Legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell has been in the news lately after it became public that he has inoperable cancer. While the cancer will silence the voice, it cannot touch his legacy. A legacy of character and faith that even outweighs a legendary career.
In 2007, I was in my room at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee. It was only moments after I had been introduced as the new television voice of the Brewers. My mind was racing with pride and doubt, excitement and fear. I was sitting on the bed wondering what in the world I’d gotten myself into…trying to digest just how dramatically my life was about to change. Then, the hotel phone rang. I picked it up expecting the Front Desk. Instead, a deep, booming, unmistakable voice came pouring through. “Mr. Anderson, this is Ernie Harwell calling from Michigan.” I was shocked and silent. This was a voice I knew well. I had spent hundreds of hours listening to Ernie’s play-by-play. I had a dozen cassette tapes of his games and had mimicked his delivery down to the “looooong gone” during my early years in broadcasting in San Antonio.
There was “the voice” on the phone. My first congratulatory call came from my broadcasting hero Ernie Harwell!
His call came eight years after I spent a memorable evening with him in Arlington, Texas. Lance Parrish, then the Tigers hitting coach, knew my admiration of Ernie and arranged a meet and greet during a Tigers/Rangers series. We met at the team hotel and five minutes into our conversation, Ernie invited me to spend the evening “shadowing” him at the ballpark. He said, “It might do you some good, if you don’t mind hanging out with an old-timer.” I jumped at the chance and was right by his side from pre-game prep to the post game wrap. Ernie was so gracious and willing to share. But when the day was done, our paths did not cross again – until the phone rang at the Pfister.
“Brian, I remember you.” Ernie continued. “I want to congratulate you, young man!” “I’m sure you have a lot to think about but I want you to know that you belong in the big leagues. Welcome to the club!” Ernie then went on to tell me how much he loved Milwaukee and how much he missed traveling there after the Brewers changed leagues. He told me how nervous he was during his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers and warned me that I’d be fighting some “jittuhs.” He admitted that he worked his entire career with a healthy dose of paranoia about not being good enough (Crazy, I know!) and shared his affection for the Midwest despite growing up in the South, like I did. “You’re going to love working up here,” he said. “The people are friendly and passionate about their teams. Just be honest and be yourself and you’ll fit right in. You might want to buy a heavy coat, though!”
I have always thought of Ernie Harwell as the perfect broadcaster. As I’ve gotten to know him, I’m finding out he’s as close to a perfect man as we mortals can be. Before I met Ernie, I wasn’t sure how one lives in this fantasy world without losing one’s family, faith and peace of mind. He has kept all of these intact at a “hall of fame” level too while soaring to the top of his industry. As impossible as it sounds, he’s a better person than he is a broadcaster.
Every time the Brewers travel to Detroit, I call him. He joined me on the air in 2007 during Justin Verlander’s no-hitter against the Brewers. “That’ll teach ya!” he says. I spoke to him in June and he was pleased to tell me that (at age 91) he just signed a 10 contract with a 10 year option as a spokesman for a large corporation. Classic Ernie!
Ernie asked us not to refer to him in the past tense just yet. He certainly has a lot of living to do. He is as personable and pleasant now as he has always has been. When I heard the news of his illness, I wasn’t sad. I smiled. I know where his “next adventure,” as he puts it, is headed.
So if you’re wondering what you might say to Ernie Harwell right now? Don’t tell him how much his broadcasting meant to you. Tell him thanks for setting a gold standard for character.
Mr. Harwell, thanks for taking the time to make an impact on me. I’ll do my best to follow your lead, both on the air and on the ground.