Episode 20: The best of Bacon, featuring John U. Bacon

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Episode 20: John U. Bacon — “The best of Bacon”

Hi, this is Deborah Holdship editor of Michigan Today.

In this episode of “Listen in Michigan” my guest is John U. Bacon. Author, teacher, coach, father, athlete, and sports enthusiast extraordinaire. Which you would know if you had been following his career as a writer and broadcaster for the past 25 years. John’s new book The Best of Bacon: Select cuts from John U. Bacon, is a collection of stories and essays he’s written over the past 25 years. You may know John from his books The Fourth and Long, End Zone. Most recently he wrote Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope which he co-authored with ESPN’s John Saunders who struggled with depression. While John has covered sports at every level, from local to college to national, I would venture to say that his favorite aspect of sports is college sports. He says, “We watch not for perfection but for passion.” Here’s John —

John U. Bacon: Sports have got a way, for men especially but also women, of bringing emotions out. Men have a hard time expressing emotions almost anywhere else. But, on a football field or a basketball court you are allowed to cry after a loss and you’re considered a tough guy for doing so. Incredibly, I recall interviewing Michael Jordan for Time Magazine cover piece. I was one of the writers on that.

Holdship: Cool.

Bacon: It was cool. And he said look I know that curing cancer is more important than what I do, but what I do is more fun to watch. And in the case of coaches, we can see immediately the impact of their leadership, which you can’t see in most offices. You just can’t. So for what I do, it makes sports, sports is a very good prism for seeing character.

Holdship: Yeah so true. I love when they have tantrums. That’s my favorite thing.

Bacon: There you go, well then you’d love Bo. (laughs)

Holdship: Yeah it’s always great when the headphones come off and there’s lots of yelling.

Bacon: It’s real emotional. How many places and I’m sure it always made me attracted to sports at some level based on the raw emotion. Crying after you lose, throwing your headset for bad call, fights almost breaking out, the joy of victory and the agony of defeat and all that. It’s all there…

Holdship: Yeah!

Bacon: …and it’s on display.

Holdship: I love college sports so much and it’s so interesting how different, it’s strange that college and professional sports are as different from one another as they are, but they really are.

Bacon: I agree wholeheartedly.

Holdship: So talk about why we love college sports so much.

Bacon: That’s a great question. One I almost never get. So, thank you.

Holdship: Really? Oh good.

Bacon: Yes and I’ve got an ear. So, they tend to be lumped in, got college ball on Saturday, got NFL on Sunday, Minor League, Major League. No, it’s not. One huge difference is this: If you are the best player in college basketball or football that year, what happens to you next? You’re drafted by the professional team you want to go to least to live in the city you live in the least. You’re drafted and you’re paid. There’s a term for that. Doing things you don’t wanna do because you’re paid. If you’re the best high school player in the country you choose. You have all the power. So I guarantee that everyone who’s wearing the winged helmet in that tunnel has actively chosen to be a Wolverine. They’ve turned down other programs, maybe all the other programs, because they decided that. They all say the same thing too, whether they go to Michigan State, Ohio State, or Michigan. They always say “This is where I belong. I came to campus and meet the people and I knew that this is my home.” And when you’re a fellow student with these athletes, you share that. You share nothing with the Detroit Lions. You share nothing with the Detroit Tigers.

Holdship: That’s true, yeah.

Bacon: They’re not in your neighborhood and they got a better offer somewhere else they are moving. They don’t care. Alright. Everyone here on campus has chosen to be here on campus and that the spirit of college football and college basketball, in fact, all college sports is fundamentally different because of that. And that energy can feel and everyone’s got a story from being in class with Rick Leech or Jim Harbaugh or Denard Robinson. And that’s part of the package too. You can talk to any, any Michigan alum, I swear to God, — football, basketball, hockey, guys playing in the NHL, the NBA — every single one of them will tell you it’s cooler to play at Michigan than it was in the pros. Now the money was nice, and so is the fame. When even Tom Brady, who might be the acid test for this, he was split time at Michigan now he’s, of course, the biggest star ever in football, when even he says that, it gets your attention.

Holdship: Yeah I mean he still comes back here and talks to people and obviously it’s got a lot of love in his heart for it. And then Harbaugh to come back here and coach. I mean come on.

