From the Pastor’s Study (9/12/2021)
In 1988, while I was serving in my first ministry as a youth pastor in suburban Detroit, my church hosted a sports-themed banquet as a gospel outreach. Another member of my church’s pastoral staff was friends with Detroit Tiger starting pitcher Frank Tanana. Together, they organized a breakfast banquet following which participants would make their way to Tiger Stadium for the day’s game. At the banquet, Tanana and two others shared their faith in Christ with the over 1000 who attended. I was also at the head table, having been asked to lead the attendees in a couple of gospel choruses.
As I sat down, one lady and her young son approached me to ask for an autograph. They mistook me for Matt Nokes, the Tiger’s All-Star catcher, who was participating that day. I assured the lady that her son did not want my autograph. I then introduced her to Nokes, who was happy to meet her boy and provide a signature. (As I am approaching the sunset years of my life, I take some small consolation in the fact that I was once mistaken for a professional athlete!)
Also seated on the dais that day was legendary play-by-play announcer Ernie Harwell. Growing up in Detroit, Harwell was to me far more than a sportscaster. His was the voice of summer. Tiger baseball was a huge part of the culture. Harwell’s voice was nearly everywhere. If not coming from your own radio, it could be heard weekend afternoons and weekday evenings coming from people’s cars and from open windows in the neighborhood. Tiger baseball was carried on the 50,000 watt “Great voice of the Great Lakes” WJR. Long before the internet, with the help of some tin foil wrapped around the end of my radio’s antenna, I could actually pick up Harwell calling Tiger baseball in my third floor college dormitory in South Carolina.
Ernie Harwell is enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame as well as the National Radio Hall of Fame. A statue of Harwell greets fans today at the entrance of Comerica Park, the Tiger’s home since 2000.
I was privileged to be seated at the head table next to Ernie Harwell. While sitting there, I learned something about Ernie Harwell. Several people approached the famous broadcaster seeking a handshake and an autograph. As Harwell was introduced to one of his fans, he would shake their hand, sign his name, and then motion my way and say, “Let me introduce you to my friend, Dave.” Obviously, these folks were not interested in meeting me. And, quite frankly, I was not exactly Ernie Harwell’s friend. We had only just met. However, based on what I have read about Harwell, in addition to what I experienced, that is how Ernie Harwell was. He modeled humility.
Using a phrase the Georgia native would appreciate, Ernie Harwell was “in tall cotton” in those days. He was famous, popular, and successful. But that did not affect how he treated others. He did not see himself as more important than others. He was kind to me. He was kind to the waitress who served his coffee. He was kind to everyone.
Ernie Harwell was not invited to speak on that occasion solely because he was the radio voice of the Detroit Tigers. Harwell had a well known Christian testimony, having been converted to Christ in 1961 at an evangelistic crusade. He spoke compellingly at the banquet about his faith.
Ernie Harwell retired from broadcasting in 2002. He died from cancer in 2010. When I think of him now, I remember his trademark home run call, “It’s loooong gone!” or on a called third strike he would say, “He stood there like the house by the side of the road.” But I remember even more a surprisingly humble gentleman who did not know me, but still introduced me to his adoring fans as his “friend, Dave.” He went out of his way to make those around him feel important. He was a Christian who acted on the biblical admonitions Paul gave in Philippians 2 – he esteemed others and humbled himself.