Honor­ing Ernie Har­welll

The Covington News - - Opinion -

It’s a rare thing when you get to meet some­one who qual­i­fies as a truly great per­son. It’s per­haps rarer still to be in the right place, at the right time, to catch glimpses of small­town Amer­ica at its best. To bring both of those rar­i­ties to­gether in one place and time is a me­mory you want to hold onto for­ever.

The day be­fore yes­ter­day, Fri­day, Feb. 15, pro­vided one of those rare mo­ments in time for this old boy. I was truly blessed to be over in Wilkes County as Wash­ing­ton, rolled out the red car­pet, put on the dog, and got their hair in the but­ter host­ing one of base­ball’s truly great gen­tle­men — one of their own who “done ‘em proud” — on “Ernie Har­well Day.”

It’s likely that most base­ball fans rec­og­nize my un­cle’s name and know at least some­thing about him, but given that many may not, let me tell you a lit­tle about my un­cle and why his home­town would go to the trou­ble of host­ing a spe­cial day just for him.

Ma­jor league base­ball — still “Amer­ica’s Pas­time” — of­fi­cially got or­ga­nized when the Na­tional League formed just 11 years af­ter The Civil War ended. The Amer­i­can League came along in 1901 and 17 years later Ernie Har­well was born. As a child with a speech im­ped­i­ment, Ernie fre­quented John B. Green’s drug store on the Square in Wash­ing­ton, and pa­trons were amused as the lit­tle tongue-tied boy would try to em­u­late the ra­dio an­nounc­ers broad­cast­ing base­ball games in the early 1920s. De­spite the fact that the reg­u­lars at the drug store would poke fun at him, Ernie was there of­ten, for the pro­pri­etor told him once to “…stick around, kid, be­cause if you stay here long enough maybe some­one will give you some­thing.”

My grand­fa­ther, Davis Gray Har­well, Sr. ran a furniture store in that small ham­let back then. As the decade known as “the roar­ing ‘20s” bus­tled in, he moved his busi­ness and the fam­ily to At­lanta. Not long af­ter­ward, though, my grand­fa­ther was stricken with mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy, and was con­fined to an arm­chair from which he over­looked what be­came the Druid Hills Golf Club on Clifton Road.

Ernie be­came a pa­per­boy to help the fam­ily bring in some money in what be­came dif­fi­cult times. One of his cus­tomers was Mar­garet “Peggy” Mitchell, who was work­ing on a lit­tle novel at the time — some­thing called “Gone with the Wind.” At the same time, hav­ing fallen in love with base­ball, Ernie read ev­ery­thing he could find about the game. He be­gan con­tribut­ing ar­ti­cles to The At­lanta Con­sti­tu­tion, and one day no­ticed an ad in which The Sport­ing News was seek­ing a re­gional correspondent in the At­lanta area.

Ernie was all of 15 years old at the time and fear­ing that his youth­ful­ness would be detri­men­tal, signed his ap­pli­ca­tion as “W. Ernest Har­well” in or­der to sound older than he was.

The ploy worked. For years Ernie cov­ered the mi­nor league At­lanta Crack­ers and in 1943 be­gan his ra­dio broad­cast­ing ca­reer in the booth at old Ponce de Leon Park for WSB-AM.

In those days ra­dio an­nounc­ers did not travel with the team to away games. Ernie would sit in the WSB stu­dio and read a ticker tape ac­count of what was hap­pen­ing, and would then have to an­nounce as if he was ac­tu­ally there. Rain de­lays were par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing, as were breaks in the ticker tape trans­mis­sions. There were no sound ef­fects; Ernie would crack a pen­cil on his desk when­ever he called out “there’s a hit !”

Well, you couldn’t grow up in At­lanta in those days with­out get­ting to know a lot of folks who later be­came house­hold names in the world of sports. One of Ernie’s good friends was the great Bob Jones, a man Ernie re­spects even to­day as the great­est of golfers and a true gen­tle­man. Ernie drew the as­sign­ment to broad­cast the first Masters Golf Tour­na­ment on ra­dio from Au­gusta. In those days of live ra­dio, with no tap­ing and no re­play, an­nounc­ers were at the mercy of ev­ery­thing from weather to tem­per­a­men­tal ath­letes. Ernie had lined up an in­ter­view with Jones from the 18 green and it was sched­uled for the early morn­ing be­fore tee time for the Masters.

As the day dawned, the heav­ens opened and a tor­ren­tial down­pour en­sued as the time for the in­ter­view neared. Ernie stood in the pour­ing rain think­ing of how to fill the time, not ex­pect­ing Jones to ven­ture out­side. But just then, one of the great gen­tle­men of golf, Bob Jones, strode through the down­pour to give him the in­ter­view he’d promised his friend.

World War II came along and in­ter­rupted Ernie’s ca­reer, as it did for all of “Amer­ica’s Great­est Gen­er­a­tion.” He served four years as a United States Marine be­fore re­turn­ing to broad­cast Crack­ers games for WSB.

In 1948 Ernie be­came the only an­nouncer ever traded for a player, and it was his ticket to the ma­jor leagues. The Brook­lyn Dodgers sent catcher Cliff Dap­per to At­lanta in or­der to get Ernie Har­well be­hind a mi­cro­phone and the rest is pretty much his­tory. Ernie called games for the Dodgers, the New York Gi­ants and the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles be­fore be­com­ing the voice of the Detroit Tigers in 1960.

