20 Minutes With The Voice of G-d

The Street Hustle

Hall of Fame Detroit Tiger baseball announcer Ernie Harwell’s body lay in repose in Detroit’s Comerica Park on Thursday May 6, 2010; an unusual honor for a man whose life work was calling play by play for baseball games on the radio. To my knowledge, the only other man who was waked in a baseball stadium was George Herman “Babe” Ruth. It is an honor befitting a man whose voice defined Detroit Tigers baseball to millions of people in the Detroit Metropolitan Area, the State of Michigan, the Toledo Strip, Northern Indiana and parts of Ontario.

Just like all the other kids who rooted for the Tigers from 1960-2002, I listened to Ernie Harwell and his then partner Paul Carey game call’s with a radio under my covers, long after my Mother and Old Man had turned out the lights, during the desert years of the mid to late 1970’s. Unlike my peers, I didn’t have a Transistor radio. I pulled the massive clock radio my grandparents gave me for Christmas into my bed. The average transistor radio was made in red, blue, black, grey and white and generally cost next to nothing at the local Radio Shack. My white clock radio had a faux LED clock – the numbers were on wheels and flipped with a mechanical whir – and a longish black tuning stick. Every night, for two and half hours or more, if the game went into extra innings, I listened to Ernie Harwell, the voice of G-d, give me the play by play.

Tuesday September 3, 2002.

The New York Daily News ran an article on Ernie Harwell on his final trip to Yankee stadium. I read the piece after cutting the limes for what promised to be a lazy midweek shift behind the stick at the Park Avenue Country Club, my day job while I tried to make it as a freelance writer.

“FUCK ME,” I screamed. Ever since I found out Ernie Harwell had decided to retire, I intended to send out queries to baseball magazines, get an assignment, call the Tigers and set up a time for a meet and interview. After which, I would strut around, chest puffed out and brag about my trip to the press room, my interview and my meal on the New York Yankees to the various drunks I called friends in the Irish Bars up and down 3rd Avenue.

Call it a senior moment, al-Qaeda, the Anthrax Letter bomber or tell the truth, due to sheer laziness I simply lost track of the months. Now, if I really wanted to interview the Voice of G-d, just like I bragged I was going to do, I would have to find a way to get into Yankee Stadium on the fly.

My boss, Steve Schmelk, billed the Park Ave Country Club as the Sports Bar for Hometown Heroes. I asked if he knew anyone in the Yankee PR Department. “Do you have the bona fides,” he asked after considering my quandary for a few minutes.

Steve caught me flatfooted. I covered the death penalty throughout the mid to late 1990’s. My bona fides could get me into any death house in the US but would those get me into Yankee Stadium after the 9/11 attacks?

“Of course I do, my man,” I said trying hard to sure but coming off as horribly arrogant.

“Consider it done,” Steve said.

He promptly left the City for Florida and all points south six hours later. No one told me where Steve had gone until Thursday at Noon. With no other options left, I decided grab a press credential, any credential, I had and find a way to get into Yankee Stadium. I had no intention of letting my dream interview get away. To that end, I had to find a way to assign myself to this story.

Looking through my various published pieces, I quickly realized I was going to have a tough time. Outside of a profile of then Tiger outfielder Gabe Kapler for the Jewish Forward, I had no experience as a sports writer. Most of my published pieces were in music magazines or European journals dedicated to the Death Penalty in the US. None of those were going to get me through security.

I elected to use a credential from the Blacklisted Journalist, one of the first webzine’s owned and edited by former New York Post Music Writer Al Aronowitz. The three e-mails I sent Al from the PACC weren’t answered so I called the Yankees PR Department and gave them my info and my ‘assignment.’ Aronowitz was the man who introduced Dylan and the Beatles. He managed the Velvet Underground for their first gigs in a New Jersey high school auditorium. If anyone could deal with a call from the New York Yankees, it was Al. I hoped he wouldn’t be caught flat footed and would sound clueless when he obviously didn’t have any idea as to what his ‘reporters’ were doing in the big world outside the internet.

One of the junior PR guys for the Yankees called me around 11am and double- checked my bona fides. My assurances were sounding hollow.

“The Blacklisted Journalist is the name of the webzine and the editor’s name is Al Aronowitz,” he asked for the third time.


“We’ll call you back before 5 if we can grant you credentials,” he said and hung up with no closing salutation.

I was done. I knew I was done. These guys were the pros pros. They must have figured out I was trying to hustle my way into an interview. Fuck, they probably were dealing with hundreds of knuckleheads like me.

The great thing about bartending as a gig is the ability to lose oneself in the job. The busier the bar, the more Zen like a bartender becomes. Each move choreographed from thousands of repetitions. Each anecdote rehearsed. A fine way to forget just how badly I fucked up a dream shot interview with one of the three men (the other two being Lou Reed and Bob Dylan) who through the power of their voices were able to show me there was actual intelligent life on the planet.

Of course, the bar was pitifully slow that Friday afternoon, once again proving my codicil to Murphy’s Law: Murphy was an optimist. My early blue flip cell phone showed a message from a blocked number. I figured a phone hustler was trying to sell me a Time Share in Florida. When I finally retrieved the message at 7pm, half in the bag next door at Blue Smoke’s Happy Hour, I found the Yankees had ok’d my request and had left explicit directions as per protocol and timing. The game was due to start at 1:30. I had to be at the Press Gate by 11:45. My credentials would be waiting for me. Exactly at noon, Ernie Harwell would be available for our interview. I was allotted twenty minutes, no more.