Bacon: I guarantee the NFL would have paid him more. Now he’s not, as he said to me and it’s in the story here in this book “Harbaugh came home”. I said, “Why’d you come home?” And if I were to pay you more… and he said, “Whoa don’t put me in the same dance floor as Mother Teresa, I’m making 5 million.” Now it’s more than that. I said, “Okay fair enough, but I already heard from the New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Oakland Raiders, the number was, the opening bid was ten and was going to go to 11 or 12. Get NFL owners bidding on something then the ego’s takeover. And he said, “Okay I can tell you I did not come back to Michigan because I thought I was gonna make the most money by coming back here.” I said, “Okay so why’d you come back?” And he said, “Three days earlier I talked my dad Jack Harbaugh, from ????? of course, and I said dad, you know everything I know, what do you think? And he says Son, you’ve always made good decisions. My advice is to follow your heart.” And Jim looks at me and says “So that is what I did.”

Holdship: So another theme that I love about college sports and is the phrase that you had in the book was that “we have the potential to see the truly unthinkable when we watch sports.”

Bacon: It’s true because if you wrote some of these stories as a, as a Hollywood script they would say you’ve gone too far. Everyone knows where they were when Desmond Howard made his catch in the end zone against Notre Dame. Of course and Charles Woodson’s interception and all this stuff. Everyone can place where they were because we all watch it together. We all share that experience. And now, of course, your phone blows up. “Holy mackerel! They did it!” and how cool that is. So I think sports are one of the few things we still share across the board. Across race, religion, politics. Which is very hard to transcend these days. Sports does do that. The key to really get into sports, whether you’re a big sports fan or not, is to get off the field and get to know the people. Get to know the people and now it’s one of the greatest soap opera you’ve ever seen and you don’t know how it’s going to turn out either. It’s great storylines that feed into it. And what I tried to do with this collection also is if you don’t care about sports at all you should still like this. It’s all about the people. A struggle over values is what it’s really about. The temptations, the hard work, the frustrations, the setbacks, the perseverance. All these things we can see as I said earlier in sports and that’s what I want to get to here. An expression of our values.

Holdship: Yeah. Well and an expression of how difficult it is to be a good athlete too. I love your self-deprecating humor in these. Like George Plumpton Adventures you went on. Like there was a hockey one and football too, right?

Bacon: Yep.

Holdship: There’s one where there’s a lot of puking.

Bacon: Yes that’s the football. And hockey is pretty close.

Holdship: (laughs) The one where you like, your whole body like shuts down.

Bacon: Ugh, it did. I tried out for the Detroit Vipers hockey team had lost six pounds the hard way and that was brutal. The hardest one by far though was working out with Mike Barwis the old strength coach at Michigan back in 09. And I puked every day for a week and a half working on those guys. I couldn’t walk after these workouts, you couldn’t get down the steps. I mean you really went home and you got in your couch in the fetal position and you whimper for an hour and you realize I’m going to die here. You have to get up and feed yourself in some way. And that’s when I realized — but no exaggeration anybody’s gone through this — it’s called hypertrophy for your body, as you said, just breaks down. It is a cataclysmic event to your body. It just shuts down. And these guys go through it twice a year and then they get used to it and they start lifting weights again. Read that piece and you will see Michigan football players in a different light. Man, it is not an easy life. And I don’t care if they are full rides. Those are not free rides. They pay a price and and that does humble you. Tried out for the U.S. Open golf tournament and got crushed. Of course. Tried out for the Drake Grand Prix race.

Holdship: Oh yeah! That was an exciting one too! Spinner!

Bacon: Well it was very exciting at 100 miles an hour. Yes, Spinner is my nickname. There, you figured that one out. Coached women’s hockey here at Michigan actually and how different that was then coaching boys. One you learn very early on with women is you’re always building their confidence. Women athletes — at least I did — the individuals as well as a team. “You’re better than you think you are.” Constantly telling them. “You’re better than you think you are.” Coaching high school boys and I love those guys too. “You’re not half as good as you think you are.”

Holdship: That’s so funny.

Bacon: (laughs) And that’s said it probably translates the management is my guess. So that was a ton of fun to put that section in. Yes, all the jokes were at my expense.

Holdship: Oh my god. I just love the image of you running on the field. Like the time the coach told you if you can’t do it the whole team’s going to have to do it again.

