House by the Side of the Road
By Bruce W. Biesenthal


A tongue-tied boy, who had trouble saying his “s’” and “ch’s” (chicken would come out ficken), was sent to Mrs. Lackland, an elocution teacher, a “speech therapist” in today’s terminology.

As part of his instruction, Mrs. Lackland gave the young boy poems to learn and recite: “Horatius at the Bridge”, “Flander’s Field”, “Columbus”, and “House by the Side of the Road”, a poem written by Sam Walter Foss, the last two lines of which are:

“Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.”

Years later, that tongue-tied boy had become a man, sitting in a press box, overlooking a baseball diamond, and, occasionally, when a batter took a called third strike, Ernie Harwell would announce to his audience, “He stood there like the house by the side of the road, and watched the ball go by.”

From the tongue-tied boy who helped his mother support the depression era family, “selling stuff no one wanted to buy”, as Ernie says, to a Hall of Fame announcer, winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for contributions to baseball, and statesman of the game, Ernie has handled the success of his legendary career with the grace and dignity of a man whose strength of character is as extraordinary as his resonant voice and quick mind.

Even during his forced exile from the Detroit Tigers, when Bo Schembechler took over the team and decided it was time to move in a new direction, which included the unceremonious release of its much loved Hall of Fame announcer, Harwell demonstrated a humility and charity that are as much his trademark as his celebrated calls on the field. “It was a business decision,” he says. “I didn’t have any bitterness then, and I don’t now.”

Now, in a farewell season of his own choosing, Harwell is feted at nearly every stop. He’s thrown out the first pitch in several stadiums, been given video tributes and symbolic keys to the city. Asked how he feels about all the accolades, Ernie says with characteristic modesty, “It’s a little embarrassing. It’s nice, and I appreciate it, but if I had my choice, I’d say, ‘just let me do my six innings.’”

He’s done his “six innings” for a long time. Who knows how many cumulative hours he has stood on his feet for the singing of the National Anthem, or how many times he has heard “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” He has watched players most people know only from the record books. He covered baseball when the mode of transportation from city to city was train. “The train would bake in the yard all day. If you opened the windows, you’d get covered by soot and cinders. If you kept the windows closed, it was a spa.”

He made the call of the “shot heard ‘round the world”, the homerun of Bobby Thomson that gave the Giants the pennant in the ’51 playoff with the Dodgers. The radio voice of Russ Hodges is ingrained in the memory… “The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant….the fans are going crazy.” But it was Ernie in the television booth who made the call that was never recorded. “I said, ‘it’s gone’ and then the ball disappeared, and I kept quiet and let the television cameras tell the story.”

His favorite player? Willie Mays. “Willie did so many things well,” Ernie recalls. “He hit for average, he hit for power. He was a great baserunner. He didn’t steal that many bases because at that stage stolen bases weren’t as important as they are now. He was a great fielder who could catch anything, and he could throw, and he played with a verve and flair most didn’t have at that time.

“But the stars of today would be the stars in any decade. Baseball really hasn’t changed that much. The players today are bigger and stronger, and I see catches today, especially in the outfield, that I never saw in the 40’s and 50’s. A star in an earlier decade would be a star in this one, and a star now would be a star then.”

From his perch above the field, Ernie’s observations are not limited to the action below him. He has noticed that the role of baseball in society has changed.

“I think baseball has lost a little impact since 1950. It’s run into more competition. There are other sports, and MTV and video games. Television has promoted certain sports.

“In my day the big sports were baseball, horse racing and boxing. Baseball has maintained a good and steady influence on the American psyche, but it’s chipped around the edges.”

A consummate professional in the booth, Ernie’s approach is both simple and profound. “My goal is to show up and do the best I can and call every pitch or swing of the bat the best I can.

“Broadcasting is like golf. The ball sits there on the ground and you want to hit it the best you can. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. It is the same in the booth. The ball is thrown or hit and you want to react with your mouth and brain the best you can. Lots of times it doesn’t come out the way you want it to.

“Part of the joy of broadcasting is you never know what’s going to happen. It’s a reaction to what happens. You react like the players. Sometimes you just don’t have a flow, and nothing comes out the way you want. On the other hand, sometimes it just flows and everything works together."

After years of exercising his craft, Harwell offers an informed reflection on the difference between broadcasting a game over the radio, and broadcasting a game on television.

“Radio”, Harwell says, “is much different than television. In radio, the old saying is ‘nothing happens until the announcer says it does.’ Television is a medium for the director.

“In radio, you turn on the mike and it’s a blank canvas waiting to be painted. In television, the director takes the pictures, puts up the visuals, like statistics, that you’re expected to refer to.

“In television, the play-by-play announcer sublimates himself to the analyst. At least he does if he’s doing his job. The job is to set up the analyst. In radio, the announcer is in control.

“Radio is effective because it uses the imagination of the listener. In television, it’s there for you.

“It’s like a book as compared to a movie. Radio is the book. In a book, you have to picture the characters and the venue. You use the imagination God gave you. Television is like a movie. In a movie, the director does all the imagining for you. He picks the characters and what they look like. The whole thing belongs to him.

Asked what he would miss about his career as a broadcaster, Harwell spent a few moments reflecting, and then said, “Nothing.”

“The travel never bothered me. I had to do it so I chose to be positive about it. A lot of announcers don’t like doing a pre-game show, but it wasn’t that hard.

“The way I look at it, someone’s paying me to stay in a nice hotel, eat good meals, see my friends and go to a ballgame.

“And my wife, Lulu, has always been supportive. She’s taken care of extra responsibilities. We’ve given each other mutual trust.”

Of course, Harwell is more than a broadcaster. He’s an author, and a song writer. He has 65 songs that have been recorded by such artists as B.J. Thomas (I Don’t Know Any Better); Merrilee Rush (Tomorrow); and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels (One Room World).

“I’ve had more no-hitters than Nolan Ryan,” said Harwell, with typical self-effacement.

Now, on the cusp of a new life style, Harwell seems excited.

“God’s given me a new adventure,” he says. “He’s in charge. He’s a great, loving God who will take care of me no matter what. So I don’t worry about it.

“I’ll continue a lot of my activities. I’ve written a column for the Detroit Free Press for 12 years. Every summer I write 27 of them.

“I’ve done 36 vignettes for the Fox network. I’m a spokesman for Kroger and Comerica.
“And I might even write another book.”

On the window ledge next to the easy chair in Harwell’s motel room sat a little pile of books: The Bible; a Bible Study Guide; and a devotional book written by Oswald Chambers, “My Utmost for His Highest.”

“I’ve read Oswald Chambers over and over,” says Harwell, “And I’ve read through the Bible several times, three or four chapters at a time.

“I look on God as the ruler of everything. To me, it’s complete surrender. It’s me saying, ‘Lord, I’m not able to do this’, but if I give You my trust, everything will work out ok.

His Bible study has produced several favorite passages, especially the last verses of Psalm 139:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way of life everlasting.”

Sam Walter Foss wrote the poem that a young Ernie Harwell recited to untie his tongue. The words seem appropriate as a description of Harwell’s life and career, and his place in baseball.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by –
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban;
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

He has been – a friend to man, a friend to millions of listeners over scores of years, and a friend to baseball.

Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Harwell was characteristically unassuming.

“I want to be remembered as the guy who did the best he could, who showed up and enjoyed the job God gave him.”