Remembering Ernie Harwell

"How do you talk to a legend? Can you walk away from a treasure? It's not easy. You do it with a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye."
-- Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, calling the final out at Tiger Stadium on Sept. 27, 1999

My grandmother absolutely hated the Detroit Tigers. I mean, HATE-ED. She specifically loathed former Tigers owner Walter Briggs because he refused to sign black players even though he had no problem employing blacks as laborers in his manufacturing company.

But my grandmother's constant disapproval of the Tigers never took root because there was a voice far more influential than hers that made me see the Tigers differently. It was a voice that not only made me fall in love with the Tigers but also gave me a deeper connection to my family and my hometown, Detroit.

That voice belonged to Ernie Harwell, the legendary Tigers broadcaster who passed away at 92 years old on Tuesday after a months-long battle with cancer.

Baseball might have been replaced by the NFL as the most popular sport in America, but it remains our pastime because it connects us to a time, a place, a moment, an emotion or, in my case, a Hall of Fame broadcaster who had as much to do with my childhood as jelly shoes and Now and Later candy.

When I think of Ernie, I think of when I was first exposed to baseball. My mother used to clean homes of the elderly, and one of her clients, an 80-something-year-old man I knew as Mr. Miller, always had Ernie on the radio as he read the sports sections of both Detroit newspapers.

I was hooked the first time I heard Ernie say "lonnnnnnng gonnnnnne" after a Tigers home run.

When I think of Ernie, I think of how I'd wake up dreading another day of school and how my mother would surprise me by announcing I was skipping school for the day so we could go to an afternoon Tigers game. Thank God for bleacher seats because we were on food stamps and had just enough to get a couple of hot dogs after parking somewhere we weren't supposed to. And as soon as we sat down in our $5 seats -- steel, blue benches that numbed your behind after two innings -- someone would crank up the radio, and it wouldn't be long before we heard Ernie say "two for the price of one" on a double play.

When I think of Ernie, I think of my living room on Saturday afternoons. TV off. Radio on. As Ernie described each batter, I'd put one fist over the other and stand there as if I were at the plate, imitating the swing of every player, from Chet Lemon to Darrell Evans to "Sweet" Lou Whitaker. I'd celebrate after each hit and slam my imaginary bat after each out.

When I think of Ernie, I think of how whenever a fan caught a foul ball, he somehow would know what city the fan was from. I'd always wonder how he knew and try to guess whether the next fan would be from Saginaw, Bay City or Okemos.

When I think of Ernie, I think of the Song of Solomon, the Bible verse he read on air before each season began.

For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

A few months ago, I thought about writing a column about Ernie, mostly because I wanted the opportunity to tell him how much he connected me to those memories I too often forget.

I regret that I never had that chance. I've been a sports writer for more than a decade, and although I remain a fan of sport, a fan of stories and players, there have been plenty of times when I've lost a sense of the emotional links that drew me to sports in the first place.

Upon hearing of Ernie's passing, I was reconnected once again to those humid summer nights I spent in my room, eyes closed, listening to him gently rib an opposing player who struck out looking or affectionately talk about his wife, Lulu, to whom he was married for 68 years.

Thinking of Ernie gone doesn't feel like an injustice but rather a revival. We knew once he announced he had incurable cancer that this day was coming. But like so many times in his 42 years as the voice of the Tigers, Ernie left his fans with a teaching moment. He made sure he died as he lived: dignified, understated and humble.

When Ernie gave his Hall of Fame speech at Cooperstown in 1981, he said, "I've given a lot less to baseball than it's given to me."

And what he gave me can't be replaced.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.