Bacon: We’re back to working out the football team on that one. After I finally got through, I was getting better at the weights and quit throwing up. And the weight room it was still bad but I was not destroyed. I could walk afterwards after a couple weeks. I did that for four weeks and then my last two weeks of this thing, I do weights followed by running with them after the workout. So I had to go six weeks total and man. I got to the run I did not give a damn. I’m already trashed. I’m working out with Larry Foote All American. We all line up on the goal line of the indoor football building. And he says, “Alright all you guys” I forget what the time was exactly but, “you guys gotta, NFL guys gotta do it in 50 seconds or 45 seconds, Michigan guys gotta do it in 50 seconds. Bacon, you gotta do it in 60 seconds or else everyone else has to do it again.” And that’s when 50 football players, half a team, man they gave me the death stare and I thought I have got to do this and I thought man if I do this I’m going to die then I thought, but if I don’t do this they’re going to kill me. So you might as well die with honor on the field. And I made it at 58 seconds just barely got high fives from those guys then I pass them all to run right to the trash can and throw up again. And then I got back into line. They turn you into a monster by the way. You do this enough times, you don’t care about anything anymore. You all of a sudden, I was looking for bar fights in my case. All the first-person stories and all these stories really if I’m there I want you to get something you can’t get otherwise and feel like you were there too.

Holdship: One of the other stories that I thought was really touching with your Ernie Harwell story.

Bacon: If you’re going up north in the seventies, what are you doing? You’re listening to Ernie Harwell in Paul Carey describe the game. It is a wonderful way to get up north, of course, all summer long. Got to get to know him in 96 or 7, 7 I think when I was covering spring training for the Detroit News for the first time I’m there half an hour. I’m sitting on a bench and there’s five or six different pickup games going on at different diamonds. At their big complex. Ernie Harwell my old hero sits right next to me says “how you doing I’m Ernie Harwell.” Like I didn’t know. We started chatting and he invites me to dinner that night with his wife Lulu. We have a lovely chat for two or three hours. Stayed in touch ever since. Spit on my radio show a few times and just an incredibly sweet guy. Then of course we learned, did a big story on him for Northwest Airlines Magazine, and it’s 911 I was still sleeping. I gotta call it eight o’clock in the morning. This is what wakes me up that day. And it’s Ernie Harwell and he says “John I just wanted to thank you for the lovely story in Northwest Airlines Magazine.” Who does that mean? You know I mean no matter how positive it is, no one ever does that. And so we have a nice little chat and then I turn on the TV in the day, of course, goes dramatically worse. And yet I always think of Ernie Harwell in that day because it reminds me of this simple goodness of a sweet sincere man. As countered with all the horribleness we saw later on that day. I saw the human condition alpha to omega in about an hour and a half. But I I cling to the Ernie memory as proof that we’re not all bad we’re not all evil etc. Not even close.

And then of course when he contracted cancer and announced it, I wrote a piece on him as well and he had we thought weeks left maybe months. Write another piece describing a lot of the stuff. Man. The piece comes out at nine o’clock Friday morning and I get a call from Ernie Harwell at 9:30 that morning and we chat. He says “Well you know John we’ve been friends a long time.” It’s a very Ernie thing to say and you know it had only been at that point not even quite 20 years. He had he had longer friends and me. And I felt guilty. Man, your time is limited to this point. Why are you talking to me? But that was, it feels good to memorialize his story is something more than a link and a yellowy newspaper to put them between two pieces of cardboard would be a little bit better preserved. They’re all you know if it’s made of man-made it’s going to die someday. But it feels good to kind of put such good character in enbalment basically and enjoy it down the road.

Holdship: I love that. What you said earlier about this is a book about the good guys because it really is. You come at these people in a bit of an unusual angle. Like even talking about Bo as sort of a romantic figure.

