05 May 2010

Ernie Harwell, Detroit Tigers Broadcaster, Dies at 92

The Detroit Free Press

Ernie Harwell, the acclaimed Tigers broadcaster whose eloquence and kindness made him a beloved Michigan institution, died tonight after a nearly yearlong bout with cancer. He was 92.

He died in his apartment at Fox Run Village, a retirement center in Novi, with Lulu, his wife of 68 years, at his side. His death came eight months to the day after he revealed to his fans, in an interview with the Free Press, that he had a cancerous tumor in the area of his bile duct and that in late July he had been given only a few months to live.

“I’m ready to face what comes,” he said at the time. “Whether it’s a long time or a short time is all right with me because it’s up to my Lord and savior.”

In the ensuing months, in an emotional farewell ceremony at Comerica Park, in his columns for the Free Press and in interviews with national media, Harwell referred to death as his next great adventure, a gift handed down by God.

“I’ve had so many great ones,” he said. “It’s been a terrific life.”

Harwell had one of the longest runs by a broadcaster with one major league club, calling Tigers games for 42 seasons. For the first 32 of those seasons, he made and cemented his legacy by doing play-by-play on the radio. His Southern voice — rich and authoritative but not overbearing — became as distinctive to Michigan listeners as baseball itself.

Unlike some announcers in recent decades, Harwell didn’t litter his broadcasts with shouting, excessive talking or all-knowing pronouncements about players and managers. Listening to him was as pleasant as being at Tiger Stadium in the summertime. As he fell silent between pitches, listeners got to hear the sounds of the ballpark — the crowd’s buzz, the vendor’s cry — and absorb the rhythm of the game. Harwell thus became an ideal companion for a listener anywhere: the couch, the yard, the car or the boat.

“He’s a master craftsman,” former Tigers broadcaster Josh Lewin, now with the Texas Rangers, said in 2002. “He’s always kept it simple, which I think is part of his charm and staying power.”

In 2005, author and historian Curt Smith ranked Harwell as the third-greatest baseball announcer ever, only placing him behind Dodgers legend Vin Scully and Yankees stalwart Mel Allen. Just behind Harwell were St. Louis’ Jack Buck and New York’s Red Barber. Smith, a student of baseball broadcasting, had 10 criteria for his rankings, ranging from longevity and acclaim to voice and personality.
No last name needed

Beyond his consummate broadcasting skills, Harwell’s cheerfulness and friendliness made him a local treasure.

“He always had that warmth, that inviting lilt to his voice that always made you feel welcome,” Lewin said. “No one can do that like Ernie can.”

At home games, Harwell would report that a foul ball had been caught by “a man from Ypsilanti” or “a lady from Muskegon.” Of course he couldn’t know where the fan lived, but pretending that he did added a distinct local feel to his broadcasts.

On the day of his career-ending broadcast in 2002, he said, “I look on life as a joyous adventure.” He had lived by that ideal. He constantly conducted himself with joy, on and off the air. “Howdy, howdy,” he would greet friends and strangers, smiling and extending his hand.

Harwell was in his 80s when he returned to the radio in 1999 for four final years of broadcasting every Tigers game, home and away. He didn’t sound tired, old-fashioned or nostalgic, even as the Tigers in those years stacked one losing season on top of another. During Harwell’s final season, Boston Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione said, “Ernie is the most contemporary octogenarian I know.”

He became so well-known and so liked that about the only place in Michigan he would be referred to as “Harwell” would be in newspaper stories. Fans, friends and coworkers called him “Ernie.” He didn’t carry himself with any haughtiness or fussiness.

When Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe wrote a column in which he extolled Michigan’s best citizens and strongest assets. He listed many people. But the first one was Ernie Harwell.

Harwell’s popularity never became more evident than when Tigers management and flagship radio station WJR-AM (760) fired him after the 1990 season. It immediately became the most unpopular move in club history. In one local poll, 97% disagreed with the firing.

After a so-called farewell season with the club in 1991, Harwell was off Tigers broadcasts in 1992. During that season, Mike Ilitch bought the club from Tom Monaghan and quickly arranged for Harwell to return to the air the next season. Harwell would remain on radio or television until his self-declared retirement following the ’02 season. In 55 seasons of broadcasting big-league baseball, he missed two games, neither because of his health. One was for his brother’s funeral in 1968 and the other was for his induction into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 1989.
The love of the game

Harwell was past 40 and had been a big-league announcer for more than 10 years when he joined the Tigers broadcast team in 1960. But it was then that he began the kind of long run with one team that a baseball announcer typically needs to establish a lasting identity.

