polo mint ‘The Great Voice of the Grand Old Game’
No matter that we had never met, we had been through a lot together, ol’ Ern and I. He arrived in Detroit just a year before the fabulous season when 61’s were wild. In 1961, the Tigers’ Stormin’ Norman Cash batted .361 and the Yankees’ Roger Maris broke the Babe’s record with 61 home runs. Still, the Tigers finished second to New York. But it was great in ’68, as the Bengals came from behind time again to claim their first World Series title since 1945. Good years, there were a few, but by and large too few to mention. The Tigers would do what they’d often do, and by July, fall from contention.
Still, Ernie would help his listeners savor the rare delicious moments. In that resonant baritone, redolent of summer evenings in his native Georgia, he would recount the exploits of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, stalking the mound at Tiger Stadium, talking to the baseball, telling it how to behave. Or Aurelio Rodriguez at the hot corner, backhanding a shot down the line with that tattered black glove and firing a laser to first. Whenever Rocky Colavito or Willie Horton stepped to the plate, I would stop what I was doing and wait for that sharp crack of the bat and Ernie’s call. “There goes a deep one to left field and . I knew it well. After all, I had felt it every March since the 1940s. I knew that finally 1984 would be the year. At last, the Tigers would reclaim their rightful place above those aggravating Indians, those pesky White Sox, and yes, even the arrogant Yankees. In 1950, I recalled ruefully, the Tigers appeared a lock to continue the cycle they began in 1935 of winning the Series every fifth year. But then along came Labor Day and the annual September swoon. That winter there was little joy in Tigerville.
The next ten years were lean ones until Ernie arrived in 1960 and quickly got the Tigers competitive again. Still, the 1968 glory year was the only interruption in a stretch of more than 30 years of frustration.
That was all about to change, the heart of the diehard fan knew, in 1984.
For Detroit Tiger fans, Hope Springs Infernal.
But this time it would be different. I was so confident, I spent the fall of 1983 and the winter of 1984 delving into Tigers history. I didn’t stop until I had gathered thousands of important or intriguing tidbits about the team and its players. By February of ’84, I had created a calendar highlighting the great moments as well as little known Tiger trivia over the years. But a calendar on such a subject needs more than words, it needs images to come alive, so I commissioned the incomparable artist Doug Parrish to illustrate the calendar with drawings of the stars and the characters from Tigers lore. Parrish himself had been a Tiger batboy in 1936. More than that, he was the designated buddy for teenage fireballer Bob Feller when the Cleveland Indians came to Detroit.
Jim Langford and the baseball publishing house Diamond Communications did a superb job producing my “Detroit Tiger Fan’s Calendar/1985.” Such is the cycle of calendar publishing, Langford told me, that copies must be available many months in advance and promotion should be underway late spring of the year previous to the calendar’s date.
For once, the Tigers cooperated. They did it in record fashion, sprinting to a 35 5 record, the best start in major league history. I couldn’t have asked for a better season to launch my Tiger Fan’s calendar. Now if only they kept up the momentum into October.
So at noon on a sunny day in May 1984, I found myself heading up a ramp at Tiger Stadium, looking at the man I knew so very, very well and had never met.
He was leaning against a wall, tape recorder in hand, talking with an usher, nodding, smiling and saying a hearty “Hi folks” to fans who recognized him as they filed into the park. At a distance, even there outside the grandstands, you could hear the mellow sounds of the game: ash against horsehide, the crowd oooh ing at some prodigious batting practice poke,
vendors hawking hot dogs and crackerjacks.
“You must be Mr. Bill Haney, ” he said. “I’m Ernie Harwell and I’m glad to meet you.”
Well, he couldn’t have been half as glad as I was, but there was no doubting his sincerity. To meet Ernie Harwell for the first time is to restore your faith in humanity and in your own gut instincts. You see in an instant that there is no such thing as Ernie Harwell’s public persona. This is a man totally without artifice. No self importance. Not a single pretension. No need to shift gears from the Harwell of the radio waves to the private Ernie. When you have met one too many media stars, sports heroes, and entertainment celebrities you see how very rare this is. Talk to Ernie Harwell for two minutes and you know that everything you always sensed about him is true.
“That’s a fine looking calendar,” he said. “Let me turn this recorder on and you can tell me about it.”
