By Kristen Miller
COKATO, MN; DETROIT, MI For Will “Bill” Young, a love for acting all started in sixth grade at Cokato Elementary, when he performed for the first time in a play based on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
Now, at age 71, Young is playing his most challenging and esteemed role ever as Ernie Harwell, the Hall of Fame broadcaster of the Detroit Tigers baseball team for more than 40 years.
Young graduated from Cokato High School in 1957, but has been living in Michigan for 47 years of his life.
During that time, he spent 27 years teaching English and drama for a school district in a suburb of Detroit.
Prior to teaching, Young was very active in theatre, working around the Detroit area for various theatre groups. He left theatre, however, to spend more time with his family.
When he retired from teaching in 1995, at the age of 55, Young said, “I have to get back to what I really love to do, and that was stage work.”
He has since done a lot of work at the Purple Rose Theatre Company, in Chelsea, MI. This theatre company was founded in 1991, by acclaimed actor and Chelsea native Jeff Daniels.
At the time, Young felt that having the opportunity to work for the Purple Rose could be the “apex” of his theatre career.
Since his return to theatre, Young has performed in 25 shows and has received several awards and nominations for his work.
He currently lives in Milford, MI, which is about 50 minutes from Detroit, where he is currently starring in the play, “Ernie” at the City Theatre.
A Tigers fan himself, Young said he listened to Ernie Harwell religiously for many, many years, mostly on his transistor radio, noting he’s a little too restless to watch baseball on television.
Playing the late-and-great Ernie Harwell is undoubtedly an honor for Young, but it has also been quite the challenge, Young said.
Since the play premiered in late April, just short of the one-year anniversary of Harwell’s death (he died May 4, 2010 after a year-long battle with cancer), Young had the pressure of portraying such a beloved icon to fans who remember him well.
“People come [to see the play] with great expectations,” Young said, explaining that Harwell had some very distinct mannerisms and “Georgia twang.”
“There were certain cadences to his speech . . . and different calls he would make,” Young said.
For example, those who listened to Harwell may remember him announcing “Loooong Gone” for a home run or “Two for the price of one” after a double play.
Young also explained that when Harwell was a young kid, he had a severe speech impediment and would recite the poem, “The House By the Side of the Road” by Sam Walter Foss.
During a game, if a batter struck out, Harwell would say “He stood there like a house by the side of the road.”
Harwell was also a very humble man and generous with his time, Young said, adding that he would visit churches and hospitals and send cards to fans.
He also had a great love for baseball, Young said.
The two-person play is set in a tunnel at Comerica Park, where the players take the field.
Harwell, played by Young, is waiting to give his farewell speech when a mystical boy appears.
Young explained that Harwell was 84 years old at the time he gave his final speech and the play is based on “the nine innings of his life” so-to-speak.
Because Harwell was such a humble man, the boy gets him to talk about his life and show him that he is worthy of such a tribute.
The screenplay was written by Mitch Albom, best-selling author of “Five People You Meet in Heaven.”
This was definitely Young’s most difficult role, not only in rightfully portraying Harwell, but also because his character is 80 percent of the show, which runs 85 minutes without an intermission, he said.
There are also many technical aspects of the show that Young must coordinate, including film footage and still photos provided by the Major League Baseball organization. He noted that MLB has never done this before for a stage play, showing the respect Harwell had.
For Young, playing Harwell has been “an enormous honor.”
“I still can’t quite grasp how big it is,” Young said. “He’s just an incredibly loved person.”
In the first week the play previewed, Young had the honor of throwing the first pitch at Comerica Park at the start of the Tigers game.
“That was pretty cool,” Young said, though he admitted it was a daunting experience since his “arm isn’t what it used to be.”
Growing up in Cokato, Young played his fair share of baseball having played catcher for the high school team, junior Legion baseball, and the town baseball team.
The play officially opened April 28, and the 360-seat theater has nearly been sold out each time, Young said.
The show was set to go through June, but due to the large response, it’s been extended through July.
“Mitch has got a really beautiful script,” Young said.
Young is also getting good reviews for his portrayal of the Michigan icon.
The Chicago Sun Times wrote that Young “looks like Harwell and portrays him with the perfect balance of warmth and sincerity.” They also noted “Ernie” was a “Tiger tale worth a trip to Detroit.”
Possibly the best review Young could have received was from Harwell’s long-time broadcast partner, Paul Carey, who was there on opening night.
Young said this was very complimentary to him because of how close Carey was to Harwell.
During a chat with Carey after the show, Young was told his performance of Harwell brought Carey to tears.
Young encourages anyone from the Cokato area who happens to visit Detroit to come and check out the play, letting someone know they are there.
“I’d love to say hello and chat about Cokato,” Young said.
Will is the son of the late Roy and Bertha Young, and his sister is Lynda Olson, who currently lives in Dassel with her husband, Steve.
With his love for theatre blossoming in Cokato, Young credits his mentors and former English teachers, Shirley Hegstrom and Elsie Koivula. Hagstrom also directed theatre.
“They were great mentors to me,” he said.
Koivula remembers Young as a good student who excelled in theatre and the arts. Therefore, she was not surprised to hear he was still acting.
Young went to school during a time when drama was something to poke fun at. He remembers his buddies teasing him for it, but he loved doing the class play.
He tries to make it back to Cokato at least once a year, but says he has found wonderful and supportive theatre friends.
“I felt that I finally got to be what I really wanted to be, and that is a professional theatre actor,” Young said.