Much as usual there’s plenty of stuff to harp about with the sports buzz around here being more like a shrieking and unceasing fire bell in the night constantly sounding either crisis or crescendo and there rarely seems any in-between. In the latest surge we have the Bruins bursting and the Celtics brinking and the Red Sox bracing with all the little Nations thoroughly atwitter.
But every now and again all of that is made to seem rather less important than the posers and strutters of the fun and games dodge would have us believe. And for that we are thankful. No matter the endeavor you need to come up for some air, you know, at least now and again.
So it was a few days back when Ernie Harwell and Robin Roberts departed rather poignantly within hours of one another and we were reminded that in every trade or craft you have the rare chaps who set the standard and define the work and they are far more vital and precious than the seemingly more robust characters who break the records and hog the limelight. So it was with Ernie Harwell and Robin Roberts.
They had much in common, the fundamental fact that both lived long lives, deeply rewarding ones of consistent dignity and character being but foremost. Roberts, the superb pitcher who famously carried the Philadelphia Phillies on his back with nary a whimper, was 83. Harwell, the lyrical bard of the Detroit Tigers as their broadcaster for 40 happy seasons, was 92. Both were honored in their time and fully recognized for their exemplary citizenship,in and out of the game, while leading strong, active, and giving lives to the very end. We should all know such distinction. There is no sorrow in this tale, only inspiration.
I knew them both; not well, really, but enough to confirm that all the praise and respect they commanded was much deserved. That’s not always the case in the high profile, fast lane, bubble of big-time entertainment where big bucks and a turgid celebrity can play silly games with the most basic judgments. There are many tainted acts out there fooling too many people too much of the time. That’s why it’s such a delight when you encounter the real deal.
It was Ray Fitzgerald, the late, great columnist of the Globe and another of the scene’s peerless characters, who introduced me to Ernie about 40 years ago and within minutes it was as if we’d been friends since schooldays. That was the genius of Ernie’s very southern warmth and charm and it was all the more ingratiating because it was so genuine.
He seemed to know everyone and everyone loved him but his two best friends in this town probably were Ray Fitz and Ned Martin, a fellow Marine and broadcasting marvel, and if there were ever two peas drawn from the same pod they were Ernie and Nedso. During the ‘80’s they were paired together on the national radio network that did the baseball playoffs. One hopes the tapes of those games survive because they may be the ultimate illustration of the art of broadcasting a ballgame. Can you imagine three hours with Harwell and Martin? Maybe not even three hours with Adams and Jefferson could top that.
But it was Ernie’s greatness as a human being that surpassed even his talent. In his goodness there was a touching calm, a quite spiritual quality. He began the broadcast of the Tigers’ first game every season by reciting the lovely Biblical passage from the Song of Solomon which reads, “Rise up, my love for lo the winter is past and the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on earth. The time of the singing of birds is come and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”
I ask you, how neat is that? Jerry Green, the fine Detroit columnist, writes that he saw Ernie about a year ago, soon after he learned that his ailment was terminal and Green found his reaction to the bad news to be typical, with Ernie saying, “The best thing
about it is, I know it’s coming and I can prepare for it”. It was a true perspective that Mr. Harwell brimmed with. When he last talked with the Tigers’ media on the subject of his impending doom, he said simply, “It’s the next great adventure and I’m ready for it.” Those who were there say he smiled when he said it. But of course!
Robin Roberts was cut from the same rich and splendid cloth. When I was a kid, he was my absolute favorite. How a pitcher from distant Philadelphia could become the beau ideal of some gawky kid in Weymouth may seem an odd stretch. But back in the late forties and early fifties, you tended to be more a fan of the whole game, which was intensely wired by the radio transmissions at night and the newspaper box scores in the morning along with the entire historical aura that covered the subject like so much gossamer. Somewhere along the line I came to recognize that the sheer nobility Roberts brought to his task was exceptional. He was such a pro!
Pitchers were different then. They were workhorses, beasts of burden, and they were not coddled. The emphasis was on grit and if you didn’t have it you didn’t last. The burden was accepted without question and the willingness to do so was a matter of pride. None bore it with more honor than Robin Roberts.
He was a very great pitcher. Perhaps none other than Walter Johnson did more with less longer. Save for the 1950 season when the so-called ‘Whiz Kids’ hung on to win the pennant by the skin of their bloody teeth, the Phillies of his time were often ragtag and never more than middle of the pack mediocrities save for when Robin was pitching, which was too often. They burned him out.
In his epic seven-season run -- 1950-1956 -- he averaged 23
wins, 38 starts, 26 complete games, and 327 innings per year. In his best season, 1952, he was 28-7 with 30 complete games in 37 starts and 330 innings with a 2.59 E.R.A. In any era that was brilliant.
After age 30, he was deemed no longer an elite pitcher; that is unless you consider the 17-14 record with 21 complete games in 270 innings for the last-placed Phillies of 1958 to be ‘elite’ works. And I certainly do. The next season on yet another Phillies team that finished eighth he won 15, although by now his arm was hanging off. Still he bore on for the better part of another decade, winning his share mainly on guile and guts while serving as an example of how to disport oneself on the field of play with a surpassing class that is still talked about in this grand game which is intensely conscious of such trivial things.
Roberts was the whole package. He did military service as a teenager, then went on to get his degree from Michigan State. It was Roberts who was most responsible for the formation of the players’ association. It was Roberts, with the help of Jim Bunning (who later became a U.S senator), who sought out Marvin Miller and recruited him from the Steelworkers union to run the association and stood by him even though they didn’t always agree. The pension
that baseball players now have -- widely considered the best in the nation -- was originally the dream of Robin Roberts. That he was ahead of his times is no surprise. After all, he hailed from Springfield, Illinois which is Lincoln Country. When I finally met him I was overjoyed to discover that I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. Mr. Roberts was very special.
Ernie Harwell and Robin Roberts! May it be said of them what Deems Taylor, then a distinguished critic, wrote tenderly of another immortal, George Gershwin, when he departed in 1937: Ernie Harwell and Robin Roberts died the other day, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.