As a baseball man and broadcaster, the late Ernie Harwell was world-class. After stays with the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, and Baltimore Orioles, he and his supremely pleasant Georgian drawl spent 42 years calling the Detroit Tigers on radio and television. Every conceivable sportscasting honor possible was eventually bestowed upon him, including the pinnacle: the Ford C. Frick Award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
As a person, he was even finer. His humility and kindness endeared him to most everyone he met. Jack Morris once succinctly voiced that sentiment, saying of Harwell, “I have never met a nicer guy.” Before Ty Cobb passed in 1961, Harwell formed a rare friendship with the man scores viewed as unlovable. When Harwell died of cancer in 2010, he had been married to the same woman, his prized Lulu, for 69 years. His final days were spent in quiet, looking after her; ”whatever she wants me to do, whatever errands she wants me to run,” Harwell said of occupying his time during his terminal days. I can safely assume he did not merely “occupy” himself with the care of his wife, but immersed himself in it, as fervently as with all his endeavors.
Both personally and professionally, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone better (though Harwell, of course, left that for everyone else to point out and was bashful when they did). The stage play bearing his name, “Ernie,” which released last April, is a touching tribute to both aspects of its inspirer. You would not think two thespians on a diminutive platform in front of some 400 audience members could capture Harwell’s essence so precisely.
I’m aware of the malevolence held by many toward the play’s author, Mitch Albom. In 2005, they were nauseated by his well-documented negligence of journalism ethics. Five years later, his acceptance of the prestigious Red Smith Award, a recognition of lifetime achievement from the Associated Press Sports Editors, refocused the ire of Albom’s readership, and some colleagues, on the prominent columnist.
Albom’s mistake incited well-deserved criticism, but it should not prevent you from experiencing his brilliantly executed memorial to Harwell, his longtime friend. I saw the performance at the City Theatre, where it recently finished its second run (yes, I’m a little late with this recommendation), last Friday night and left educated, inspired, and thoroughly entertained. I can only imagine the emotions felt by the many theatergoers I sat alongside who grew up fixated on the radio, soaking up Harwell’s poetic and informative game-calling–growing to love the game of baseball through his obvious affection for it.
That peerless voice combined the southern inclination to elongate vowel sounds and refusal to pronounce the “r” with unmistakable articulation and tonality. Flowing perfectly to complement the action on the field, his drawl always served its purpose, whether your intentions were to be enthralled or lulled to sleep. Somehow, Will David Young replicated it far more closely than one would have thought possible.
Timothy “TJ” Corbett played the enthusiastic, anachronistic boy who urged Young’s Harwell to retell the many legends of his life as the man waited sheepishly to say goodbye to fans during a semi-formal ceremony at Comerica Park. Young and Corbett made the most of their humble set and a plot which was, fittingly, if uncharacteristically for a stage play, scripted absent of conflict.
Harwell’s life story was split into nine sections–or innings–and ran for approximately 90 minutes. It was one of the shorter 90-minute stretches I’ve lived, as the stage version of Harwell recounted hilarious and fascinating real-life stories and repeated his various catchphrases to Corbett in a manner that made you feel as if you were hearing them not at the theater but in his living room.
The latest run of “Ernie” ended this past weekend, but it will soon return; Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids will host a ten-show run from September 13th till the 23rd. For a Tiger fan, a baseball fan, a theater fan, or any combination of those, it’s well worth the ($30) price of admission. Tickets are on sale–don’t miss it.