Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ernie Harwell Tribute

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH

A year ago today, I experienced the Greatest Birthday of My Lifetime!

My cell phone was ringing constantly as I received greetings from family and friends. I also received quite a few text messages.

The days leading up to No. 46 included watching the FAU Owls win their second consecutive bowl game with a 24-21 triumph over Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl on Friday December 26. This would turn out to be the last Motor City Bowl as the name would be changed to the Little Caesars Bowl in 2009.

Hours later, the morning of Dec 27, I had to deal with extremely intense fog but managed to make the nine hour drive down I-75 South in plenty of time to see the Owls basketball team lose a hard fought battle to the Kentucky Wildcats 76-69 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY. If you're a sports fan then watching a basketball game in basketball country is a must see experience.

After using Sunday Dec 28 to relax, the fun would start with a "Lunch of a Lifetime."

My best friend & adopted older brother George Eichorn and I were going to Novi to visit with our colleague and dear friend Ernie Harwell. We spent a couple of hours together talking about life, baseball and anything else that came to mind. At the end, George, Ernie & myself took this photo on www.scottsports33.com.

By now, it's no secret that Ernie Harwell has Cancer. He'll turn 92 years old on Jan 25, 2010. I spoke with Ernie in September and a few times before that to offer my support. I do e-mail him periodically.

Nowadays, Ernie has disconnected his phone number and I'm sure that it's impossible for him to respond to all of his e-mails.

But I'm very grateful that I've known him since Spring Training of 1982 when we met in Clearwater, Florida (Philadelphia Phillies) and then I saw a second game in Dunedin (Toronto Blue Jays), where he had a second residence in Pinellas County.

We've shared so many great times at DSBA Meetings as well as regular season games, spring training, etc.

I wouldn't have enough space to list all the great times we've spent together!

But some that do standout have occurred in stadiums on the road.

I'll never forget in 1986 when the Tigers played the Cincinnati Reds at Tampa's Al Lopez Field during Spring Training. I did an inning of play-by-play on tape with Ernie. Tony Perez, Pete Rose and Dave Concepcion, Dave Parker, Nick Esasky, and Bo Diaz were just a few of the players on the roster.

During that inning, there was a Cincinnati player that had no number on the back of his jersey so I had to think of a name very quickly. That fictitious name was Wayne Jones and Ernie mentioned that in spring training there are extra players used that are not identifiable. We had a blast with this situation.

The entire experience of doing play-by-play was great since it was a lifelong dream of mine and even though I never had a chance to do it for a living, just having the privilege of sitting alongside of a Ford C. Frick Award Winner in the Baseball Hall of Fame, was extremely special.

When Harwell was fired by the Detroit Tigers after the 1991 season, our paths crossed again in Atlanta as we spent time together during Labor Day Weekend of 1992 while he was broadcasting a game for CBS Radio from Fulton County Stadium. Atlanta was a special place for Harwell as he began his broadcasting career as a member of the minor league Atlanta Crackers.

On the road, I'd take Harwell back to his hotel and we'd talk about everything. We had drives like this in Atlanta, Arizona and South Florida.

In 2001, the Tigers played the Arizona Diamondbacks at Bank One Ballpark during a June Fathers Day Weekend and we always ate lunch together before the game. Eating lunch with him on Fathers Day was awesome!

I'll never forget the time on this Fathers Day when Ernie gave me a "brown bag of chips" but I
declined to accept the gift. I told him they had no value to me. I told Ernie the only way I'd accept the chips is if he signed the bag. Ernie found a sharpie, signed them and the bag remains in my "Sports Showcase" at home.

What a weekend!

On September 11, 2001, the tragic events of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center dramatically changed the world we live in & the sports world.

At the time, I was a co-host of an Auto Racing Show called Weekly Wheels. My colleagues were Mark Allen, Gary Miller and Mary Beth. They counted on me to utilize my 22 years of experience at the time in Sports/Media to come up with timely material for our show since the Motor Sports Events of that weekend were cancelled.

I contacted Ernie a couple of days prior to tell him I was in a tough situation and needed advice on what to do. He told me that if there was any way he could help, he'd gladly do so. I asked him if he minded coming on the show as a guest to do a couple of segments and he quickly said he'd be happy to do so.

That Saturday Night, Allen, Miller and Mary Beth were in awe of Ernie. I surprised them by talking to Ernie and telling him to describe his greatest baseball play-by-play moment. Miller, who was was from New York, didn't know that Ernie called Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world" in the 1951 National League pennant playoff game on NBC Television in the New York Giants 3-1 win over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Thomson's winning homer came off Ralph Branca.

