusively into the pauses and rhythm of a game. It was in those quiet times when a fan from Lexington would be lucky enough to catch a foul ball.

It is the accumulated total of all those small moments that bound generations together, put kids to bed at night, and  provided the soundtrack of summer in Detroit.

And on his night, there was plenty of emotion in the building. It was a big moment, but Harwell simply shared it with us like he has so many times before. In typical Ernie fashion, and this is true of any interaction with the man I’ve ever heard described, when it was done you try and figure out how it is that Harwell seemed to be the one who was most grateful for the opportunity to be with you. He finished talking and all I could do was smile.

The following night I got home from work and pulled up the video and watched it with my kids. It was then, watching it again, that the emotion and sadness of the situation hit me again and I welled up.

Editor’s note: Yes I know this post is late. A variety of circumstances kept me from writing this. Exhaustion, other commitments, and a kind of important Twins series delayed this longer than it should have.

18 Comments

  1. Lee Panas

    September 22, 2009 at 12:17 am

    One of you best posts ever Bill. Thanks.

    Lee

    • rings

      September 22, 2009 at 10:18 am

      Having also been there, I agree. Well done and an excellent tribute.

  2. Justin Brown

    September 22, 2009 at 12:23 am

    great post. thanks.

  3. Dave

    September 22, 2009 at 12:35 am

    Wow…. I was born in 1963. I saw my first Tigers’ game in 1971 – when the Orioles were the class of the league; and the Tigers wouldn’t give up. I listened to Ernie from then until I left Detroit in 1985. Whenever I could tune in afterwards, I did.

    I’m amazed at how strong and unchanged he is – at age 91. His acceptance of the cancer; and his humility continue to amaze.

    This has all brought tears to my eyes… and I just can’t do it justice – and with all due respect, Billfer, you can’t either. Ernie transcends all of us.

    Godspeed,

    Dave

  4. Mike Rogers

    September 22, 2009 at 12:36 am

    I agree with Lee. This is a great post. Well done, Bill.

  5. Coleman

    September 22, 2009 at 1:03 am

    I’ll echo the “great post” posts.

    The distinction between adding style to the small moments and letting the big moments speak for themselves sums up his style as well as anything I’ve ever read; it’s one of those things at once obvious and yet difficult to put your finger on, but you nailed it here.

    (For some reason as a kid listening to Ernie he never seemed to point out any foul balls caught by fans from either Kentwood or Farmington Hills, the two places I lived growing up. But I was blameworthy there myself–I went to many a game and never caught a ball… the other Kentwoodians and Farmington Hillsians must have been similarly inept…)

  6. David

    September 22, 2009 at 1:49 am

    Beautiful. I agree with Lee also, this has to be up there.

    I especially liked these two paragraphs.

    “Plus there is something about late season games. The park just feels different. There is a little chill in the air, the park darkens more quickly than at the height of summer, and the end of summer as dictated by baseball’s 162 game season is palpable. The anticipation and build up that fans feel starting in February is coming to a close and the the thought of a long cold winter looms. The setting was appropriate for the greatest Tiger of them all to once again step-up to the microphone.”

    “What made Harwell great in his career and differentiated him was all of the small moments. That’s when people stood there like by the house by the side of the road and watched on go by. That’s when they got two for the price of one and were out for excessive window shopping. There was talk of the Tigers looking for instant offense, but that was before the fact when that offense was a hope. It was the stories that Harwell weaved effortlessly and unobtrusively into the pauses and rhythm of a game. It was in those quiet times when a fan from Lexington would be lucky enough to catch a foul ball.”

    I hope somehow the Tygers can find a way to squeak out a WS win this year before he goes.

    His eminent passing along with the destruction of the stadium are two very sad things but just part of something (death/loss) everyone has to go through. I guess we’ve been braced for both for some time now, and it just means the end of an era and the beginning of another. Comerica Park and Dan Dickerson have thankfully done a wonderful job of being able to live up to their predecessors.

    Thank you for the post Bill. I really enjoyed it. :)

  7. Big Game James

    September 22, 2009 at 3:29 am

    I got chills reading this. Thank you Billfer.

  8. gordon

    September 22, 2009 at 7:00 am

    the hall of fame speach was not the original . i will never forget the emotion and rythem you heard from that day. aside from that i shed my tears at the game because i just knew he might never see the sport he loved so much in person again. thankyou for a wonderful post

  9. Sam

    September 22, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Well written Bill.

  10. Andrew

    September 22, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Thanks for your heartfelt post, Bill.

  11. Matt in Toledo

    September 22, 2009 at 9:50 am

    That’s an incredibly astute description of Harwell’s style and what made him great. It’s one of those observations that you just go, “Wow, that’s spot on!” Fantastic post, Bill.

  12. Kathy

    September 22, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Glad you made it to the game, Bill. Millions of us grew up listening to Ernie and we are all probably a better person for it because he was so good. To listen to someone’s voice over and over, day-in, day-out, year after year, hanging on his every word and never believing it would stop is something like losing a beloved family member. You expressed that quite well, Billfer.

  13. Matt

    September 22, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Your Ernie Harwell blog post got delayed because of the pennant race between the Tigers and Twins?

    That made me smile.

    Because if Ernie himself was running this blog I’m sure he too would have pushed the Tigers/Twins posts to the forefront while pushing any posts about himself to the back burner.

  14. Steve in OH

    September 22, 2009 at 11:33 am

    I’ll fifteenth all the comments above. Wonderful post!

  15. billfer

    September 22, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    Thanks everyone for the kind words. I appreciate it.

  16. RayW

    September 23, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Bill, Wow…. Nice job… God bless Ernie and you.

  17. LovesDaisies

    October 5, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    For those of you who were unable to attend Mitch Albom’s book release event at the Fox, here is a great video of Mitch’s interview with Ernie Harwell. I swear, that voice is one-of-a-kind. If we were playing “Name That Tune” I think most of us could name Ernie Harwell’s voice in one note!

    Harwell fans, you’ll love this!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KB0ohj5EyTI

    Enjoy!