I never really listen to the radio anymore. As a kid I listened to it all the time. The AM oldies stations, the FM top 40 stations, the Canadian stations floating in from north of the boarder and, of course, Tigers’ baseball on WJR. If you were a sports fan in the 70s, you listened to the radio. Sports didn’t dominate tv like it does today. Maybe there were 1 or 2 games on tv a week, but if you were a fan, you got the skinny from the radio. And was there ever a better radio broadcaster than the great Ernie Harwell? I doubt it. Harwell passed away yesterday after a year-long battle with cancer.
Harwell’s southern tinged drawl was part of the fabric of childhood. Graceful and engaging, Harwell brought life to one of the most moribund teams in the 70s. The Tigers were perennial losers, but Harwell breathed life into guys like Tom Veryzer, Gary Sutherland, Ron Leflore, and Joe Coleman. And he made great calls. When watching a game today, if someone takes a called 3rd strike, I still hear Harwell’s classic call, “He stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.” Whenever a fan would catch a foul ball, Harwell would offer up, “A young man from Muskegon takes home a souvenir.” Every foul ball featured a fan from a different city. As a 10 year old, I couldn’t wait for someone from Southfield (my town) to catch one. I was fascinated and wondered how Harwell could know where everyone was from. The 12 year old in me knew that he couldn’t know where everyone was from and that he had to be making it up. But to this day there’s that sliver of doubt. Maybe he did know. He had that magical voice coming out of the radio. He was at every Tiger game, the place you wanted to be as a kid. He was such a commanding and compassionate presence, someone who all fans were connected to, that perhaps he could know something so unknowable.
I never listen to the radio anymore. But were there any better childhood moments than being tucked into bed, listening to the West Coast games on my clock radio? Ten-thirty pm start times. Hiding under the covers. Trying to stay awake as long as possible. The crackle of the AM lulling you to sleep sometime in the 3rd or 4th inning.
When Jonathan Richman sings “With the radio on!” in Roadrunner, I think of the AM, I think of the lazy Midwest summertime, I think of listening to Tiger baseball on the radio. I hear the hum of the radio as the signal fades and then gets stronger.
RIP Ernie Harwell.