Just hours after the Tigers swept the Indians to take a five game lead in the AL Central, depressing news surfaced that Ernie Harwell, former Tigers’ broadcaster, has been diagnosed with cancer — a tumor in the area of his bile duct to be exact. Suddenly, a five game lead in September seems almost trifling.
If you never had the pleasure of listening to Ernie Harwell do play-by-play, well, then I feel sorry for you. Ernie was a broadcaster in the Major Leagues for 55-years, 42 of which were for our beloved Detroit Tigers. He was one of the best, if not the best. To me, the list is short — Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully. And I’m reluctant to put any other play-by-play guy in the same sentence as Harwell. In January, the American Sportscasters Association ranked Harwell 16th on its list of Top 50 Sportscasters of All Time, so I’m likely biased.
Can you blame me, though?
After all, Harwell was the announcer I grew up listening to as I would go to sleep at night and in my dad’s car as we drove to and from school, dinner, or my various sporting events growing up. Harwell was the announcer, along with the Pistons’ George Blaha, I would imitate in my backyard and basement as I would simulate games with my brothers via whiffle ball or nerf ball.
About 15-years ago, Harwell agreed to have dinner with me, my brother, best friend, and our parents (see below — I’m on the right). While I can’t remember exactly the details of the baseball stories he shared with us that night (I was just a kid and there were a lot), I’ll never forget the feeling I had sharing a waiter, much less sitting at the same table, as the legend, Ernie Harwell. I’ve met a handful of professional athletes and famous people throughout my life and I can earnestly proclaim, with ease, that meeting Harwell ranks amongst the very top. Harwell and Detroit Tigers baseball goes hand in hand and I’ve never been able to listen to a broadcast without hearing Harwell’s soft-spoken, southern accent in the back of my mind.
Fans probably know Harwell best for his catchy home run call, “that one is looooooooong gone,” and his creativity in naming off random Michigan cities as hometowns for fans who grabbed foul balls. It would be similar to this, “Whitaker digging in, waiting on the 2-2 pitch from Flanagan, he sets and deals…and Lou fouls it back. That was caught by a fan from Madison Heights, Michigan.” (Harwell reportedly knew, in some cases, which city a particular ticket was originally sold in. As the tickets became available electronically, Harwell would simply choose whatever city struck his fancy. Unless listeners realized that this was a jocular invention by Harwell, the catch-phrase could leave them wondering how Harwell “knew” where particular fans hailed from).
Although he retired in 2002 from announcing, with brief cameos thereafter, Harwell’s image still reigns throughout Metro Detroit on billboards, as he has served as a spokesman for a healthy living with Blue Cross Blue Shield. In addition, Harwell has been forever cemented in Detroit Tigers baseball, literally, as a statue of Harwell stands tall at one of the entrances at Comerica Park. As I said before, Harwell is a legend in Detroit.
In a phone interview with the Free Press after learning of his unfortunate diagnosis, Harwell’s voice was apparently no different than the classic sound he exuded for so many years through the radio airwaves with the Detroit Tigers. He knows what this diagnosis means better than anyone, and he is taking it in admirable stride:
“We don’t know how long this lasts,” Harwell said in the phone interview. “It could be a year, it could be much less than a year, much less than a half a year. Who knows? Whatever’s in store, I’m ready for a new adventure. That’s the way I look at it.”
And when Harwell, who is 91-years old, was asked what he wanted to have written about him, he remained consistent in his tone:
“I don’t want to make it too sweet because I don’t want to get diabetes as well as this other stuff,” he said, chuckling.
Ernie, our thoughts and prayers here at D4L go out to you; your wife, Lulu; family; and friends.