Harwell had the folksiness to present the game’s local sandlot feel, and the knowledge and respect to convey its history and grandeur. That made him a friendly, informed neighbor — the most interesting kind of company to have on the radio every night of the baseball season.

He emblazoned his compelling dual sense of the game into the written record in 1955, when he penned these words for the Sporting News:

“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. …

“There’s a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh 46 years ago — that’s baseball. And so is the scout reporting that a 16-year-old sandlot pitcher in Cheyenne is the coming Walter Johnson.

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

“Baseball? Just a game — as simple as a ball and bat. And yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes.”

Harwell touched many of the game’s deepest and earliest roots. As a young broadcaster in Atlanta, he interviewed Ted Williams, Boston’s spectacular young hitter. And when the Yankees visited Atlanta for an exhibition game in 1930, the 12-year-old Harwell had an encounter with the most famous baseball player of them all. He asked George Herman Ruth for an autograph, and Ruth pointed out to Harwell that he didn’t have any paper with him. Harwell’s spontaneous reaction became the title of one of his books: “The Babe Signed My Shoe.”

In 2006, Harwell released a four-CD retrospective on his life and work. It included an interview he did in 1940 with Connie Mack, the longtime owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. Mack was born during the Civil War. He became directly linked to the 21st Century by Ernie Harwell.

Despite his lengthy and immense recognition as a baseball announcer, Harwell was many things. His wife, Lulu, detailed them in her introduction to his 1985 memoir, “Tuned to Baseball.” Among the entries she made about Ernie:

“Inventor. He holds a U.S. patent on a bottle-can opener and also invented a World Series Fact Wheel.…

“Songwriter. Forty-six of his songs have been recorded. He has collaborated with such songwriting greats as Sammy Fain, Johnny Mercer, Jose Feliciano and Mitch Ryder. …

“Writer. His articles have appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, American Legion, Collier’s and Reader’s Digest.”

Then, in the final paragraph of the book’s introduction, Lulu Harwell wrote that Ernie “had a racehorse named after him, sang a duet with Pearl Bailey, gave his Christian testimony on a Billy Graham TV special and was baptized in the Jordan River.”

Harwell at first wanted to tell about games through the written word. “I’m just a failed sports writer,” he would say with a chuckle. But he was being typically humble — he was more like a detoured sports writer.

He began to write for the Sporting News, then the national voice of baseball, when he was 16. That was in 1934, the same year that the Tigers and Cardinals met in the World Series for the first time. The second time they met, in 1968, Harwell was the Tigers’ top radio announcer and worked the World Series games on NBC.

And when the Tigers and Cardinals met in the 2006 World Series, Harwell used his weekly column in the Free Press to write a recollection of the first World Series he witnessed: the one in 1935 between the Tigers and Cubs. He got to go to Chicago for that series, thanks to an uncle who lived there. That also was the first World Series the Tigers won.
Coming of age in the South

William Earnest Harwell was older than the profession that made him famous. When he was born on Jan. 25, 1918, commercial radio was a few years from its launch. If fans in those days wanted to know about baseball games, they either attended them or read about them in newspapers. The written word was, by far, the dominant means of communication.

Harwell was born in Washington, Ga., a rural town where his father ran a furniture store. When Harwell was 5, the store failed, and the family moved to Atlanta.

Young Ernie Harwell had a speech impediment. He corrected it by taking weekly lessons with an elocution teacher named Margaret Lackland. Among the works she had him read aloud was a poem called “The House by the Side of the Road.” Harwell didn’t forget that poem. In his broadcasts, he often said that a batter who took a third strike had “stood there like the house by the side of the road.”

Harwell got his first broadcasting job in 1940, when he was 22 and a student at Emory University in Atlanta. He became the lone sportscaster for local station WSB, and he did 15-minute reports twice a night.

“All the time I was at WSB, I dreamed of doing baseball play-by-play,” Harwell wrote. “That was my first love.”

The same year that he began broadcasting, Harwell met Lulu Tankersley, a Kentucky native attending college in Georgia. They were married in that now-romanticized time just before America’s entry into World War II: the summer of 1941.

In that December, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and America was at war. In 1942, Harwell enlisted in the Marines. The next year, he got a brief first chance at baseball broadcasting. He was stationed in Atlanta, doing public relations work for the Marines, when Atlanta Crackers president Earl Mann retained him to do the club’s games. Harwell recalled that he did no more than a handful because of his obligations to the Marines.

Later in the war, Harwell went to the Pacific and wrote for the Marines publication “Leatherneck.” He traveled as far as China.

