Harwell remembered

Ernie Harwell in front of his statue in Detroit  AP File
AP File
Ernie Harwell in front of his statue in Detroit

There is a journalism staple that I steadfastly refuse to engage in - the writing of an obit while the subject is still living.

The long-standing practice is a matter of expedience in case of emergency, which is understandable in a deadline business. But it creeps me out and I simply can't do it.

So I was caught off-guard Tuesday night at 8:39 p.m. when the sports desk called as our household was in the throes of getting three excited kids to calm down and go to bed.

Ernie Harwell died.

The news wasn't any kind of surprise, but it didn't soften the blow of those words. Harwell - the Washington, Ga., native who became a broadcast legend as the voice of the Detroit Tigers - had already told me over the phone eight months ago that he was dying. He was prepared to die and soon.

But I wasn't going to write a premature obituary - especially for a man I barely knew yet somehow felt I'd known and loved all my life.

Ernie Harwell simply had this way with people of connecting instantaneously. I met the man only once in 2008 when he returned to Washington to be honored on the eve of his induction to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. We spoke for maybe 20 minutes, then I watched for the next couple of hours as he interacted with other strangers who were as entranced by his grace and elegance as I was.

That one meeting affected me like few other encounters. I spent the next few days driving around listening to Ernie Harwell's audio tapes that I bought after borrowing $20 from local historian Skeet Willingham. In his unique mellifluous voice, Harwell told all the kind of life stories that you might have read in his obit.

Then on Sept. 4, 2009, Harwell revealed to the world that he had an aggressive and inoperable form of bile duct cancer. The next morning, he returned my phone call and talked with me about it with the kind of candor you'd have with someone you've known forever.

He and his wife of 68 years, Lulu, chose not to fight fate and accepted what was to come. He spoke so calmly of his faith and his gratitude that it couldn't help but move the listener to tears.

"We're strong Christians and we believe that God's in charge and I surrendered my life to Him many years ago and try not to worry about anything but just go forward and let Him guide me and do what He wants me to do," he said. "All those factors were behind our decision and that's why we went that direction."

I was sitting in the same chair holding the same phone that delivered the news of his death Tuesday night.

After peace was restored in our house, I went back and looked at the notes I'd transcribed from that interview. The things that didn't make it into the column I wrote in September tell you as much about the character of Ernie Harwell as anything else.

More than half of the conversation with this veritable stranger whose remaining days were looming like deadline were him interviewing me. Habits of a journalist die hard.

These were Ernie Harwell's questions to me that day:

"Now tell me about Washington. Is it still about the same as it was when we met?

"Is Sparky Newsome, the editor at the (Washington) paper, still there? I love Washington. I never really got there enough. I loved the kinfolks there and the way the town worked.

"Now tell me about your job. Do you cover everything? When the Masters comes, you're in your glory, I guess? When I did the Masters (for NBC radio), the winning purse was $1,500. It was a really casual tournament in those days.

"Where did you grow up? What got you down in Georgia?

"What did your wife do at the paper in Atlanta? Did you live in Atlanta then? Oh, Greensboro. My brother died in Greensboro, Ga.

"What are you doing next? Going to Argentina? Well, that sort of impresses me. I've never been in that direction. How long will you be down there? Fly from Atlanta and Miami and change? You have a great time.

"Is there anything else I can tell you? I don't want to keep you all day.

"You take good care of yourself and if you need me again you've got my number. Thanks so much, Scott. I appreciate it. God bless you."

We hung up the phone that morning knowing those were the last words we would ever speak to each other. I'd never call that number again. Ernie Harwell had given me more than I ever deserved.

That was his gift. He enriched people's lives just by sharing it even for the briefest of moments.

Harwell lived his dream and shared himself for 92 years, weaving his way into people's hearts through his words and through the game he loved most, baseball. You can read about everything he did in those obits people prepared for this occasion (Detroit Free Press or Associated Press).

"I never thought it would go this far," he said of his career that took him from Doc Green's counter in Washington, Ga., to the Hall of Fame.

Harwell went as far as he could go. But he left pieces of himself behind in everyone he touched.

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A friend of mine pointed me to this blog from the New York Times' Tyler Kepner. It's a transcript of the last portion of Ernie Harwell's induction speech when he was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981 after winning the Ford Frick Award for broadcasting. Below is that transcript in Harwell's own words, but do yourself a favor and listen to this clip in an excerpt of that speech that ended his audio clipbook (worth every penny of those $20 Skeet loaned me).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPcUcsT6Lek

"Baseball is the president tossing out the first ball of the season and a scrubby schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm. A tall, thin old man waving a scorecard from the corner of his dugout. That's baseball. And so is the big, fat guy with a bulbous nose running home one of his 714 home runs.

"There's a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh 46 years ago. That's baseball. So is the scout reporting that a 16-year-old pitcher in Cheyenne is a coming Walter Johnson. Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered, or booed. And then becomes a statistic.

"In baseball democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rulebook. Color merely something to distinguish one team's uniform from another.

"Baseball is a rookie, his experience no bigger than the lump in his throat as he begins fulfillment of his dream. It's a veteran too, a tired old man of 35 hoping that those aching muscles can pull him through another sweltering August and September. Nicknames are baseball, names like Zeke and Pie and Kiki and Home Run and Cracker and Dizzy and Dazzy.

"Baseball is the cool, clear eyes of Rogers Hornsby. The flashing spikes of Ty Cobb, an over-aged pixie named Rabbit Maranville.

"Baseball is just a game, as simple as a ball and bat, yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport, a business and sometimes almost even a religion.

"Why the fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World Series catch, and then dashing off to play stickball in the street with his teenage pals. That's baseball. So is the husky voice of a doomed Lou Gehrig saying, 'I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.'

"Baseball is cigar smoke, hot roasted peanuts, The Sporting News, ladies day, 'Down in front,' 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game,' and 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'

"Baseball is a tongue-tied kid from Georgia growing up to be an announcer and praising the Lord for showing him the way to Cooperstown. This is a game for America. Still a game for America, this baseball! Thank you."

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And for those of you who made it this far, here's the take on that same speech and man by Joe Posnanski -- the brilliant former columnist at The Augusta Chronicle who now shines for Sports Illustrated and his own inimitable blog site:

http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/2010/05/04/rip-ernie-harwell/

 

 

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