Bacon: That’s hilarious. Bo after Millie Schembechler passed away was not doing well. He was lonely, which is hard to believe for a guy known and loved by so many. He’d stayed in his robe in the morning and his house in Ardington and here in Ann Arbor and he was not doing all that well. So as friends noticed at a cocktail party in Florida that he noticed Kathy Aikens from across the room and she’s a very attractive lady so not too hard to notice. And so they set up a breakfast the next day with Bo and Kathy. Bo, knowing nothing about this dating stuff as he would say, shows up with his fishing vest on. Which smells, I’m sure, of fish. And she, of course, is dressed to the 9’s in here he is about to go on to a deep sea fishing trip in an hour. And that’ll make you feel special as a lady. Wouldn’t it? She says at one point “So Bo I hear that used to coach basketball.” She says he says “No I’m afraid your scouting points a little off. I coached football.” “Oh, that’s nice. What else did you do?” He says “Let me tell you that was a full-time job.” So contrary to early rumors she did not should not care about his fame. She’s was not aware of it. She had more money than he did. So it’s not the money. They truly fell in love. And it’s fun to see the sweet side of Bo. Which you are not going to see in the sidelines. Bo will be talking to me about Woody Hayes or something else and he’d be barking. And then the phone would ring and he’d go over. Even Bo could figure out caller ID. He’s not a high-tech guy. He’d go “Ah I gotta get this one” and then he’d pick up the phone and get all sweet and lovey-dovey. Oh man, I was not expecting that. I then he turned me a little embarrassed. “Now where were we.” Just like, come on man I saw that!

Holdship: (laughs) Did his voice change?

Bacon: Oh hell yeah it changed. “I love you too.” (laughs)

Holdship: I love when that stuff happens.

Bacon: Yeah you had to be there to get it. And so and hopefully the reader feels like they’re in all these private places with all these people.

Holdship: Yeah I definitely felt that. So I think you accomplish that. What makes Hutch so special? I read your piece but like talk a little bit about her like why do we love her? Why is she so successful?

Bacon: As great as she is with all be entitled, she is still underrated because how do you stay hungry year after year after year. All her players graduate there’s not a graduation rate. They all do. There’s no rate. It’s 100%. She’s amazing and she still says tough with them. Her players love her. They’ll take a bullet for her and she’s tough man. She is absolutely tough as nails but she loves her players also and back to our earlier equation. I recall talking to a radio host few years ago about Mike Babcock, the Detroit Red Wings coach at the time, and the commentator said, “Oh so you have to balance being tough with being caring?” No you have to be a 100% tough and a 100% caring at the same time. It’s like being a parent basically. I mean you don’t slack off but you’re always tough and you always care and Hutch is those things. I used to teach the adult hockey classes at Yost arena. Tuesday and Thursday mornings from six thirty, no seven thirty to nine o’clock in the morning. So these are business people and so on. A wide range. Hutch came down man, and Hutch was a pretty damn good hockey player. But I’m telling you right now, if there’s a puck in the corner and Hutch is one of the two players after it, she’s going to get it. She’s tough. And I will also say she was very coachable. I’m one of the few people that had a chance to coach Carol Hutchins at some point, not in a real sense of course, but she’s great and she’s a ton of fun to be around and she’s very funny.

Holdship: When Warde Manuel was named AD. He told a really funny story about when he had been a student here and he he must have worked on the grounds crew or something then he’s like “Oh yeah Hutch, I used to water your grass.” You know, and now I’m your boss basically. It’s crazy how full circle things come.

Bacon: Well think of the love that he expressed also at that press conference. Which is what we’re talking about here. They said — he’s at UCONN and UCONN’s a serious, probably they win national basketball titles there and they’re competitive in football and so on — and they said would you be interested in the Michigan job and he said oh hell yeah. That’s not a negotiating position. And likewise, Harbaugh said I’m in before terms are discussed. He goes I’m in. And what did Jim Hackett say, the AD, said, “Some jobs are for God and country and Michigan is it for me.” So he didn’t know what the terms were when he said yes. This place can do that to you.

Holdship: Let’s talk a little bit about the state of college athletics today. You said some interesting things about the concept of paying college athlete and also about, I don’t know what they call it, the freshmen rule?

Bacon: Yes, freshmen ineligibility. It was the rule from 1905 when the NCAA started to 1973, that late. So freshmen were not allowed to play. They have freshmen teams which are popular for most schools at that time. Most kids I talked to from that era say thank God for it because I became a real student during that time. College is hard and I got my bearing before the game started.

Holdship: It really makes sense. It’s so sensible.

Bacon: It does make sense to me and I think a lot of folks would do it. I think the presidents need to stand up and ask for that or demand it. Now some coaches are gonna scream and holler, so what let him go to the pros. It’s not a crazy idea. Baseball and hockey have had this very same system for a 100 years more minor leagues work in those sports and therefore the baseball and hockey players you have on campus have actively chosen not to take the money and to take the degree.

