Anyone who had even the briefest encounter with Ernie Harwell has a heavy heart Wednesday. Harwell died Tuesday at the age of 92 after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the bile duct last September.
In the crazy summer of 1986 — when Boston’s local sportscasts got seven, eight, even 10 minutes to tell their stories during hour-long news programs, and airline travel was really inexpensive — Channel 5 sent me to Detroit on about 10 minutes’ notice when the Red Sox suddenly got hot on the road. The next afternoon, after taking a cab from Detroit’s airport to Tiger Stadium, I stumbled through the press gate in jacket and tie and was wandering around, trying to get my bearings before meeting the ABC affiliate crew that would send our live shot back to Mike Lynch and the desk at 6 p.m.
The only other man underneath the deserted stands, as far as I could tell, came walking up to me from more than 100 feet away, and with a smile and that unmistakable friendly voice said, “Looking for the Tigers’ office? Can I help you? I’m …”
“I know who you are,” I said. “You’re Ernie Harwell. I think you call a great game, and I used to listen to you on a little transistor radio when I was a teenager taking three-week canoe trips in northern Quebec.”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” said the legend. “Follow me, and I’ll take you to the office.”
We wound through the darkness, around a couple of blind corners, and then climbed a staircase together. Ernie opened the door and introduced me to the receptionist, who greeted him with the kind of smile you reserve for a favorite uncle: genuine, loving, and sharing. Having gone way out of his way in the midst of his game-day ritual, Ernie Harwell then accepted my thanks, said farewell, and went back out the door.
I never saw him again, but more than 20 years later, I remember his act of kindness.
As wonderful a play-by-play broadcaster as he was — and he brought my imagination to life many times with his descriptions — he was a better person. I barely knew Ernie Harwell, yet I miss him.
We all will.