Honoring Ernie Harwelll
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.