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Here's a true hero

September 25, 2009 - Bill Speer
I promised readers of my column in Saturday, Sept. 24's newspaper that I would include the complete text of Sen. Carl Levin's address to Congress on Ernie Harwell in this column. Here is that text:

"I rise today in tribute to the man whose voice was the sound of summer, to the man who guided Michiganders through baseball seasons for more than forty years. I rise in tribute to Ernie Harwell.

"For those who love baseball and the Detroit Tigers, Ernie Harwell’s easy Georgia drawl on a summer evening has been a tonic after a hard day’s toil. He has been our eyes and ears at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull and, later, at the team’s new downtown ballpark. Since 1960, when Ernie broadcast his first Tigers game, until today, perhaps no person, no player nor manager, has been more closely identified with Tigers baseball. Certainly none has formed so strong an emotional tie with the fans of our team.

"Ernie grew up in Atlanta, and he often tells fans that as a boy he was tongue-tied, coping with a speech impediment, but with therapy and hard work, he turned his voice into a tool so powerful it brought the game to life. His first broadcasting job was with the minor-league team in his hometown, but in 1948, when broadcasting legend Red Barber of the Brooklyn Dodgers fell ill, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey called down to Atlanta. He asked if he could bring up young Ernie to fill Barber’s seat at Ebbets Field. OK, the Atlanta general manager replied, but you’ll have to give me something in return. And so Ernie became the first and so far only broadcaster in baseball history to be included in a trade, sent to Brooklyn for a minor league catcher.

"That was one of Branch Rickey’s finest deals. In Brooklyn and then in Baltimore, Ernie honed his craft and won the admiration of fans. He was the television broadcaster for one of the most famous moments in baseball history, Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in 1951. The national networks began to tap his talent for other events, such as pro and college football games and the Masters golf tournament.

"And then, in 1960, he came to Detroit.

"It is hard to describe to those who aren’t from Michigan or fans of the Tigers just what Ernie Harwell meant to us over the next five decades. His voice on the radio guided us through good seasons and bad, through our city’s times of prosperity and of tragedy. Through that ebb and flow he was a constant, his voice never too excited, never too downcast. We rejoiced when he told us an opposing batter took strike three “like the house by the side of the road,” chuckled as he reported a foul ball had become a souvenir for a fan from Detroit or Howell or Warren or Lansing, or another town Michigan fans recognized. In the first days of every March, at the opening of his very first broadcast of spring training, Ernie announced the official end of Michigan winter with a reading from the Song of Solomon: 'For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.'

"But over the decades, Ernie became more to us than just a welcome voice on the radio. He became a friend. For as good as he was behind the microphone, he is an even better man, and the quality of his character shone brightly, on his broadcasts and on the countless times he greeted fans with a hearty hello, or treated a clubhouse attendant with the same respect and affection as the million-dollar ballplayer. We came to respect and honor his voice, but to cherish his great heart.

"This beloved friend is hurting now. His illness, he tells us without a trace of bitterness, will soon take him from us. But as he faces what he calls the end of his journey, the greatness of his heart has once again shined forth.

"Last night, the Tigers took a break from the heat of another pennant race to pay tribute to this legend and friend. Amid the cheers and tears, Ernie once again put the fans first. Here is what he said: 'In my almost 92 years on this earth, the good Lord has blessed me with a great journey, and the blessed part of that journey is it's going to end here in the great state of Michigan. I deeply appreciate the great people of Michigan. I love their grit. I love the way they face life. I love the family values they have. And you Tiger fans are the greatest fans of all. No question about that.'

"There, Mr. President, is an example of true courage and grace for all of us to try to follow.

"Soon, this great voice will be silenced, a great heart stilled. But Ernie Harwell’s love of the game, his humanity, his courage, will remain with us always. I treasure the moments I have spent with him. I thank him for the hours of joy he has given me, my wife and children, and the people of Michigan. I wish him and his beloved wife Lulu all the joy they deserve."

Blog readers might also be interested in reading my column on Harwell found in Sept. 24th's newspaper.


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