Holdship: And then, this whole concept about paying athletes. Where do you think that’s going to go?

Bacon: I get the impetus behind it I can certainly see when your coach they’re making, Bo made $21000 his first year at Michigan. Anybody on the team knows, hell I can do better than that. But now, of course, it’s millions. So now the disparity between what the players get and what the coaches get is is a chasm clearly. So I can see why the impulse is there to pay the players but I’m telling you it won’t work for a few reasons. One is if you pay him, now you’re an employee and it changes everything now IRS taxes and it’s more complicated than you think. Title nine. If you want to give a $5 thousand stipend let’s say to the starting quarterback. Okay sounds good. Right, now the backup coxswain on the women’s crew team also gets $5 thousand. Title nine is virtually undefeated. It wins and wins and wins and it should. Alright but that’s part of the deal. So now instead of paying your top 20 or 30 players, you’re paying 900 athletes on campus. Michigan could probably afford it. I guarantee you EMU cannot. So we’re going to see college sports as we know basically fall off. Minor leagues in NBA and NHL and NFL need to happen. And therefore you’re not being exploited, and if you want to come to campus like a baseball hockey player does. You’ve made an active choice. This is more important to me than making a minor league contract. Which by the way you suddenly realize a college degree actually has got a lot more value than making 50 thousand or 80 thousand for a minor league baseball team. That’s why they make that choice. Granted that you’re paying big money here to see a football game or a basketball game. So you’re tempted to see it like pro sports. These are 20-year-old kids that aren’t getting paid. And by the way for all those who’ve talked about the cruft of college athletics, there’s a strong case to be made. We can make that case. It ain’t here at Michigan. It really isn’t.

I will say this about Michigan fans and this is from the heart. When Three and Out the first controversial book came out in 2011, Hulk was already 5-1 that season. Life was good. He was immensely popular. Rich Rodriguez was fired in disgrace and he was immensely unpopular and I was not taking Rich Rod’s side but there were complicated factors going on. And I thought okay what do we do here. So man, you went to Michigan and you’re a journalist. Your job is to tell the truth and again it’s a story about a failed coach. It debuted at number six on the New York Times bestseller list. And that’s when I thought man, Michigan fans are different. Michigan alumni are different. If I wrote that book about Ohio State then I am talking to you Deborah from a secure undisclosed location in Knoxville, Tennessee by Skype. Michigan fans cared. Harvard does not care if they lose. Alabama doesn’t care if they cheat and Michigan cares a great deal about both. It’s one of the few places that’s in that category I think. They want to know what happened and they’re sophisticated judges, as you well know, on journalism and they can tell if you got it right or not. And if you got it right whether it’s good or bad they’ll stick with you. And that to me is the Michigan difference And what I back to my earlier point about closing these speeches, I’d say look, no it wasn’t easy to write wasn’t fun to write frankly. I’d rather write the Bo book all day long and Harbaugh’s return and all that happy stuff. However, on your diploma and my diploma on the great seal at the University of Michigan it says only three words: Artes, Scientia, Veritas. Art, science, truth and either we believe it or we don’t. And so I was trained by English and History professors here at Michigan to pursue the truth wherever it leads without fear. And this book is a product of that search.

Holdship: Okay sports fans. hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. If you’d like to read an excerpt from The best of Bacon please visit michigantoday.umich.edu and look for athletics under the topics tab. You can find more “Listen in, Michigan” podcasts on iTunes, TuneIn and Stitcher and also at michigantoday.umich.edu under the podcast tab. Okay, thank you so much for listening and I look forward to having you back next time. Until then as always, Go Blue.

Select Cuts

John U. Bacon’s new book, The Best of Bacon: Select Cuts (University of Michigan Press, 2018), is a heartfelt and often hilarious collection of the best conversations, wackiest adventures, and most poignant experiences the storyteller has amassed during the past 25 years.

From learning to drive (or spin) a racecar to witnessing the romantic side of Bo Schembechler, Bacon reminds us that sports is just the backdrop for one of the “greatest soap operas you’ve ever seen.”

“It’s an expression of our values,” says the writer, broadcaster, teacher, and coach. “It’s all there: the temptations, the hard work, the setbacks, the perseverance.”

Listen in, as Bacon, BA ’86/MA ’94 takes you inside his world for an audience with coaches and athletes, famous and not, who all remind us that we watch sports — college sports, especially — for the romance of it all. That’s right. The romance.

