Ernie Harwell died Tuesday. He was 92.
His name may not mean much to folks around here, but to this lifelong Detroit Tigers fan, it means so much.
Harwell was the radio, and sometimes TV voice of the Tigers. He called the games when the team won the World Series in 1984, and he called the games when they were cellar-dwellers.
Ernie was old-school. He was humble. He was gentle. He was honest. He wasn't a publicity hound. He was a baseball man with a distinctive, reedy Southern lilt, not a school-trained broadcaster with a voice washed of all personality who simply schilled for the team.
He understood the cerebral nature of the game, the peaceful way in which it can be one minute, and the thrill it can give the next.
Ernie called Tigers games for AM powerhouse WJR for more than 30 years, calling by his own count more than 8,300 games in a Hall of Fame career that included being traded by the Atlanta Crackers minior league team to the Brooklyn Dodgers for a catcher.
He'll be forever known in the Motor City, not just for those laudable traits above, but for signature phrases. When one of the Bengals hit one out, he'd say "it's long gone!" If someone fouled one off, he'd say it was caught by "a man from Cheboygan," or one of numerous cities in the Michigan, Ohio and Ontario listening areas.
My favorite: When a batter took a called third strike, Ernie'd exclaim, "He stood there like the house by the side of the road."
These were phrases that evolved over time. He didn't make them up as a young broadcaster trying to advance his career. That's the way Harwell was. Real. Natural. Traditional. That's so important in baseball.
I had two brushes with him.
One came just a few years ago when he signed copies of one of his books at my son's middle school in Grand Blanc, MI. I bought one for my dad, who was from the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak and the man who gave me my live for the team with the Old English D, and Ernie nicely obliged, even jotting a short, personal message to the distant old man of a fan in El Paso.
The other came several years earlier. Ernie always opened his first spring training broadcast with the same biblical passage. When you live in a very cold state like that, those words evoke a particularly warm feeling inside, even when you know there's going to be more snow and more cold before real baseball weather returned (my friend Andy Heller always jokes that Michigan gets two weeks of summer).
I listened to one of those broadcasts early in my run at the Flint Journal and I wrote a column about it, which, if memory serves, they ran on the front page. A few days later I got a very nice, handwritten note by Ernie, whom I'd never met before, thanking me for the kind words.
I don't know who sent him the column. God knows tons of them have been written about him. He certainly didn't have to write me a thank you note. If anything, I owed him one as a fan and as a human being.
But that's the kind of class guy Ernie Harwell was. The cancer with which he was diagnosed last year finally took him. But he'll live in my and thousands of others' memories for a very long time.
So long, Ernie. RIP.