By JIM TOCCO
I spent part of the evening Tuesday night sitting under a magnolia tree.
This particular tree is one of impressive stateliness and venerability, and I sat and rested against the sturdy old trunk for several minutes. I hadn’t stopped there for rest, for this particular tree is just a short walk from my new home in Midtown Atlanta. I hadn’t stopped there for shade, for it was a cool evening, lit by half a moon and the street lights of a major city. I hadn’t even stopped to appreciate an idyllic setting, for this tree sits only yards away from Ponce De Leon Blvd., a major thoroughfare through Midtown, and all of its noise. And it sits in the back of parking lot, behind Borders Books, leaving a view of only dumpsters.
But I had gone there for a reason. I’d gone commune with just a little bit of what that tree had seen, and to hear in my head the voice of many summers gone by.
I remember the first time I really got turned on to the game of baseball. It was 1984, and the Detroit Tigers were in the summer months of a season in which they were never out of first place. My dad had grown up in Detroit, rooting for Al Kaline and Denny McLain. And wherever we went that summer – including an Indian Guides camping trip, as I recall – the radio went with us. The dial scarcely budged from 760 WJR, and the voice on the radio was Ernie Harwell’s.
I first met Ernie in 1999, after idolizing him for years. I was fresh out of college and working for the Charleston RiverDogs of the South Atlantic League. I was making $200 a month there as a broadcasting intern, and I had the temerity to call the Hall of Famer in his hotel room in Houston. We talked about everything from Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World to what it’d be like to open Comerica Park the following year. He gave me a 30-minute interview on a gameday, and it was the highlight of my year.
Afterward, he told me that I’d done a great interview and how I had big things in my future.
By 2002, I was a broadcaster for the Toronto Blue Jays’ Single-A team, and I used my connections to get on the field at Skydome during the last weekend of the season. I’d come, with my father, to track down Ernie during his last weekend as a major league broadcaster. My dad had been listening to Ernie for 40 years and had never met him. How proud my dad was when Ernie remembered me by name and told him what a good interview I’d conducted three years prior. This man who’d once played cards on the team bus with Jackie Robinson made it his custom to greet you, no matter who you were, as if you were a longtime friend.
The following season, I got a job as the broadcaster for the Lansing Lugnuts, in Tiger Country. I hoped I’d see Ernie in his first year of retirement, and late in the summer, I did. He came to my radio booth to broadcast a game with me. He told me off the air that he always knew I’d get there and further. He told me on the air that the people of Lansing were lucky to have me. I’d imagine he said the same thing to every usher, bat boy, and elevator operator he met at Oldsmobile Park that day. And I’d imagine, too, that just like it was for me, it was one of the proudest moments of their lives.
Much is being written about Ernie Harwell right now. Many writers mention his greatness as a broadcaster but focus on his greatness as a man. Every word of it is true.
He was married to his wife Lulu for more than 60 years. He wrote piano music during the offseason. And every time he went on the air – heck, every time he walked through the ballpark – he has thousands of friends. Even if those people didn’t know it.
Mitch Albom once said that “if baseball could talk, it would sound like Ernie Harwell.” Maybe he didn’t speak as baseball, but he did speak for baseball. (If you haven’t read his Hall of Fame induction speech, read the text HERE, starting halfway down with the words “Baseball is.”)
One of his signature calls was saying that a batter who had struck out looking had “stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.” When a foul ball went into the stands, he’d call out the city that the fan was from; always a suburb of Detroit within his listening radius. And of course, his best known signature call was to say “loooooong gone!” after home runs.
I was listening to a recording of it last night, and I asked him back in that 1999 interview what he wanted people to say when he was “long gone.” This was his humble reply:
“I’d like to be remembered as somebody who showed up for most every game,” he said. “I’ve missed only two in my 52 years — and somebody who tried to do the job and appreciated the fact that people embraced him with some warmth and loyalty and support over the years.”
I’ll remember him as much more than that. So will anyone else who felt the warmth of his radiance from the very beginning of his 60-year career.
That career started in the South. Before he debuted in the major leagues – he was traded to the bigs for a minor league catcher! – he broadcast ballgames for the minor league Atlanta Crackers, at a place called Ponce De Leon Park. This was an unusual park, in that it had a very spacious center field.
And in the depths of center, just yards from what is now Ponce De Leon Blvd. and behind what is now Borders Books, stood a stately and venerable magnolia tree.
How much it has seen and heard.
I’ll miss you, Ernie. My father and his father, and thousands more of us — we stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched you go by, and the world is impoverished without your presence.