"Lo the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing birds is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land." (Song of Songs 2: 11-12)
It is not often that you hear the Song of Songs being recited before a major sports event but that is exactly the touch of class that Ernie Harwell, Hall of Fame voice of the Detroit Tigers, brings to the game of baseball.
The 2001 Major League Baseball season marks Ernie Harwell's 63rd year of broadcasting and his 42nd calling Tigers baseball. He is the only person to have broadcasted professional baseball over a span of seven decades. In that time span, Harwell has missed only two broadcasts, making his consecutive game streaks longer than Lou Gehrig's and Cal Ripken Jr.
As a youth, Ernie dreamed of becoming a major league ball player. Ernie would soon find out that man's plans are not always the plans that God has for our lives. There was a plan for Ernie long before he would ever realize what a relationship with Jesus really meant, however, he had to mature a little before he understood what it was.
"I just wasn't cut out to be a baseball player. I played American Legion ball and also played in high school and college, but I really was not that talented."
Ernie was forced to re-consider playing baseball.
"I knew that if I wanted to be to be around the game of baseball and sports in general, I'd have to do it by either writing or by being an announcer. I soon envisioned myself broadcasting."
To accomplish his dream he would have to establish himself in the tough world of baseball journalism. That is not as easy as it sounds. In my own experiences as a sports journalist it is like trying to prove your-self worthy of being a part of an elite club and you are being critiqued by your peers all of the time. You either have what it takes to be there or you don't. That is tough enough for an adult. I can't imagine what it would do to a young teenager.
At the age of 16, Ernie took a big chance and wrote to the Sporting News in St. Louis Missouri suggesting that he be their Atlanta correspondent. He didn't have much hope in getting the job but that wasn't going to stop him from trying.
"I would sign my name W. Ernest Harwell to sound a little more mature than Ernie. The editor did not know that I was 16 so he said, "send some stuff in", I did and they gave me the job."
We said earlier that God already had a plan set in place for Ernie and in 1934, without any formal training, Harwell began his job as a sports writer. That was just the springboard for what came next.
"After getting a job following the minor league Atlanta Crackers, I set my sights on getting to the Major Leagues. I wanted to cover a single team, or cover a World Series, or even an All-Star or a Playoff game. It was all by the grace of God that I got to do them all."
Ernie had finally made it to the Major leagues in 1948, as a broadcaster for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It didn't take very long for people to see that Harwell had a gift for describing the action. His God given talents soon gave him a front row seat to witness baseball history being made throughout the next 53 years.
Ernie grew up going to church with his parents and understood what it meant to be a Christian but he looked for fulfillment through his dreams and aspirations of becoming a major league broadcaster.
Even though Ernie had accomplished all that he had set out to do there was still an emptiness inside that he could not explain. Something was not exactly right.
1961 was the breakthrough year for Ernie as he was down in Lakeland, Florida to cover spring training for the Tigers. He would soon realize what he had been missing all of these years and it was just a town away.
"That was the only year that my family was not with me. I had read that Billy Graham was going to have an Easter Sunday service in nearby Bartow. Something told me to go over there and I did. When Billy Graham issued the invitation, I walked down the aisle and right there dedicated my life to Christ. I made Him my Lord and Savior. I just completely turned my life over to Jesus. Before that, I had just been a fellow who went to Sunday school. I believed that that if I did a few good deeds I would get to heaven and if I didn't hurt anybody's feelings, it would be ok."
Easter Sunday 1961, had completely changed Harwell's life and the Lord helped to place Ernie's priorities in order. The most important of them was God. His family was next and then the job would be next. He may be a Hall of Fame broadcaster with admirers all over the country but he doesn't take himself too seriously.
"I still wanted to work and do my best but I began to feel that my walk with God was more important than anything else. He showed me that whatever problems would arise, and there would be problems, that I would have somebody to lean on and I would have his help no matter what would happen."
That was never as true as the day Ernie was called into the Detroit Tigers front office and informed that as announcers were concerned they were headed in a different direction. He could finish out the season but that would be the end of his then 30 years of broadcasting in Detroit. There were no reasons given, no explanations, just an unquestioned goodbye.
The firing caused an up-roar of emotion from his loyal listeners and the Tiger faithful. Ernie just took it in stride and left with as much class as the day he first entered the press box.
"That had to be the worst thing that ever happened to me. I had worked with them for 32 years and we had a good working relationship. When this thing happened, some of the people in the Tiger front office were very bitter towards me and antagonistic towards me. But I didn't think about it too much. It sort of hurt me but I had to forgive them. It taught me that people were watching me and how I reacted to the whole situation. I knew that would reflect on my Christian walk. I think that I learned the lesson that people really are just people and that you shouldn't worry about what the world does. You've just got to keep your eyes on Jesus."
And then there was that strong reaction from the fans in Detroit.
"I didn't like the attention" Harwell said, "I don't think that the announcer should get that much attention. I think that the game is the main thing and the announcer should be sublimated to the game. However, it was gratifying to see the affection and love that was generated by the fans of Detroit and even all over this country for that matter."
Ernie was back on the air within a year once the Tigers were under new management. Mike Ilitch called on Ernie to go back in the booth and eventually represent Detroit as the team spokesman.
Tiger fans and their new owner were not alone in their recognition of Harwell's importance to baseball. The Major league Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York gave Harwell one of the biggest acknowledgements that anybody could give him for his talent on the microphone, the Ford C. Frick award, which he received in 1981 for Broadcasting Excellence.
"Being up their on the platform with those great players and participating in the ceremony and making a speech of acceptance would have to have been the greatest thing that ever happened to me."
Having admired Ernie's work over the years I had to ask him one last question. "What is the secret to the length your success?"
"I just try to be myself. I think that God made me the way I am and He gave me the talent to broadcast, good health and a supporting wife and family. I tried to be whatever I was and to not fool anybody. My career has been a gift from God. It came only by His grace. It is nothing that I deserve but it is a gift and I am more than willing to accept it."
No matter what happens in the future Harwell just wants to be remembered in one way. "A man who tried to walk with his God and who tried to always do his very best for Him."