Wednesday, May 5, 2010
For anyone who grew up in Michigan from 1960 on, the news of the death of broadcast legend Ernie Harwell is first on their minds today. While certainly not unexpected, it is nevertheless a sad event for those of us who have loved (and occasionally loathed) the Detroit Tigers. Harwell's voice was an omnipresence in the Michigan summer. No matter how bad things were in the world, just hearing Ernie's voice was a comforting reassurance that somewhere, something was happening the way it was supposed to.
Far better writers than I will sing the inevitable and much-deserved hosannas to Mr. Harwell and I don't suppose there is much I could do to improve upon their words.
I do, however, feel compelled to add a few modest lines to the appreciation of his life and work.
When Harwell spoke, he described the happenings on the diamond with a clarity and emotion that rendered any television screen a mere gadget of inferior quality. But what really impressed me about Harwell's broadcast style was his use of silence. As composer Claude Debussy was credited with saying, "Music is the space between the notes." It can also be argued that great broadcasting is the use of the space between the words. Harwell, to put it plainly, not only knew how to talk effectively, but also knew when to keep quiet. He had an intuitive sense of the rhythm and cadence of the game and, unlike some of today's announcers, wasn't afraid to let the ambient sounds of the baseball diamond project their own eloquence. And by so doing, he increased the effectiveness of his words.
Like many people in the area, I have my own story of meeting Ernie personally. Like many of life's best moments, it was a random and unplanned event. It was 1991. My wife was a travel agent at the time and she would occasionally get free stays at hotels as a perk. We had one such night at the Holiday Inn in Livonia. We were getting hungry and had some time to kill and there was a shopping mall nearby. So we wandered through it looking for a place to eat. While there, we passed a nearly empty bookstore in which a sign announced Ernie Harwell would be signing his new book "Diamond Gems". And sure enough, there he was, sitting alone behind a folding table near the bookstore entrance. There was no way, of course, I was going to let this opportunity pass. I bought a copy of the book, which he graciously signed for me. Having him shake my hand and hearing him say "Thanks so much, John. I hope you enjoy the book!" in THAT voice was a thrill only a Tiger fan could appreciate. He smiled and spoke with such warmth it seemed he'd known me all my life. Heck... as if he'd known me all HIS life! He was truly a class act. Summers will never be quite the same.
And I feel sorry for my children. They may have their Wii and their computer and their MP3 players... but they will never experience a childhood summer infused with that voice. And they are poorer for it.