This biography is about the greatest sportscaster of all time. That’s just my opinion – not sorry. Ernie Harwell was the voice of summer.
His biography took me back to the summer of 1967; I was 6. I didn’t know much of America’s pastime yet, but I learned that summer my father was a Detroit Tigers fan. He and several neighbors would gather on our front steps and listen to Ernie call the games. There was excitement that year as the Tigers were in a race to the American League Pennant – we lost the race on the final day of the season to the Red Sox. That first sports heartbreak of my life was relieved the following season, when the Tigers ran away with the Pennant, beating the “Birds” (Baltimore Orioles) by 12 games, and then won the World Series – beating the other “Birds” (St. Louis Cardinals) in seven.
In those two seasons I began to learn the names: Dick McAuliffe, Mickey Stanley, Norm Cash, Jim Price, Bill Freehan, Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain Willie Horton, and Al Kaline. I learned them from Ernie Harwell. I did not learn till decades later that it was Harwell who, with the exception of Kaline, would be the more legendary Detroit Tiger.
Harwell began his broadcasting career in 1943 with the minor-league Atlanta Crackers. He got his major-league debut in 1948 when Branch Rickey* traded a catcher to the Crackers for Harwell’s services in the Dodgers’ broadcast booth. (*Rickey was a MLB pioneer, best known for signing the first African-American, Jackie Robinson, to play MLB.)
For the next 12 years, Harwell would call games for the Dodgers, Giants, Orioles, and the occasional golf tournament or college football game, before joining the Detroit Tigers – where he called games for all but one season between 1960 and 2002.
In addition to being the first, and only, broadcaster to be part of a player trade, Harwell was the first broadcaster inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame (1981). He is in three other Halls of Fame: National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame (1989), The Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (1989), and the Radio Hall of Fame (1998). He is one of the very few sportscasters with a statue at their team’s stadium.
But, more notable than these official honors, the biography very clearly depicts Harwell’s most impressive quality – you just can’t find anyone with a bad word to say about Ernie Harwell. He was loved and/or admired by everyone who met him. He was a Christian gentleman, who took the golden rule literally.
I’m going to try to find somebody who doesn’t like Ernie Harwell. I hope I live long enough to do that because that means I’ll never die. ~ Al Kaline
I can honestly say there is nobody better that I’ve met in all facets of life. He’s a great announcer and a great human being. I miss him. I really do miss him. ~ Alan Trammell
There was one debacle in his career, for which Harwell bears no responsibility. In 1990, Harwell’s long-time broadcasting partner Paul Carey informed management he was going to retire after the 1991 season. Management thought it good time to make a complete change, presumably to attract a younger audience. They offered Harwell a one-year contract, hoping he would accept it and retire gracefully. Harwell however, made it clear that he was in good health and wished to continue broadcasting. Management was firm and put him on notice. When Harwell made a public announcement, stating simply and truthfully that 1991 would be his final season in the Tiger’s booth, not by his own choice, the outcry was immediate and widespread. The Detroit News called it…
…the most flagrant public relations disaster in the history of sports
The station and the team could hardly handle the calls and mail, which ran 97% in support of Harwell. But management only entrenched their position more firmly – or perhaps more stubbornly. After the 1992 season, when Harwell broadcast for the California Angels, the Tigers were purchased by a new owner, who made it his first priority to rehire Harwell, and subsequently to fire the management team that forced his departure. Harwell took the high road throughout, and proved that nice guys don’t always finish last.
Besides reliving the satisfying poetic justice of that incident (I was one of the outraged fans), I had a very personal reaction and moment of pleasure from this book. In the opening chapter, A Gentleman Wronged, the biographer describes that Harwell was encouraged, during the painful events just described, by letters from fans, especially young fans. He quotes from two letters, and then one more…
At that point, [after Harwell was fired] most believed the only way to listen to Harwell calling a Tigers game again would be to listen the way a missionary boy who had left Detroit for Papua, New Guinea, with his family listened.
Isaac Michaels wrote to Harwell: “I am not able to listen to baseball games over here and so I listen to a tape of an old Tiger game with you broadcasting on it and I still go to bed listening to a Tiger game, just like I did when I was eight or nine years old.”
That young fan, is my wife’s first cousin, whom I have shared Tigers memories with more than once over the years.
Ernie was always ready with advice for aspiring broadcasters. He said there were four things needed to be a good broadcaster
Have the enthusiasm of a fan
The reactions of an athlete
The impartiality of an umpire
And the background knowledge of a writer
Ernie Harwell was also a poet. Here is a recording of Ernie's golden voice reciting his poem, The Game for All America.
Harwell was known for several catch phrases – part of the glorious color of baseball:
Two for the price of one ~ a double play
Long gone ~ home run
Souvenir caught by the lucky fan from Kalamazoo [Ernie would insert some random Michigan city here] ~ foul ball
And my favorite – he stood there like the house by the side of the road ~ when a batter takes a called strike
And regarding that unfortunate chapter when he was forced to take a year off from calling Tigers games, Harwell simply says…
It doesn’t matter. All that matters is everyone is forgiven.
With this biography, I’ve wrapped up a series of biographies I chose on Detroit Sports legends: Harwell, Tiger great Ty Cobb, Red Wings legend Gordie Howe, Lions champ Bobby Layne, and Pistons star Isiah Thomas.
My edition of Tom Keegan’s biography is autographed by Ernie Harwell. He didn’t sign for me in person; I just bought it, but it is still one of my prized books.
Final note: according to popular legend, Ty Cobb was the most hated man in baseball, and in retirement was reportedly bitter and incorrigible and rarely granted interviews. Harwell however once requested an interview with Cobb and was quickly invited to visit Cobb in his home. Harwell found Cobb courteous and gregarious.
Oops, one LAST final note: Harwell has a couple literary connections. Fellow Georgian Margaret Mitchell was a customer on Harwell’s boyhood paper route. Harwell’s older brother Dick Harwell was a friend of Mitchell’s and one of her numerous biographers. Much later in life, Ernie and his wife Lulu lived next door to, and occasionally entertained, Erskine Caldwell. And finally, in the movie adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Harwell’s voice can be heard calling the 1963 World Series.