The sheer joy at getting over lasted for as long as it took to buy a celebratory shot; I had no idea what questions I was going to ask Ernie, let alone enough material to last for twenty minutes. I ran home, logged on and started my research on just who my idol was. There was e-mail from Al Aronowitz wishing me well on the ‘assignment’ to interview that “Ernie Harwell guy, whoever he is. Next time, try examining why the Mets fucking suck,” he wrote.

Saturday, September 7, 2002.

The early September weather was still hovering around 90 degrees, it seemed hotter on the diamond, with the ball players milling around, taking batting practice. Maybe it was the way Yankee Stadium was configured; the walls didn’t allow the heat to dissipate. Maybe it was because I was wearing a black suit trying to look professional. I had gotten this far with my semi-ruse, I hoped no one would catch on, especially the two cops who escorted me from the Detroit Tigers clubhouse, where they discovered me rooting around, to the Yankee dugout where I was told Mr. Harwell would be with me in a few moments.

My interview was being pushed back five or so minutes while Joe Torre, New York Yankees Manager, was introducing Ernie Harwell to his entire family. Even his sister the nun was there, fawning over Mr. Harwell, which fit. After all, Ernie Harwell was the voice of G-d.

“A little warm in that suit,” the older of the cops teased me. He was dressed in a peach golf shirt and clean chinos and sweat was beading up on his shaved head.

“It’s not every day you get to interview Ernie Harwell,” I said.

“Who is this guy,” the younger cop asked. “We’re in the middle of a pennant race and Torre’s introducing everybody to this old guy from Detroit.” He didn’t comprehend the pecking order of the day. First there was the Voice of G-d, then came the revered supplicants. All non-believers could fuck off.

The older cop shook his head. I adjusted the orange sticker the Yankees gave me and looked around the field. Gehrig gave his farewell speech a few feet to my right. Ruth, Mantle, Jackson, DiMaggio had all run down this line, turning to see if taking second was a possibility. A host of other legendary players – Ford, Jeter, Nettles, Catfish Hunter, Tommy Heinson, had stomped this grass. There were millions of New Yorkers who’d give their left ball to be standing where I was at that moment – looking right into the Yankees dugout. I should have been overawed by this sense of place. I just felt regret. This should have been done in Detroit at old Tiger Stadium, not on aggrandized enemy ground.

The Torre family finally let Ernie go. The Yankees PR rep brought me over to meet the great man.

“Here’s your 12:00, Ernie,” he said. “Keep it short kid, we don’t’ have a lot of time.”

I introduced myself, hands shaking. “Nice to meet you Alex,” Ernie said in the familiar Georgian drawl. He didn’t have the nasally Michigan accent but the voice sounded just like home.

The PR rep wanted me to do the interview in the Yankee Dugout but the tape recorder couldn’t pick up our conversation. Against the pushy recommendation of the squirrely public relations geek, the heathen had a schedule to keep; Ernie took me to the Press Room and selected a table in the far right corner across from the buffet.

“Is this quiet enough for you Alex,” he asked as I turned on my tape recorder. I couldn’t believe Ernie Harwell actually knew my name.

Nervously, I asked my hastily assembled questions in the exact order I planned – chronologically according to Harwell’s career. When you were growing up in Atlanta, whom did you listen to? How did it feel to be the only announcer to ever be traded for a player? Tell me about being the TV call for the Shot Heard ‘Round the World? What was it like to call Hoyt Wilhelm’s no hitter? What was your favorite Tiger Team of all Time? (It’s like choosing your favorite child, he drawled.)

Ernie answered each question graciously, with time, thought and care put into his reply. However, despite my admitting how over awed I was to be in his presence, he must have picked up on how I faked my way into this gig. My questions were asked in a jittery I can’t believe I’m doing this voice and I failed to ask follow up questions to any of his answers. The whole thing was like being stoned on ether – I could see myself doing these things and was screaming to ask more questions but I physically couldn’t.

25 minutes later, I walked Ernie to the elevators leading to the Press Box. I watched this skinny, bald gentleman in a Greek Fisherman’s cap look at the descending numbers. Harwell looked like a southern grandfather, a man who might tell you about his time in the war in the same exacting detail he remembered everything about baseball from 1930ish until 2002, if you asked and really wanted to know. He was the exact package in which the voice of G-d should be found.

Twenty minutes later, as the 4 Train approached 86th Street, I realized I didn’t get any food from the buffet and there was a baseball game going on between my Tigers and the hated Yankees – a game the Tigers won 2-1 and I could have seen it for free.

My friends gave me the business over missing the game. I never got a chance to write my article – my father caught his final illness three weeks later and other matters took precedence.

I followed the live blog at the Harwell Comerica memorial, listening to the taped 9/7/02 interview, smiling. I was proud to see the Tigers brass, including President and GM Dave Dombrowski greeting the mourners, which totaled in the thousands. I couldn’t be there to pay my respects to the man who took time to give me an interview when he knew I faked my way in. However, I kept rewinding the tape to the very beginning.

“Is it quiet enough for you, Alex?”

It is my personal record of the time the Voice of G-d called my name.

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