The war ended in the late summer of 1945, and on Opening Day in 1946, Harwell learned he had gotten the job as the Crackers’ full-time play-by-play announcer. More than 50 years later, he called it “the most important day of my career.” Ernie Harwell was in baseball broadcasting to stay.
The road to the majors

By Harwell’s third season in Atlanta, 1948, he had attracted the interest of Branch Rickey, the renowned executive who ran the Brooklyn Dodgers. To get Harwell’s services, Rickey traded minor league catcher Cliff Dapper to Atlanta.

Mann wanted Dapper to be his club’s manager, and he was willing to give up his broadcaster to get him.

Thus, thanks to perhaps the only broadcaster-player trade in baseball history, Ernie Harwell broke into the majors as a broadcaster in August 1948 with the Dodgers. Harwell and Dapper finally met 54 years later, on Ernie Harwell Day at Comerica Park in 2002.

Harwell was the No. 3 announcer on the Dodgers’ broadcasts. After he spent a year in that role in 1949, he became the No. 2 announcer with the crosstown New York Giants. To replace Harwell, the Dodgers hired a young announcer recently out of Fordham University, Vin Scully.

Fifty years later, as the 21st Century arrived, Harwell and Scully were still on the air. Scully never left the Dodgers. Harwell spent four seasons with the Giants, then, after the 1953 season, was sacked without explanation (a foreshadowing of his brief Tigers demise in 1990-91).

For the next season, he found work when the bedraggled St. Louis Browns of the American League moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles. Harwell became one of the team’s inaugural announcers.

Harwell figured he would be fired by the Orioles after the 1956 season because the team had changed local beer sponsors. As Harwell reported in his memoir, the new beer sponsor “stated that the announcers would not be retained” because of their strong identity with the old sponsor.

The new sponsor, Gunther, sent a representative from its New York agency to Baltimore to speak with Harwell and his agent over lunch. Harwell considered it a kind but empty gesture; he didn’t expect to be kept by the Orioles.

The agency representative arrived late, said he didn’t have much time, and asked whether there was a Chinese restaurant nearby. There was, a block away. Harwell had never been to it.

“A waiter seated us,” Harwell wrote, “and, in several minutes, came back to the table. Before he even asked about a drink or luncheon order, he said, ‘I’ve got a petition here you’ve got to sign. We can’t lose Ernie Harwell. We’ve got to keep him here. Gunther has to hire him to do the Orioles games.’”

Harwell added: “You could have knocked me over with a chopstick. I’d never been in this restaurant and certainly didn’t know the waiter. It would have seemed like a set-up to the Gunther agency man, except that he was the one who asked about Chinese food. We didn’t sign the petition, but I’m sure the request by the waiter made a lasting impression on the agency man. He talked about it all through lunch. He returned to New York and recommended that Gunther keep me as their Oriole announcer.”

Keep him they did. Harwell considered the episode a miracle. And it helped lead him to Detroit.

Had Harwell been fired by the Orioles after 1956, he wouldn’t have been around George Kell in 1957 as the distinguished third baseman was playing with the Orioles in the final year of his career. Late in the season, Kell hurt his ankle and spent time in the broadcast booth with Harwell, who put him to work as a color commentator. Kell later said he learned a lot about broadcasting from Harwell during their 10 days together on the air.

Two years later, with the help of a recommendation from Kell, another change in beer sponsors landed Harwell in Detroit.
A home in Motown

Kell had joined veteran announcer Van Patrick on the Tigers radio team in 1959. After that season, the Tigers’ beer sponsor changed from Goebel to Stroh’s.

The brewery fired Patrick, whom it felt had become too identified with Goebel through the years. But Kell had been around only one season, so Stroh’s kept him. The brewery asked Kell to recommend a successor for Patrick, and Kell suggested Harwell. The Tigers offered him a job, and when the Orioles wouldn’t match it, Ernie Harwell was en route to Detroit to stay.

Harwell’s first regular-season Tigers broadcast came on Opening Day of 1960 in Cleveland, and it was extraordinary for three reasons. First, the game pitted the teams who had made one of the most distinctive trades in baseball history two days before: the Tigers sent the league’s reigning batting champion, Harvey Kuenn, to the Indians for the league’s home run champion of the previous season, Rocky Colavito.

Second, the Indians had no room for Kell and Harwell in the main press box, and so they broadcast the game from a table in the upper deck at the lakefront ballpark. In his 2002 biography with Tom Keegan, Harwell recalled that day’s conditions:

“A biting wind was coming off Lake Erie, and it was about 35 degrees. All I wanted to do, and all George wanted to do, from the first pitch was get back to the hotel.”

Instead, they got the day’s third dose of the extraordinary: The game lasted almost five hours. It was scoreless until the 11th, when both teams scored twice. The Tigers finally won in the 15th inning, 4-2;, on a two-run single by Al Kaline.

