During his days as a sportwriter for the Detroit Free Press, author Mitch Albom came to know and befriend legendary Tigers radio announcer Ernie Harwell, the man who earned the nickname “The Voice of Summer” during 42 years broadcasting baseball over Michigan’s airwaves. Shortly after Harwell died in 2010 at 92, Albom began work on a play about Harwell’s career. The play, Ernie, will run August 12–16 at Traverse City’s City Opera House.
We sat down with Albom and asked him to share some memories of the beloved Michigan sportscaster.
Give us a simple memory of Ernie, something that shows us what Ernie was like in the day to day.
A typical night would be, you’d see Ernie out on the field before the game, and he’d be standing there with his arms hooked behind his back, rocking back and forth, and he’d see me and say, “Young Mister Albom …” You know, something like that, some kind of funny greeting. Honestly, I never saw a guy less rushed than Ernie. He never seemed to have to go anywhere. And for a guy who had to be on the air at a certain time … It was always, “Well, I guess I gotta be getting up to the booth now.” It was never like, “Hey, listen, I gotta run!”
In the middle three innings, Ernie would get a break and come into the press box to get his rest. He’d be eating an ice cream or popcorn and he’d just look like a little kid. And you’d get a chance to talk to him, and he’d go back to announce, and you’d listen to him again.
Was there something of an aura around Ernie when he stood there, taking his break in the press room?
Well, you’d look up and you’d see him, and you might be the first one to him, but you wouldn’t be the only one by him for very long. All of a sudden there’d be two, three, four people there with you. I don’t even know why. He wasn’t loud. He wasn’t holding court, but everybody became his court. And whatever he had to say, everybody just hung on it. You just loved being in his presence. He would always move the conversation off of himself. Like if you said, “What do you think of the Orioles?” or something, he’d answer and then say, “Now you’re from Baltimore, aren’t you?” He would always kick it back so it would be on somebody else. So yeah, Ernie never stood by himself for very long. Not ever. Not on the field. Not in the press box. Not in the state of Michigan.
I’m guessing you have attempted to deconstruct why Ernie was so beloved by the people of Michigan. What do you think created the bond?
I think a lot of it was timing. Ernie paralleled a time when America had a great love of baseball and the communication form was radio. If Ernie was born 30 years later, we wouldn’t be doing the Ernie Harwell story. People had a very human connection with radio and they loved listening to baseball on the radio. And he was there. In 1960, he started with the Tigers, and if you wanted to hear every game, it was Ernie, Ernie, Ernie, Ernie. In those days, Ernie Harwell greeted you and Ernie Harwell sent you home. He was the voice of that team at a time when that team was THE team. And he was always humble. He never put himself ahead of the game. It was obvious he didn’t want to draw attention to himself, and the more he didn’t want to draw attention to himself, the more attention he got. He was also a vocal Christian at a time when people weren’t always forthright about that, and that endeared him to a lot of people as well.
We hear Ernie had a reputation for showing up …
Yes. He made an amazing number of personal appearances. You won’t believe the number of people in a crowd who will say things like, Ernie Harwell came to my kid’s Boy Scout troop. Ernie Harwell came to a bowling rally we had. Ernie Harwell came to our fun run. Ernie Harwell came to my brother’s wedding. He loved being around people, and he would do the kinds of stuff that most people in the public eye … not only do they not do, they have a personal assistant to fend it off. He didn’t have a personal assistant that I was aware of. I don’t think he had anybody. You just called Ernie and he would show up. You do that for over 40 years and you develop quite a fan base to speak about what a special guy you are.
One person said they wanted Ernie to read a Biblical verse at their wedding. They didn’t know him, but he just did it. Well, everybody in that crowd becomes an ambassador for you. They tell somebody, and the person they told tells somebody, and next thing you know, everybody loves Ernie.
Do you still kind of subconsciously expect to hear Ernie on the radio at the start of every Tigers game?
Yeah, I did for a long time. I think I have gotten used to Dan [Dickerson], and I helped him get his first job in radio, so I’m personally fond of Danny. Also, Danny brings a lot of qualities that Ernie has. He’s humble, low key. But, yeah, when I heard Ernie, he sounded natural, and so—especially when he first left—everybody else sounded unnatural. They had those other guys doing it for a while, man that sounded weird. It was like who are these people in my house?
Ernie will run at the City Opera House on August 12—16, 2015. Read more background on Albom’s play Ernie, check the City Opera House schedule, and buy tickets at CityOperaHouse.org.