Potential: Revealed

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A Great One Passes

The most indelible memory I have of growing up in Michigan was listening to Detroit Tiger games late at night throughout the summer. I’d be in my bed with the window open and possibly a slight breeze blowing in. The lights would be off and my transistor radio was under my pillow — so I could listen to the games even though my parents had long earlier told me to go to sleep. If it was a West coast game and well past midnight local time, I often fell asleep with the voices of the game playing in my dreams.

The voice I remember most clearly for all those games – I probably listened to 100’s of them — was of Ernie Harwell. He was the voice of the Detroit Tigers for 40 years. Ernie passed away today, May 4, 2010. He was 92 years old.

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As America seems to regularly produce, his life story is one of rising to great heights and reaching potential not clearly evident at the start of his life.

He was born in 1919 in Washington, GA a younger contemporary of Ty Cobb, also of hot, flat and sparsely populated area of rural south Georgia. It is interesting he would end up, as Ty Cobb did, with the Tigers. Where Ty Cobb was ornery and remembered as a difficult man. Ernie Harwell was almost completely the opposite.

He was born with a severe speech defect. Through therapy and forcing himself to participate in debates and classroom discussions, he had overcome the handicap by the time he graduated from Emory University.

Harwell’s big break came in unusual fashion.

Brooklyn Dodgers radio broadcaster Red Barber became ill in 1948, and general manager Branch Rickey needed a replacement. After learning that the minor league Atlanta Crackers needed a catcher, Rickey sent catcher Cliff Dapper to Atlanta and Harwell joined the Dodgers. It is the only time a player was traded for an announcer in major league history.

Through his challenges with his voice, growing up in rural and relatively poor south Georgia, and needing a break as lucky as the one he got with the Dodgers, it is amazing he ended up making a living with his voice, doing so at the highest level of excellence. And what a voice it was. I don’t think I’ll ever forget its sound. And I hope I don’t.

He announced in September 2009 that he’d been diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the bile duct. He took the news with characteristic poise, saying he planned to continue working on a book and other projects.

“Whatever happens, I’m ready to face it,” Harwell told The Associated Press on Sept. 4.

“In my almost 92 years on this earth, the good Lord has blessed me with a great journey,” Harwell said at a microphone behind home plate when honored by the Tigers at a home game immediately after he announced his cancer diagnosis. “The blessed part of that journey is that it’s going to end here in the great state of Michigan.”

On Tuesday, Senator Carl Levin said this on the floor of the U.S. Senate: “All of Michigan will miss the sound of his voice telling us that the winter is past, that the Tigers had won a big game, or that they’d get another chance to win one tomorrow. We will miss his Georgia drawl, his humor, his humility, his quiet faith in God and in the goodness of the people he encountered. But we will carry in our hearts always our love for him, our appreciation for his work, and the lessons he gave us and left us and that we will pass on to our children and grandchildren.”

Perhaps one of the greatest facts about Ernie was that he was married to his wife, LuLu, for 67 years. I’m sure she misses him more than any of us possibly can.

But for me, I know I will miss that voice. God Bless You, Ernie Harwell.

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