Pick a positive term describing a highly esteemed person -- admired, respected, beloved. When it came to using those words to describe Ernie Harwell, all you were risking was understatement.
He was a great broadcaster, a Hall of Fame broadcaster, the voice of the Detroit Tigers for 42 years. And greater than even that was Ernie Harwell's quality as a human being. He was a gentleman in the traditional, and now almost forgotten sense of that word. He treated people, both the great and the small, like he was a walking embodiment of the Golden Rule.
Now, Ernie Harwell, admired, respected, beloved, will also have to be described as severely missed by everyone who came into contact with him. He died Tuesday from the effects of cancer of the bile duct at age 92. He will be missed by everyone who knew him, and in a way, that includes the millions who knew him through his broadcasts.
He had a splendid voice for the broadcasting job, a pleasant, resonant quality to it. It was different for the Midwest, because remaining with him were more than traces of the Georgia of his upbringing.
But there was so much more to it than mellifluous tones. Harwell had a conversational style, but the conversation was informative, entertaining, upbeat, rewarding. He had the gift that only the great ones have, of a natural grace on the air, like perfect musical pitch, a sense of when the words were needed and where the spaces between the words naturally occurred.
On the air, this was obviously a man of considerable intelligence, but he didn't hit you over the head with that trait. He managed to strike a balance between comfortably homey and highly informed that many other broadcasters continually seek but never really find.
Harwell was a 12-year Major League broadcast veteran before coming to the Tigers, working with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants, the Baltimore Orioles. But it was in Detroit, beginning in 1960, where he became a fixture, a legendary figure, an essential part of the baseball landscape.
He was honored with the Ford C. Frick Award, becoming a broadcasting member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981. He was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1989 and the radio sports Hall of Fame in 1998. Not that he needed another area of accolades, but he also became known as an accomplished song writer.
But as great as he obviously was in his profession, those who met him and knew him personally always came away with an appreciation for his humanity. He was routinely thoughtful, polite, courteous, kind. You could go on for some time in this vein, with the description sounding like he was American's leading Eagle Scout. But that is who Ernie Harwell was.
"The thing you remember," said Alan Trammell, the great Tigers shortstop, "is what a special man he is, the way he treated you. That's not easy to do."
As much as Tigers fans appreciated him, Harwell appreciated their loyalty. In his Hall of Fame induction speech, he said:
"... most of all, I'm a part of you people out there who have listened to me, because especially you people in Michigan, you Tiger fans, you've given me so much warmth, so much affection and so much love. I know that this is an award that's supposed to be for my contribution to baseball, but let me say this, I've given a lot less to baseball than it's given to me and the greatest gift that I received from baseball is the way that the people in the game have responded to me with their warmth and with their friendship. Yes, it's better to be lucky than good and I'm glad that I'm a part of all that I have met. We're all here with a common bond today. I think we're all here because we love baseball."
In one last display of his essential grace and courage, Harwell appeared at Comerica Park last September and spoke to the fans. His time was drawing short, but there was only a celebration of life in his words.
"In my almost 92 years on this Earth, the good Lord has blessed me with a great journey," Harwell told fans, "and the blessed part of that journey is that it's going to end here in the great state of Michigan. I deeply appreciate the 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."
That was Ernie Harwell, a wonderful baseball broadcaster, but an even better man. He can never be replaced. But by those who love baseball, he will always be remembered.