If You Miss the Man, You Owe it to Yourself to See ‘Ernie’

Admit it. You miss him. You miss his enthusiasm, his grace, his stories, his voice. You miss the phrases that rolled off his tongue for four decades of summers – “Looooong gone!” and “He stood there like the house by the side of the road” and “Two for the price of one!” They were baseball’s equivalent of comfort food.

It’s hard to believe that Ernie Harwell has been gone five years already. How can that be possible? Ernie was the radio voice of the Detroit Tigers for 42 years, and when he succumbed to cancer in May 2010, we knew that baseball would never be the same. You can’t replace a legend, we said, and we were right. Now – can you imagine? – there are actually young baseball fans out there who have uttered these unfathomable words: “Who is Ernie Harwell?”

There is a cure for such blasphemy, and we have award-winning writer Mitch Albom to thank for it. Whether you’re a die-hard baseball fan who grew up listening to Harwell on the radio or you’re simply curious how your parents could possibly consider a radio announcer as a member of the family, you owe it to yourself to see Albom’s poignant theatre production, “Ernie.”

Appropriately sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Blue Care Network, since Harwell served as a health and fitness advocate for Blue Cross from 2003-2009, the play runs through Aug. 2 at Detroit’s City Theatre before hitting the road for performances in Traverse City Aug. 13-16 and East Lansing Aug. 19-22.

Albom, a longtime columnist for the Detroit Free Press and author of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” sets the play at Comerica Park on the night of Harwell’s farewell speech to Detroit. Before heading onto the field, the Hall of Fame announcer meets an unusual boy who coaxes him into giving the “broadcast of his life,” and we follow Harwell from his tongue-tied youth during the Great Depression to World War II before settling into a front-row seat for many of baseball’s greatest moments.

The play is a fun and entertaining ride down Memory Lane, with Harwell magnificently portrayed by Detroit actor Peter Carey, who is so good you’ll think Ernie himself is on stage. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed not to close your eyes for a moment and just listen.

It seems appropriate that the title of the play is one word, “Ernie,” because to longtime Tigers baseball fans, no last name is needed anyway. Ernie knew Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer and Ted Williams. He worked with Al Kaline and George Kell. He wrote music and dined with dignitaries. He had every right to think of himself as a big deal, but he was always modest and gracious – “I want to be remembered as a man who always showed up for work,” he often said – and he treated everyone he met as if they were an old friend.

By his own estimation, Harwell called 8,000 baseball games during his storied career. If you would give anything to hear just one more, “Ernie” is your chance. See it before it’s looooong gone.

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Jeff Peek wrote sports for the Traverse City Record-Eagle for 25 years and provides Major League Baseball analysis on local radio. He is a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and is a voter for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. During his many years covering the Detroit Tigers, he developed a working relationship with – and a deep admiration for – Ernie Harwell.

Photo credit: Joel Dinda

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