Letter from Ernie Harwell

By Neal McNamara

Realizing the legend of a baseball legend

Almost exactly a year ago, I had the chance to interview a baseball legend, and I barely knew it.

Last April, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan was floating around a press release saying that someone named Ernie Harwell would be in Lansing and be available for press interviews.

Upon reading the release, I thought that Harwell was just some Blue Cross big shot spokesman. And so, I let the press release slip into the oblivion of my e-mail inbox.

A while later, when my boss let Blue Cross know that City Pulse would, indeed, like to interview Harwell, I balked (to myself, of course). But, in the interest of research, I plugged this Harwell guy into Google.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Ernie Harwell was not a spokesman, but a Hall of Fame baseball announcer. As I read more about Harwell — his poems, about his elegant calls, and his long and incredible career — I got more excited about the interview, and felt more stupid about not knowing who he was in the first place. All of my co-workers knew Harwell, and so I felt bad that me, a non-Michigander, an ingrate, would get to interview him.

But I did not really “get” the charm and legend of Ernie Harwell until he walked into the City Pulse office and started to speak. He speaks in a modified Southern accent, and with a voice that rolls and revs like a guy about to steal third base. To me, Harwell was the embodiment of baseball.
Interviewing Harwell was distracting, in a good way. He was so funny and interesting. For example, he told me down to the minute (12) how much time he does each day on the elliptical machine and treadmill. And little anecdotes, like how his sports editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution would not let him write headlines like “Tigers top White Sox.” Too sexual, Harwell chuckled.

Then, there’s the crowd. The people in our office — co-workers, people from Blue Cross — stood around Harwell hanging on his every word. And something that still amazes me to this day: Some guy walked in off the street who had recognized Harwell, and happened to have a baseball on him and wanted an autograph. He stood around, too, just watching Harwell talk.

I’ve since come to realize how valuable Harwell is to Tigers fans, and basically anyone who ever caught a baseball game on the radio. I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone say, “I used to lay in bed on summer nights with the radio to my ear listening to Ernie Harwell call a Tigers game.”

A few weeks after the interview, a letter showed up on my desk. It was from Harwell, thanking me for the interview (I thought I had blown it). It read: “Thanks for the Q and A in City Pulse. You did great. It was enjoyable to be with you. All my best — Ernie Harwell.”

I held the letter in my hands, standing there like a house by the side of the road.