It was late summer, a baseball night, and in downtown Detroit, the Tigers were playing. Miles away, sitting in his chair, Ernie Harwell wanted some ice cream.
"How about you?" he asked me. I said sure, and he turned to his beautiful wife of 68 years and said, "Lulu, let's have some butter pecan ice cream," and Lulu rose from the couch to get it, although I imagine Ernie would have done it first if he weren't sick.
This was a last week, in his modest home, where The Last True Gentleman of the Booth spends every night now, reading quietly, going through letters, enjoying the moments he has left because his moments are dwindling, a game in the late innings. Ernie has inoperable cancer. He accepts it the way a good ballplayers accept a strike call. May not like it. Can't change it.
Anyhow, Ernie Harwell is 91 years old and he has long since learned to make the best of things. He did it as a young broadcaster on away games when he stayed in the studio, read the ticker, then waited for the sound effect of a smacked bat. He did it for decades in the cramped bird's nest booth in old Tiger Stadium, where your spine surrendered to inhuman angles.
He learned it from his father, who suffered an illness in his later years that cost him his eyesight. Radio was how his father followed baseball after that, and for every game in his 55 years of broadcasting, through the Dodgers, Giants, Orioles and Tigers, Ernie never forgot that, never forgot how he might be the his eyes and ears for someone like his father, who was making the best of it.
Now Ernie makes the best of it, with grace, warmth and faith. Above all, faith.
BLESSED WITH MODESTY
"A church wants you to do the Sunday sermon," his friend and attorney Gary Spicer said, sitting with stacks of mail and requests. I mentioned that would be a sure way to increase church attendance.
"Oh, I dunno," Ernie answered, laughing, "They might throw tomatoes."
It came out "tamay-tahs," the soft Georgia coda to his words, easy on the ears, like cool tea to the lips. Ernie's voice has always been soothing he sounds like baseball would sound if the game could talk but we forget it's soothing mostly because Ernie himself is soothing, He is as gentle, open, kind and decent as anyone I have ever met. In two days, he was scheduled to say a farewell at Comerica Park. Spicer told him there would be a long video, and a salute, and then he'd be given the microphone.
"Well, I'll just talk for 30 seconds," Ernie said.
And sure enough, when the night came, last Wednesday, he didn't go much longer. He walked out briskly, offering his most healthy posture, and told the crowd he was lucky and blessed, especially because his journey was "going to end in the great state of Michigan." He finished with a "God bless you" and walked to the tunnel. No surprise Ernie always preferred to tell the story, not become it.
STILL TIME TO DO GOOD
Too late. Harwell's illness and his farewell speech became national news. Endless accounts of his long career were written, hosannas were thrown, all deserved.
But be careful not to eulogize Ernie, because he's not only still with us, he is entering a phase where he may be more precious than ever. "Maybe I can help somebody else," he said, after we'd finished the ice cream.
Harwell has been an example of grace over every game he's called, genteel, respectful, never in the way, accepting that he is there to paint the picture, but he doesn't own the brush. He has that same approach to life and now to death. He says he has long believed that his life is in G-d's hands, and he's lived it that way.
And he will continue to do so. To the end. I have written a new book about faith, part of which chronicles a broken down church in Detroit led by a poor pastor who fights to keep it going. Ernie read an advanced copy of book a few weeks ago. He told me he liked it.
That was special enough. But do you know that on his way down to his big night at Comerica Park, Ernie first drove by that crumbling church, unannounced, in a rundown section of Detroit, and when he saw the pastor, he rolled down his window and said "Hi, I'm Ernie Harwell, I just wanted to meet you."
Nobody looking. Nobody taking notes. Just something he wanted to do.
The Last True Gentleman of the Booth is making the best of it. We are all better for it.