Detroit honors Harwell with stirring tribute
Raising of flag among highlights during pregame ceremony
DETROIT -- Comerica Park had the Tigers and Yankees in town for a good Monday night crowd, but for a moment just before game time, it fell virtually silent.
It was a moment of silence for broadcaster Ernie Harwell. Fittingly, it was the voice of Harwell who broke the silence with a recording of his Voice of the Turtle. He would recite it every year before the Tigers' first Spring Training game to celebrate a new season.
This time, the celebration was for Harwell's amazing life. It included a moment of silence, a few minutes of song and a ton of memories.
"Somebody like that, you want them around for as long as you can," said Jose Feliciano, who returned to Detroit to perform the national anthem as he did at Harwell's invitation during the 1968 World Series.
"The positive way to look at it was that Ernie lived to be 92 years old, and he has a beautiful wife and he has his children. Ernie is in a much better place where he is than we are. He's probably smiling at us and saying, 'Gotcha, guys.'"
That said, Comerica Park was a pretty good place to be on Monday night, when the Tigers played their first home game -- a 5-4 win -- since Harwell passed away on May 4 at age 92 after a battle with cancer.
It was still a time to mourn, but it was also a time for good memories and some smiles before a crowd of 34,365.
"I'm thrilled to be here, but it's for the wrong reason," said Paul Carey, Harwell's broadcast partner for 19 years. "Ernie was as good a friend as I've ever had and the finest man I've ever known. I don't know what else to say about him that hasn't already been said."
Though a pregame video began the tribute, the highlight for many was the faces from Harwell's life, some of the many people Harwell impacted coming together. Harwell's two longest-running broadcast partners, Carey and Ray Lane, teamed up for the ceremonial first pitch, Lane delivering the ball to the mound, then Carey firing a strike to manager Jim Leyland, who squatted his 65-year-old frame behind home plate.
As emotional as Carey was talking about Harwell, he was nervous about trying not to throw the pitch in the dirt. He was used to calling pitches, not making them.
When asked how Harwell might have called his pitch, Carey smiled, thinking about Harwell talking about a young rookie with the big arm.
Asked what made Harwell so beloved on the air, Carey knew instantly.
"I think it was his rapport with the listener more than anything else," Carey said. "His love for baseball came through his broadcast. People that would listen to him -- fans, listeners from everywhere -- just felt that they were his friend, that he was their friend. He wasn't going to tell them that was a great play if it wasn't a great play. He was the most honest man you could meet -- never said an unkind word about anybody."
Harwell's last broadcast partners, Jim Price and Dan Dickerson, were part of a large group that brought out the flag with Harwell's initials to be raised onto the center-field pole, below the American flag. Hall of Famer Al Kaline, Tigers great Willie Horton, coach Tom Brookens and Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge joined in.
All of them came into contact with Harwell during his great career, 42 years of which came in Detroit. Inge, one of two current Tigers to have played with the franchise when Harwell was still broadcasting, remembers conversations with Harwell, whose stories from baseball's past and present were fascinating.
"He was telling stories from 60 years ago," Inge said, "and it was amazing the amount of knowledge that he had packed into his brain. He could remember everything and tell you stories like they happened yesterday. That was just the coolest part, listening to him talk."
Kaline already made one act in Harwell's honor last week, when he accepted the Vin Scully Award for Lifetime Achievement in Broadcasting on Harwell's behalf with an emotional speech.
After the flag was raised, in walked Feliciano, whose interpretation of the national anthem 42 years ago touched off a storm of controversy from veterans groups and others who hadn't heard a different rendition. His performance on Monday was almost exactly the same, the only difference being the pace. A mix of cheers and boos in 1968, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive this time around.
"I thought the fans were wonderful," Feliciano said. "Truthfully, I didn't know how they were going to react to me coming back. This was different. It was like [them] saying, 'Hey, some of us are sorry for what happened then. We knew that what you did was a good thing.' And they let me know it tonight.
"It was coming home full circle. I enjoyed it."
So did Carey. When he heard that Feliciano was returning to perform, Carey said, he couldn't help but smile.
"I broke up laughing," Carey said. "Ernie would love that! Oh my goodness."
That deep voice of Carey that used to handle the middle innings alongside Harwell was impossible to miss. Harwell is gone, but he'll be impossible to forget.
"It's hard to lose a friend like Ernie," Kaline said. "It's like a parent you know who's sick and going to leave you, but when it happens, it's pretty tough. But you know, we've been blessed in this town to be able to have Ernie as our friend and our broadcaster. We can have that in our mind and our memory for the rest of our lives."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.