Reflecting on Harwell's Importance in Detroit

It takes an extraordinarily long-lived person to have lived through a ↵retirement brouhaha 20 years in the past, and former Detroit Tigers ↵broadcaster Ernie Harwell is that. He's old enough that he seems a ↵natural landmark, not a man. ↵

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↵If you grew up in the Detroit area, you could be forgiven for thinking ↵that AM radio and maybe even baseball itself were merely vessels via ↵which to experience Harwell. He was and is such a beloved figure in the ↵state of Michigan that when Michigan State fans are really looking to ↵twist the knife in a Michigan fan, they bring up the 1990 fiasco during ↵which Bo Schembechler, then the team president, and various other Tigers ↵and WJR folk replaced Harwell to the outrage of all. Here's a ↵spittle-flecked Mitch Albom column on the ↵decision that's as righteous 20 years later as it was back then. ↵(Michigan fans will insist that Schembechler was just the fall guy for ↵the owner's insane decision. Since I am a Michigan fan, I will vouch for ↵this take 100%. That and Rose Bowls are about the only flecks on ↵Schembechler's resume.) With the outrage palpable, Harwell idled a few years ↵before being restored by new owner Mike Ilitch; he remained the Tigers ↵play-by-play guy until his voluntary retirement in 2002, when he was 84. ↵

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↵Harwell is 91 now, and has terminal cancer. ↵

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↵This may be a thing peculiar to myself, but the aging and passing of ↵sports announcers are amongst the most harrowing ways to experience ↵mortality. I remember sitting in a dorm room watching John Cooper pull ↵off his second and last victory over Michigan amongst a crowd of ↵Michigan undergraduates. We listened to Keith Jackson stumble his way ↵through the broadcast, confused about what down it was, where the ball ↵was, and who was doing what with it. For me, it was Johnny Cash's cover ↵of "Hurt": the devastating ↵assurance that you will wilt someday sooner than you'd like to. The ↵painful experience was made worse by one particular kid who kept ↵sneering at the old, old Jackson as if he were worthy of nothing but ↵contempt. I still hate that guy. ↵

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↵Harwell never fell so hard. He had the good fortune to work in a more ↵leisurely sport, one concerned less with drama and instant accuracy than ↵the slow winding of time through summers that seemed endless when ↵you were a kid and still do, sometimes, in the third inning of a sleepy ↵weekday game. When he retired he still had it, mostly. Given his ↵previous Lazarus deal, the possibility he might drop in from time time ↵time wasn't out of the question. ↵

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↵I don't actually like the Tigers much -- I like baseball in the abstract ↵and am usually happier at a minor league game -- and Harwell's been retired ↵for seven years. But this summer, like every summer, I was periodically ↵struck by the desire to flip on the radio and hear a Tigers game. When I ↵remembered Harwell was no longer the voice I'd here, desire was replaced ↵by disappointment. In six months or a year, the door that was left open a ↵crack will close; I hope I get a chance to sneak through it a final time ↵before it does. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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