Long before Harwell’s final season, the Indians (like all clubs) had a broadcast booth for visiting radio announcers. And in 2002, on Harwell’s final visit to Cleveland as an announcer, the Indians named their visiting radio booth for him.
The many years in the booth

By 1963, his fourth year in Detroit, Harwell had become prominent enough that NBC radio assigned him to the World Series. A snippet of his call from that Series is heard in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the Oscar-winning film starring Jack Nicholson.

Kell and Harwell worked together on Tigers radio and television broadcasts for four seasons. Kell left after the 1963 season (he returned a year later to work television games, which weren’t as frequent then as they are now). Harwell’s partners after Kell were former Tigers manager Bob Scheffing in 1964, Gene Osborn in 1965-66, and Ray Lane, starting in 1967.

Harwell and Lane called perhaps the most epic back-to-back seasons in Tigers history: the 1967 final-day miss at the pennant, and the 1968 pennant, when, in that last season before divisional play, the Tigers ran away from all other AL teams behind Denny McLain’s 31 victories.

In 1973, veteran broadcaster Paul Carey replaced Lane. Harwell said Carey had the best voice of any of his partners. Carey’s baritone mixed beautifully with Harwell’s sweet Southern tones, and the two became a memorable combination.

Harwell and Carey shared the broadcasts for the next 19 seasons, through 1991. Carey had decided he would retire following the ’91 season. Then Tigers management decided not to retain Harwell, either. So in that season, Harwell and Carey seemingly ended their Tigers careers together.

During his wilderness year of ’92, Harwell called CBS Radio’s game of the week and made some guest appearances on California Angels broadcasts. On Tigers broadcasts that season, Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun replaced Harwell and Carey. The newcomers constantly felt the backlash of the fans angered about Harwell’s firing. In ’93, the rehired Harwell joined them, and for one season on the radio, they were a threesome.

In ’94, Harwell left radio and began a five-year run on Tigers telecasts. Although his presence on TV might have seemed strange after all of his years on the radio, it was worth remembering that Harwell was the television announcer for perhaps the most famous homer in baseball history: Bobby Thomson’s ninth-inning blow against the Dodgers; that gave the Giants the 1951 pennant.

Harwell returned to the radio in 1999 to take over the play-by-play job from Frank Beckmann, who had stepped down. At 81, Harwell was again broadcasting the full 162-game schedule. He called the last game at Tiger Stadium in 1999 and the first game at Comerica Park in 2000. On one Opening Day at Comerica, he danced in the clubhouse. His career was coming to a healthy and triumphant conclusion.

Forty-two years after he faced Cleveland’s Lake Erie winds in his first Tigers broadcast, Harwell had a more comfortable seat on the Great Lakes for his final broadcast. It came in Toronto’s luxurious SkyDome, near Lake Ontario, on Sept. 29, 2002. The New York Times assigned a man to Harwell’s booth for the historical event.
Life after baseball

Harwell had announced months before that 2002 would be his last season. In that final broadcast, he was true to the style that made him beloved. He didn’t gush or ramble. He still made every word count. It was a method he had learned more than 60 years before from his sports editor with the Atlanta Constitution, Ralph McGill.

At times during that final broadcast, he reminisced. One story involved a Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher named Hugh Casey. “One of my large regrets is that I never got to Cuba,” he said. “The Dodgers trained in Cuba one year. Hugh Casey got in a fight with Ernest Hemingway.”

A few innings later, Harwell called the final pitch of his broadcasting career: “Two down, a man on, Mr. Escobar trying to get that final out. Pena digging in, waiting. Here’s the set, the pitch. Swing and a miss, and the Toronto Blue Jays win the final game of 2002. The final score, the Blue Jays one and the Tigers nothing.”

A commercial followed, and then Harwell spoke for one minute and 15 seconds. They were his final words as a Tigers broadcaster. He read from a script he’d written, and near the end of it, he felt emotion overtake him for the only time that day. It came when he told the audience, “I might have been a small part of your life, but you’ve been a large part of mine.”

He wrapped up the address and 55 years as a major league broadcaster by saying, “I thank you very much, and God bless all of you.”

Earlier in the farewell, he had said, “I’m not leaving, folks. I’ll still be with you, living my life in Michigan, my home state, surrounded by family and friends.”

And so he was. He and Lulu continued to live in the Detroit area. As Harwell approached 90, a caller to his home might hear Lulu say, “Ernie is working out. He does that every day.”

After he retired from the Tigers broadcasts, Harwell did a radio commercial in Detroit in which he never identified himself. The people in charge of the advertisement had made an assumption that was probably correct. Almost anyone hearing that voice would know it was Ernie Harwell.

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