On Sunday afternoon, Detroit Tiger fans who tuned in to WJR—760 on their radio dial—heard Ernie Harwell say in the first inning of the Tigers' game in Baltimore, "Here we are for the final game of the year and the final game at Memorial Stadium."
Ernie didn't say it was his final game as the Tigers' radio broadcaster, but, then, he didn't have to. His listeners knew it. After spending 32 of his 73 years with Detroit, Ernie was being put out to pasture. No more "two for the price of one" calls to indicate double plays, no more "there's one for a fan from McBain" after a ball went into the stands.
"I remember the first game in Memorial Stadium," Ernie is telling his listeners. "It was a day much like today. Rained on the parade in the morning, but when we got to the ballpark, the sun came out."
Back in 1954, when the Orioles debuted in Memorial Stadium, Ernie was the team's play-by-play man. Before that, he broadcast Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giants games. On Oct. 3, 1951, he called the Shot Heard Round the World for television while his Giants partner, Russ Hodges, made the famous radio call. Ernie always brings a little of that history to his broadcasts, and a lot of the Southern charm you would expect from someone who was Margaret Mitchell's paperboy.
"I've been asked to read a marriage proposal, Paul," Ernie says to his longtime partner, Paul Carey, who is also calling it quits after the game. " 'Rachel Rozmys, will you marry me?' I wonder if she knows from whom the proposal is coming. Anyway, we await the outcome."
Why in heaven's name would the Tigers and WJR want to get rid of a man this fine, an announcer so good that he's in the Hall of Fame? Of course, the Tigers are showing a distinct lack of class these days. None of the team's executives bothered to show up at a pregame ceremony honoring Ernie before a home game on Sept. 29. The Orioles, on the other hand, do things right. They had their own moving tribute to him on Friday night. During Sunday's game, the Baltimore fans were again asked to give him a big hand, which prompted Ernie to doff his trademark beret—"my hidden-bald trick," he calls it.
It's not much of a game—the Tigers will win 7-1—but Ernie makes it interesting and even educational: Did you know that a Cub groundskeeper invented the bat rack? Former running back Calvin Hill, a Baltimore native who is an Oriole executive, stops by to wish Ernie well. "You make me feel young when I hear your voice," Hill tells him during a break.
Also in the booth is Paul Parravano, a Tiger fan and a good friend of Ernie's who has come all the way from his home in Boston for the game. Parravano, who is blind, says he wanted to make sure he heard Ernie one last time.
Normally, Ernie takes a breather during the middle of the game and isn't scheduled to get back on the air until the seventh inning, but in the bottom of the sixth he plops down behind the mike to read a bulletin: "The young lady said yes. Rachel Rozmys will marry you, John Miller."
That drama having been resolved, Ernie settles in for his final three innings as the Tigers' announcer. The only hint that an era is drawing to a close comes when Carey asks him what he plans to do with the old houndstooth overcoat he keeps in the booth in Detroit. "I don't know," says Ernie. "I tried to give it to the Salvation Army, but they wouldn't take it."
With three outs to go, the sportswriters crowding the booth are straining to hear Ernie's last words. But something unexpected happens. Writers who normally jostle to remain within earshot of a subject the way power forwards fight for rebounds suddenly part ways and usher Parravano to a position right beside Ernie.
Now, with a runner on first and one out, Cal Ripken Jr. grounds to third to set up one of the Harwell trademarks. "Two for the price of one!" And then, "We'll be back in a moment, folks. I've got my little script here."
When the engineer signals 15 seconds, Ernie smiles and gets out a piece of paper. Five seconds, four, three, two, one: "I've had a gratifying career as your Tiger announcer, and now I say goodbye. I'll never be able to repay all the warmth and affection you fans have shown me.... I agree with Satchel Paige and William Shakespeare. Old Satch said, 'Don't look back, something may be gaining on you.' And Mr. Shakespeare once wrote, 'To have done is to hang quite out of fashion.'... Thank you very much, and God bless all of you."
With that, Ernie stands up, hugs Carey, walks up the steps and out of the booth. "I feel terrific," he tells the writers. Out on the field, the ceremonies for Memorial Stadium's closing are in full flower, so nobody notices Ernie walking through the press box. But that's just as well because he has a train to catch.
Fifteen minutes later, Ernie is sitting on a bench in Baltimore's Penn Station, waiting for the 6:33 to New York, where he has an engagement. A man walks up and says, "I thought that was you. My name is Steve, and I'm from McBain, Michigan, and I just want to tell you how much pleasure you've given me over the years. Why, I stayed up to all hours this last week, listening to WJR. Thank you, Mr. Harwell."
"No, thank you," says Ernie.
Ernie deserved better than what the Tigers gave him. Ironically, the Orioles might be the ones to make amends. There is a possibility that Ernie will be doing games for them next year in their new stadium. You can just hear him saying, "There's one for a fan from Havre de Grace."