Ernie Harwell: A Definition of Baseball

General : : Professional
Jim Ecker        
Published: Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ernie Harwell, a Hall of Fame broadcaster, is 91 years old and has inoperable cancer. Time is running out and he knows it, but his love of baseball still shines through. If you’ve seen his recent interview with Bob Costas on the MLB Network, you know what we mean. And if you haven’t seen the interview, you should. It’s worth every minute of your time.

Harwell is still sharp, glib and in good spirits, even though he knows there’s two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the home team is trailing. He reminisced about his 55 years as a major league broadcaster, including 42 years with the Detroit Tigers, recalling some of the great players and great teams he’s known over the years, but Costas saved the best for last.

Near the end of the hour-long interview, Costas asked Harwell if he might recite part of the speech he gave when he was inducted into the broadcasters wing of the Hall of Fame in 1981, in particular the part of the speech Harwell calls his Definition of Baseball. Harwell said he wouldn’t mind at all. In fact, he said, he could probably recite the whole thing if Costas wanted.

This is no ordinary speech, mind you. It’s part prose, part poetry. It’s probably not an easy thing to memorize, but Harwell gave it word-for-word on the MLB interview, just as he did more than 28 years ago in Cooperstown. He didn’t use a script then and didn’t use one now. No teleprompter, either. It’s a heartfelt piece of literature and we think you’ll like it. In fact, we’re sure you will.

Harwell first wrote his Definition of Baseball in 1955 and repeated it (word for word) at the Hall of Fame ceremony in 1981. He made some preliminary remarks in Cooperstown, then finished the speech with his ode to baseball. Some of the references are a little dated for modern generations, but it still works. Here goes.

“Baseball is the President tossing out the first ball of the season and a scrubby schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm. A tall, thin old man waving a scorecard from the corner of the dugout. That’s baseball. And so is the big, fat guy with a bulbous nose running home one of his 714 home runs.

“There’s a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh 46 years ago. That’s baseball. So is the scout reporting that a 16-year-old pitcher in Cheyenne is a coming Walter Johnson. Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered, or booed. And then becomes a statistic.

“In baseball democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rulebook. Color merely something to distinguish one team’s uniform from another.

“Baseball is a rookie. His experience no bigger than the lump in his throat as he begins fulfillment of his dream. It’s a veteran, too, a tired old man of 35 hoping that those aching muscles can pull him through another sweltering August and September. Nicknames are baseball, names like Zeke and Pie and Kiki and Home Run and Cracker and Dizzy and Dazzy.

“Baseball is the cool, clear eyes of Rogers Hornsby. The flashing spikes of Ty Cobb, an over-aged pixie named Rabbit Maranville.

“Baseball just a game, as simple as a ball and bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport, a business and sometimes almost even a religion.

“Why, the fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World’s Series catch. And then dashing off to play stickball in the street with his teen-age pals. That’s baseball. So is the husky voice of a doomed Lou Gehrig saying, ‘I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.’

“Baseball is cigar smoke, hot roasted peanuts, The Sporting News, ladies day, ‘Down in Front,’ Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and the Star Spangled Banner.

“Baseball is a tongue-tied kid from Georgia growing up to be an announcer and praising the Lord for showing him the way to Cooperstown. This is a game for America. Still a game for America, this baseball. Thank you.”

Thank-you, Ernie.

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