Never was there a more casual interview. Ernie rewound the tape and listened a few seconds to be sure it had recorded.
“Well, that takes care of our pre game show,” he said. “Have you got a few minutes to come up to the booth? You could have a look at the field from the best seat in baseball. Maybe we can find a cup of coffee and talk for a bit.”
I had been to many games at the Stadium long before the name was changed from Briggs to Tiger. I had sat in the bleachers and the upper and lower grandstand decks. I had seen a few games from reserved seats down the lines along third base and first base. And on a few memorable occasions had felt quite special though out of place in the box seats next to the visitor’s dugout. McDonald, the man who owned the creamery where my father was a truck mechanic. Once or twice a year in the 1940s my father would have the use of those seats. It seemed like we could reach out and touch Tiger first baseman Hank Greenberg, who I was sure was the tallest man in all of baseball, if not the entire world.
Nothing though, had prepared me for the view from Ernie’s broadcast booth at Tiger Stadium. The field wasn’t out there somewhere, it was seemingly directly below and only a few yards away. As we sat there, I thought of the games I had heard announced from Tiger broadcast booths by Ernie’s predecessors, Ty Tyson, Van Patrick, Mel Ott, and the great Harry Heilmann. So many memories in that booth, that baseball field, that stadium.
Ernie took me to a little office where a pot of coffee was brewing. Before we sat down, he introduced me to his broadcast partner Paul Carey and engineer Howard Stitzel. Over the years I had sent Ernie a few notes I thought might be of interest to him and books I had published I thought he might enjoy. He had mentioned these on his broadcasts as something from “my good friend Bill Haney” in Grass Lake, Ann Arbor, Dexter, or wherever I was living in at the time. Well, when I heard him mention me on the radio, I did feel like his good friend despite the fact that we hadn’t formally met. Details. When I asked him how he knew that a foul ball into the crowd was caught by a man from Ypsilanti or Caro or Clarkston, he laughed and said that was one of the most frequent questions he got.
Ernie remembered the books I had sent him and asked how I managed to be involved in book publishing while working full time. We talked about that a while and then I asked him when he was going to write a book.
“Oh, I don’t suppose there would be much interest in any book I would write,” he said. He’s done many books. Most of my stories are just twenty seconds or so, just long enough to tell between pitches.”
I told Ernie I doubted that very much. To the contrary, I was sure he had a wealth of material that would produce a very good book that would be popular not only with Tigers fans but also throughout the baseball world. The longer we talked, the more convinced I was that Ernie should seriously consider doing a book.
“Ernie, the reason I get involved in publishing books is to capture for posterity stories that otherwise might be lost forever. The shape you’re in you might just live forever, but let’s assume that doesn’t happen. It would be a real loss if you passed out of this world without leaving your stories behind in a book for your fans and future generations to take pleasure in.”
A week later, I answered the phone and heard that distinctive Harwell voice. Ernie wanted to know if I could come down to the ballpark; he had something he wanted to show me. He arranged for tickets and told me an usher would take me to the broadcast booth.
“I told Miz Lulu what you said last week about me writing a book,” he said. “She told me I had better listen to that Mr. Haney. So I’ve got a few pages here you can read. You’ll probably find out how wrong you were about me writing a book.”
I took the dozen typewritten pages and went to my seat where I was quickly engrossed in Ernie’s draft text. He had given me about twenty five hundred words of copy about his controversial choice of Jos Feliciano to sing the National Anthem before the start of the fifth World Series game on October 7, 1968.
Ernie hadn’t set out to create a controversy when he chose Feliciano. For the first game, Ernie chose Margaret Whiting, popular nationally and with strong Detroit ties. Next was Marvin Gaye, a major star and a Detroiter. For the final Series game at the Stadium, Ernie departed from this pattern. Instead of choosing a conventional, well known singer who could be counted on for a traditional rendition, Ernie opted for a young blind Latin singer with a recent hit called “Light My Fire” but little known to the general public.
Ernie hadn’t known it, but the blind Feliciano had long been a fan of his, having listened to his broadcasts of Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giant games early in Harwell’s career. In the morning of the game, when Ernie introduced Feliciano to the Tiger stars he was anxious to meet, the singer offered up improvised lyrics to his hit song: “Come on Kaline,
light the fire. Tigers got to have desire. Got to win today.”