There are so many sto­ries about Ernie I wish I could tell you, but space doesn’t per­mit. I will tell you that my dad, Davis, Ernie’s old­est brother, died in Au­gust of 1968 and that de­spite our ef­forts to ex­cuse him, Ernie missed the first ma­jor league game of his 60-year ca­reer to be with us when we buried Daddy.

I will tell you that Ernie had my younger brother, Rhee and me flown to Mo­town for the 1968 World Se­ries be­tween the Tigers and the St. Louis Car­di­nals. We were there to hear Jose` Feli­ciano’s con­tro­ver­sial ren­di­tion of the Na­tional An­them. We met Roger Maris, Bob Gib­son, Stan “the Man” Mu­sial and of course, all of the Tigers.

I will tell you of a day in old Tiger Sta­dium when Kirby Puck­ett, Kent Hr­bek and maybe half the Min­nesota Twins had a tus­sle to see who would be the pre-game guest for “Mr. Har­well.”

And I’ll tell you how I came to cher­ish fall­ing a few steps be­hind Ernie when­ever visit­ing Tiger Sta­dium, to lis­ten as he greeted ev­ery sin­gle per­son — cus­to­di­ans, hot dog bark­ers, se­cu­rity guards, ev­ery­one — by name. Those walks came to il­lus­trate to me Ernie’s great­ness, you see. Yes, his me­mory is re­mark­able, but only a great man, a com­pas­sion­ate man, takes the time to let ev­ery per­son from ev­ery walk of life know that they mat­ter.

I’ve never met a greater man than my un­cle Ernie, you see. He has dined more than once in the White House. He num­bers among his close friends scions of in­dus­try and power. Yet his hu­mil­ity is gen­uine, rooted in the red clay nur­tur­ing of his small Ge­or­gia home­town of Wash­ing­ton.

Through my adult years Ernie has never failed to in­clude me at any time, in any place, un­der any cir­cum­stance when we might find time for our paths to cross. He’s hosted me in ball­parks across the land and in 2002 in­cluded my son, Davis, and me at cer­e­monies in Detroit’s Comer­ica Park lead­ing up to his re­tire­ment. Thanks to his gen­eros­ity, I’ve rubbed shoul­ders with no­ta­bles from base­ball, in­dus­try, gov­ern­ment, broad­cast­ing and jour­nal­ism over the years.

And through it all, I’ve learned the most im­por­tant lessons of my life from just be­ing around the gra­cious gen­tle­man that is Ernie Har­well. From him I’ve learned that the truly great peo­ple, from Pres­i­dents to cus­to­di­ans, are also the most hum­ble.

And I’ve come to be­lieve, in sim­i­lar fash­ion, that the truly great­est part of Amer­ica – that part that makes Amer­ica the great­est na­tion on earth — is what you find in a small town.

True to form, as the cer­e­mony at Wash­ing­ton’s Pope Cen­ter honor­ing him be­gan, Ernie sat off to the side of the room, out of the lime­light. Wash­ing­ton’s mayor, Wil­lie Burns, spoke briefly, fol­lowed by broad­cast­ing leg­ends Lo­ran Smith and Pete Van Wieren. Two nicely pro­duced videos — one from At­lanta’s WXIA-TV and one from Wash­ing­ton’s own Old South Mar­ket­ing -— high­lighted Ernie’s 90 years on earth and 60 years in base­ball.

Fi­nally my un­cle, mem­ber of Base­ball’s Hall of Fame in Coop­er­stown since 1981 and an in­ductee in nearly a dozen oth­ers, in­clud­ing the Ge­or­gia Sports Hall of Fame in­duc­tion just this week­end, spryly climbed the steps to the mi­cro­phone.

Ernie thanked the good folks of Wash­ing­ton who had la­bored to put to­gether the world-class “Ernie Har­well Day,” and he told a few sto­ries.

He termed Jackie Robin­son’s break­ing of the color bar­rier with the Brook­lyn Dodgers in 1947 as the sin­gle great­est mo­ment in all of sport. Born, you re­call, just 17 years af­ter the Amer­i­can League came into ex­is­tence, he’s seen a lot of leg­endary play­ers, and Ernie named Wil­lie Mays as the great­est he ever saw play the game.

Ernie’s clos­ing re­marks re­flected the hu­mil­ity that makes him the truly great man he is. He men­tioned two philoso­phers, one a right-han­der and one a lefty, who in­flu­enced him greatly. The rightly was Al­fred Ten­nyson, who penned “I rec­og­nized that I am part of ev­ery­thing and that ev­ery­thing is part of me,” while the south­paw was Yan­kees pitcher Lefty Gomez, the first to say “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

In clos­ing, Ernie re­vis­ited what the phar­ma­cist told him in that drug store on the town square nearly a cen­tury ago, say­ing: “Well, I wish old John Green could be here to see this to­day; I did hang around long enough and you good peo­ple have given me some­thing grand, in­deed.”

Yes, Wash­ing­ton surely did. Not only did small town Amer­ica honor one of their own, but they gave us all a hall of fame an­nouncer and a man who makes ev­ery­one around him a lit­tle bit bet­ter just by be­ing in his pres­ence, Ernie Har­well.

Nat Har­well

Colum­nist

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