And now for an excerpt

This being baseball season, we decided to share an excerpt showcasing Bacon’s relationship with legendary Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell. Enjoy!

The voice of the Tigers (from The Best of Bacon)

The Best of Bacon book coverIf you grew up in Michigan in the ’70s, as I did, Bob Seger sang the soundtrack to your summers, and Ernie Harwell provided the voice-over.

Who is Ernie Harwell? Well, if you were listening to a baseball game and the announcer somehow claimed to know that the fan who just caught the foul ball is from Calumet, Kalkaska, or Kalamazoo, it’s a safe bet you were tuned in to Ernie Harwell.

Our family trips up north were always accompanied by Harwell’s comfortable cadences filling the car. He didn’t simply broadcast baseball games. He turned them into stories. In Harwell’s world, a batter didn’t merely strike out. He was “called out for excessive window shopping,” or “caught standing there like the house by the side of the road.”

Like millions of others, my love of baseball was fostered by Ernie Harwell. He covered more games than anyone in baseball history, including 41 years’ worth for the Tigers. When Sports Illustrateddrew up its all-time baseball dream team, it tapped Harwell as the radio announcer. In 1981, he became the first active announcer to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and his voice has appeared in six films, including classics like Cobb, Paper Lion, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“TV, and especially the instant replay, made the analyst the number one guy in the booth, not the play-by-play man,” Harwell told me. “And if you try to tell a story on TV, the graphics will pop up in the middle of it. Baseball is still the perfect game for radio, because you can tune in and tune out throughout the game while you’re doing something else.”

Unlike most modern announcers who prattle on with mindless patter and meaningless factoids, Harwell preferred to treat his listeners to a few homespun stories and a healthy dose of “companionable silences,” something Zen masters refer to as the delicious “space between the notes.”

“I don’t believe much in stats,” Harwell explained. “I’d rather keep quiet than say a guy has hit safely in six of the last eight games, or is two-for-six lifetime against this particular pitcher. When you’re quiet, you can let the listeners enjoy the sounds of the ballpark itself, which I think is better.”

Just about everybody, it seems, agrees with his philosophy.

“There is a timelessness,” Bob Costas writes, “to [Harwell’s] approach.”

Relaxed conversation

Ernie Harwell at mic

Harwell at his best in the promotional film “WJR: One of a Kind.” (Image: Wikipedia.)

Like most members of baseball’s first generation of radio stars, Harwell was raised in the South, in a time and a place that valued relaxed conversation over the rush of commerce. Born in Washington, Ga., in 1918, Harwell grew up delivering the daily paper for Gone with the Windauthor Margaret Mitchell, reading the Sporting News,and listening to Atlanta Crackers minor league games on a crystal radio set. Harwell understood at an early age the special relationship between announcer and fan.

“My dad had multiple sclerosis,” Harwell said. “He rarely left his wheelchair, and the highlight of his day was listening to the Atlanta Crackers games on the radio.”

At age 16, Harwell pitched The Sporting Newsfor the post of Atlanta correspondent — and he got it. At 29, he realized another dream when he became the Crackers’ play-by-play man. Just two years later, in 1948, the listener-friendly Harwell caught the ear of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who were so impressed they offered to give the Crackers catcher Cliff Dapper in exchange for Harwell, making him the only broadcaster in baseball history ever traded for a player.

Harwell’s timing was perfect. TV hadn’t yet invaded radio’s turf, and New York was about to become the capital of baseball, with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Yankees, and the New York Giants dominating the sport throughout the ’50s. New Yorkers could debate which team had the game’s best centerfielder, the Dodgers’ Duke Snider, the Giants’ Willie Mays, or the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle, and who had the best lead announcer, Brooklyn’s Red Barber, the Giants’ Russ Hodges, or the Yankees’ Mel Allen — southerners all.

“New York was great for me,” Harwell said. “The fans were supercritical of the players and the announcers, but with three teams in the city, they’d listen to all three broadcasts. It kept you honest.”

The unusually competitive conditions soon thrust New York’s announcers and managers into a game of musical chairs. Harwell moved across the river to the Giants’ Polo Grounds to become Russ Hodges’ sidekick, while a young man named Vin Scully replaced Harwell in the Dodgers booth.

During Harwell’s years in New York, his son Gray’s teacher asked the students what their fathers did for a living.