During the Weekly Wheels Broadcast, considering the tragic historical events of the week, Harwell enlightened us on how important it was to move forward. He mentioned examples of sports working its way though World War II, the Korean War as well as Vietnam. He understood the grieving period for us as a nation but also mentioned that during these conflicts that sports gave us all an escape from the conflicts we were experiencing as a nation.

The look on Allen's, Miller's and Mary Beth's faces were a pleasure to see as they experienced an opportunity of a lifetime to be on the air with My Hall of Fame Friend. For the fans of Arizona, it was their opportunity to enjoy this legend on their airwaves.

They didn't know that Harwell was the only announcer in baseball history to be traded for a player when the Brooklyn Dodgers' General Manager Branch Rickey, traded catcher Cliff Dapper to the Atlanta Crackers in exchange for breaking Harwell's broadcasting contract in 1948. Harwell would later substitute for Dodgers legendary Announcer Red Barber.

Out of respect, I'd always ask Harwell if he ever minded if I could call him "Uncle Ernie." He smiled and said that's fine. He seemed very happy to be a part of my extended family.

As much as I enjoyed our play-by-play experience together, having Ernie on that radio show during this crisis was the highlight of my radio career.

The next road trip for Ernie and I occurred in 2002 when the Tigers visited Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami to face the Florida Marlins. Approximately 30,000 fans showed up for the entire weekend series. As we went back to the car, there were Tigers transplanted fans who got Ernie's autograph and talked a little baseball.

The highlights of this weekend were taking Ernie back to the hotel every night plus having our pre-game meals where we would talk. I do admit that I was always nervous deep down inside taking this legend back to his hotel because I feared that I'd be responsible if he was seriously or fatally injured. My blood pressure was higher in South Florida because these drivers are horrible. But I kept quiet and composed and Ernie never knew it because I kept things buried inside.

But the thing that stands out about that weekend of 2002 was when I told Ernie that I wanted to write a story about his stormy departure from the Tigers in 1991. I told him that I would ask him some tough questions and asked him to kindly speak his mind. Throughout our friendship, when the Tigers terminated Harwell, I made a personal decision to never write or attend another game unless the team rectified this public relations fiasco so he had the opportunity to leave on his own terms.

He thanked me for my loyalty towards him. I said that he was welcome but some things in life are a no brainer and this was one of those situations.

Thankfully, Tigers Owner Mike Illitch squared up that mess in 1993. Harwell would work with the Tigers on television and radio until he officially retired in 2002.

But Ernie was totally cooperative and told me that the reason he opened up to me was that I had never done anything to betray his trust. That's the way a special relationship of any kind should be.

As I remember December 29, 2008, it now looks like that will be the last time that I'll ever have seen "This Tremendous Human Being." He's an icon to those who do and don't know him.

I hope the man upstairs gives Ernie the strength to live as long as he can. We know that he'll eventually pass away due to his incurable Cancer of the Bile Duct. But I can only hope and pray that he's enjoying all the precious moments he has with his family.

As I mentioned before, he'll always be a member of my extended part of my family and I'm very grateful that I've had the opportunity to tell him that in the past. But I've also told Ernie in the past that while I'm grateful of the interviews we've done on tape, the stories I've written on him and the photos & books along with the letter of recommendations he's signed, I'm glad that I've been able to tell him on occasion that "I Love Him."

It will be a sad day in the world when he does pass away. I can only imagine how much worse it will be in Detroit when that day does arrive. This event will be worse than some of the bad weather the area gets.

As I looked at the deaths of some of the notable broadcasters that were lost in 2009 such as Walter Cronkite (CBS News), Harry Kalas (Philadelphia Phillies), Paul Harvey (Syndicated Radio), Irving R. Levine (NBC News), Dave Diles (WXYZ Channel 7) and former Tigers legendary broadcaster and Hall of Fame player George Kell, it will be hard to potentially look at Ernie's name on a future list.

If there was ever a person that I thought would live to be 100, it was Ernie Harwell.

But to be with Uncle Ernie Harwell on December, 29, 2008, George Eichorn, and conclude the evening with my Uncle Bob Strohl & Aunt Judy made this a day worth sharing to all!

I know one day I'll be reunited with Ernie and we'll joke around about Wayne Jones. But there are not enough words in the dictionary to tell you what he's meant to me! Perhaps by now after reading this Blog, you probably figured it out.

But all I can say in closing is if Ernie sees this Blog, I just want to Thank-You for everything and being a BIG part of my life! If I'm unable to talk to you again, I hope you read this Tribute and realize that once again "I LOVE YOU UNCLE ERNIE" & God Bless & Peace to you Forever!

Scott Morganroth can be reached at scottsports33@aol.com and his blog can be seen at www.scottsports33.com.

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