The Common Good

Saying Goodbye to Ernie Harwell

Last evening, after his Little League game, my son Luke and I called his Uncle Billy to tell him what happened (a role my brother volunteered for after Luke's grandpa died). Billy was very happy to hear the news from his baseball-loving nephew as always, especially as a dad who had also coached his sons in baseball. When he heard how Luke had knocked in or scored 9 of our 16 runs last night, his uncle replied, "That's terrific, Luke," but then in a subdued voice said to me, "Did you hear that Ernie Harwell died?" It was as if he was speaking about a member of our family or a national leader.

For me growing up, and for countless other kids who are now adults, Ernie Harwell was a member of the family. Baseball was synonymous with Ernie's smooth and soothing Georgia accent as the longtime voice of my hometown Detroit Tigers. He was the voice you heard from the radio next to your ear giving you the play-by-play of every Tigers game. After fighting cancer for the last eight months, Ernie died yesterday at the age of 92. All Detroit is talking about this week is their beloved Ernie, who has already made the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In an era before live TV broadcasts and round-the-clock cable, we tuned to every game on the radio where Ernie could make you feel as if you were at the game. News accounts today reported some of his colorful descriptions. A player who looked at a called third strike "stood there like the house by the side of the road" or was "called out for excessive window shopping." A double play was "two for the price of one." In those days of clear channel AM radio, baseball fans around the country grew to love him as one of the best broadcasters in baseball through listening to the Tigers on Detroit's WJR.

Ernie spent 42 years broadcasting Tigers games -- from 1960 through 2002. He had the unique history of being the only broadcaster traded for a player. He began his career with the minor league Atlanta Crackers; then in 1948, the Brooklyn Dodgers wanted him to substitute for their broadcaster, who was ill. The Crackers' owner demanded a player in return for letting Ernie out of his contact, so the Dodgers traded a catcher to get him.

In the sign-off to his last game broadcast in 2002, Ernie told the fans, "Thank you for sneaking your transistors under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers. Now God has a new adventure for me." Yesterday, Ernie Harwell entered into that new adventure. We will miss him. I could hear almost hear the tear in the eye of my brother, felt my own well up, and knew that my dad -- Luke's grandpa -- would, and likely was, feeling the same.

portrait-jim-wallisJim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.

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