Gray piped up. “My father doesn’t work. He just goes to the ballpark.”

“So many guys are just working for paychecks,” Harwell said, “that I just appreciate the fact I’ve got a job I love.”

“Legendary, excellent, exceptional”

Ernie Harwell at Tiger Stadium, 1991

Harwell gets a prolonged standing ovation during his last game in Detroit during the 1991 season. (Image: Wikipedia.)

When the American League created the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, Harwell left the Giants to become the new team’s lead announcer. There he witnessed Brooks Robinson’s debut — and a lot of bad baseball — before pulling up roots for the fourth and last time in 1960, moving his wife, Lulu, and their four children to the Motor City.

“If life was too smooth,” Harwell said, “it wouldn’t be much fun.”

In the four-plus decades that followed, Harwell became more closely linked with the Tigers than Harry Carey was with the Cubs. Along the way Harwell saw more than a few highlights, including the Tigers’ World Series triumphs in 1968 and 1984.

“A magical year,” Harwell recalled of the time the Tigers jumped out to a 35–5 start and never looked back. “It all just came together.”

He’d tell you Willie Mays was the best player he’d ever seen, that Jackie Robinson was the most courageous, and that a lovably quirky Tigers pitcher named Mark Fidrych, who used to get on his knees to groom the mound before each inning, “was probably the most charismatic guy we’ve ever had here in Detroit. A real breath of fresh air.”

“We throw around words like ‘legendary’ and ‘excellent’ and ‘exceptional,’” longtime Detroit Free Pressbaseball writer Gene Guidi told me, “but Ernie really is. He treats everyone the same. He makes new reporters feel like they’ve been in the business for 50 years, and he’sthe rookie.”

Old friends

In 1997, I was one of those rookie reporters, lucky enough to cover spring training for the Detroit News. My first day there, Ernie Harwell himself sidled up next to me on a bench. We sat there, watching baseball, and chatting like old friends — just the way every one of us imagined we already were, listening to him on the radio all those years. He invited me for dinner that night with his wife, Lulu. We enjoyed a long talk, he picked up the tab, and we stayed in touch from that day on.

Four years later I wrote a story about him for an airline magazine, which came out the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I woke up to the phone ringing. It was Ernie Harwell, calling to thank me for the article. Who does that?

The day soon turned tragic, but Harwell’s little act of humanity will always stand in my mind as a poignant counter to everything that followed.

A few times over the years I invited him to call into a talk show I was hosting.

“Just ask,” he always said, “and I’ll come running.” And he always did.

Ready for a new adventure

Ernie Harwell in 206

Harwell, 2006. (Image: Wikipedia.)

Harwell’s passion for the national pastime, and all the people connected to it, never waned. So when he announced in September that he had contracted an incurable form of cancer, and would not seek treatment, it hit all of us who knew him, or felt like we did — which, really, is just about all of us. We were losing our baseball buddy, our grandfather, our friend.

The only person who didn’t seem shaken by the news was Ernie Harwell. He said, “Whatever ’s in store, I’m ready for a new adventure. That’s the way I look at it.”

Harwell was a profoundly religious man, but he never wore it on his sleeve. He simply lived it. He was, truly, at peace.

But I was not. Like just about every sports writer who knew him, I felt compelled to write about him. In that piece I told a lot of the stories above, then closed by saying, “I wish there was something I could do for him now. If he just asked, I’d come running. And you would too.”

I had to deliver that line in the studio a few times before I got through it without getting too choked up. The next morning, after the piece ran, an old friend called to thank me.

Who does that? Ernie Harwell, that’s who.

It’s a strange sensation, knowing you’re probably having the last conversation with someone you love so much. I could have talked all day with him, but I didn’t want to be greedy with his time so I kept it short. I had to tell him, though, how much I appreciated hearing from him.

“Well, John, we go back a loooong way,” he said. “Thanks for the wonderful story. God bless you. Good bye.”

After we hung up, I sat there for a few minutes. We went back about 13 years — not really that long for a man who had friends going back more than a half-century — and I’m sure he had read better stories about his life and career than mine that week alone. But he still took the time to call.

So, thank you, Mr. Harwell, for a lifetime of wonderful stories. God bless you.

Good bye.

(Lead image: Ernie Harwell gets a prolonged standing ovation during his last game in Detroit during the 1991 season, courtesy of Wikipedia.)

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